BUFFALO — His peers in the Bassmaster Elite Series consider Frank Scalish one of the favorites in the Empire Chase presented by Mahindra Tractors, which began Thursday morning in wet, blustery conditions in the northeast corner of Lake Erie.
But as Scalish stood on the deck of his boat just before blast-off, he said he wasn't looking forward to a day fighting the westerly wind, racing 240 miles across the surface of a lake bigger than the state of Vermont. If it were up to him, in fact, BASS wouldn't hold tournaments on Erie. Too unpredictable, too violent, too treacherous.
"It's going to get worse than they think when the wind shifts out of the west," he said. The Open event he won on this lake had swells of 9 to 13 feet — the biggest he has ever encountered. "You can't race the waves," he said. "That's when you get into trouble."
The pros are preparing for all sorts of trouble this week, far beyond what they encounter in a normal tournament. They left the dock carrying driftsocks to battle the current, wearing Dramamine patches to quell their motion sickness, extra bilge pumps to bail out their boat bottoms, and (most tellingly) sporting the deck seats they usually remove, so that they might have a crutch to help them through nine hours of standing on turbulent waters.
For these anglers, Erie could be considered a "Great, Just Great" Lake.
If the weather gets too rough, BASS will confine the anglers to fishing the Niagra River. Anglers said there would be no other good reason to fish the river. "If you do," Marty Stone said, "you might as well visit Niagra Falls, because that's where you'll be in the standings."
Another twist: Anglers may cull only one fish per day on the Canadian side of the lake.
Recreational boating competition will be down. Fish-care penalties will be way up, with fish dying in rough livewell runs and from depressurizing too quickly when caught at depths of up to 40 feet.
Then there's the matter of catching the fish. While anglers will catch some largemouth, the big, hard-fighting smallmouth figure to be the better fish. As Charlie Hartley described the sensation of watching a smallmouth swirl around five times only to throw off the bait, he dropped his arms in mock despair. "You'd kill for a third hand," he said.
"There's nothing you can do to keep a smallmouth in the water," said Steve Daniel, who pursued the brown fish exclusively at last week's event on Lake Champlain. He said he expects to see some 25-pound sacks and an occasional 7-pound fish come out of Erie, with anglers dragging tubes while he throws jerkbaits and spinnerbaits.
Said Steve Kennedy of the smallmouth in Erie: "These are some of the baddest dudes I've ever seen."
Informal consensus says it'll take 15 to 17 pounds daily to earn a top-50 check, and 19 or 20 a day to win the tournament.
The lake is full of fish, anglers said, but they're spread out in a wide area and at a variety of depths, making it tricky to find fish, let alone present baits to them. Bradley Hallman, for one, said on his Tuesday practice, he fished from 3:15 a.m. to 8 p.m. without catching a single fish.
Scalish also had a terrible practice, which, as much as the wind shifting to the west, probably made the prospect of Erie seem less attractive Thursday morning.
"I know what it takes," Scalish said. "I know how to fish it. So that's what we're going to do today."