HARTFORD, Conn. - With a howitzer shot, several dozen bass boats began racing down the Connecticut River at 7 a.m. Friday, as anglers searched for that perfect fishing spot.
The river is playing host to a major fishing tournament, the three-day Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League All-American.
There is $1 million in prize money at stake, including $140,000 to the winner.
The leader going into Saturday's final round was Kip Carter of Oxford, Ga., who had caught 10 fish weighing a total of 23 pounds and 5 ounces over the first two days. Robert Walser of Lexington Ky., and Mike McDonald of Randleman, N.C., were less than a pound of fish behind him.
"The nerves are starting to kick in now," Carter said.
These are not full-time pro fishermen. Each of the 96 contestants qualified by earning points in local weekend tournaments, and then finishing in the top six in a regional tournament. About 33,000 fishermen competed on the local level.
"This is a launching pad for pro careers," said Dave Washburn, a spokesman for FLW Outdoors, which runs the tour. "These are the best weekend fishermen in the nation."
This week they have been dealing with a tidal river, a far different fishing environment than the lakes and reservoirs most of them are used to, Washburn said.
Ray Barga of Gilbertsville, Ky., called it a humbling experience.
"There's a lot of good fish out there," he said. "But the tides, and the way the water is jacked up and down, well, we don't have tides in Kentucky."
Pat Lay of Cleveland, Tenn., put it another way. The fishing, he said, was "tougher than a $2 steak."
There are two divisions. Boaters drive and fish from the front of the boat. They decide where it goes during the competition. Co-anglers are along for the ride, and fish from the back of the boat.
Each fisherman can catch a maximum of five bass in a day. Whoever has the most cumulative weight wins.
William Redman of Sciotoville, Ohio, took home a $60,000 check Friday for winning the Co-angler Division with nine fish weighing 14 pounds, 4 ounces.
The top ten in the Boater Division go off by themselves Saturday.
It's not an easy sport for spectators. On the final day of a tournament, a small flotilla of boats will sometimes follow a fisherman. But most of the action takes place at the weigh-in, where the fishermen display their catch before a TV audience and are questioned by an exuberant host in what can best be described as a cross between a game show and an old fashion Baptist tent revival meeting.
"As strange as it may sound, people really get into it, Washburn said. "It's something you have to experience to understand."
As for those stories of anglers who stuff a fish with sinkers, or keep a few extra in a hidden cooler to help win some prize money, Washburn said those days are over.
"The fishermen are paired with a new partner every day, and they don't know who that will be," he said. "And on the last day of the tournament, the finalists each have a camera crew following them all day. That stuff just doesn't happen anymore."