Bill Mathias was born in a hollow between two West Virginia mountains so remote that folks there don't get "Monday Night Football" until Thursday afternoon. Talk too fast there and you're likely to get lost in your own echo.
But put a fishing rod in Mathias' hand and the 35-year-old professional bass guide shows why his reputation has preceded him. Last week, while I was still wiping mashed bugs from my forehead after a 50-mile-an-hour boat ride across Lake Anna, Mathias set his hook in the mouth of a monster bass with a yank so hard and fast I thought he was going to back flip out of the boat.
"Feels like a big one," said Mathias as he horsed to the surface a largemouth bass that weighed 9 1/2 pounds and looked like it had swallowed a basketball.
Lake Anna has had a reputation as a hot fishing lake since 1974, two years after it was created to cool a Vepco nuclear power plant. Every year since the 9,000-acre lake was stocked, the largemouth and striped bass populations have grown bigger. And every year, more fishermen discover that some of the best bass fishing on the East Coast is just 80 miles southwest of Washington.
"Last summer, the pressure was really on," said Mathias, who has merry blue eyes, an oval face and a short, brown beard that has somehow escaped the stain of tobacco juice. "They say we're going to have a state record come out of here soon."
While snow enthusiasts have been moaning this winter about unseasonably warm temperatures and naked ski trails, the hard-core fishing folk have been taking advantage of the fair skies to stay on rivers and ponds that would normally be iced-over this time of year.
At Anna, foul-weather fishermen like Mathias would be casting no matter what the conditions. But this winter, so far at least, he has not had to worry about the frostbite that has chewed at his fingers and feet in years past. Despite the good weather, however, Mathias has not had many paying customers since Thanksgiving.
"I don't get too many calls from people for fishing from December through February," said Mathias, who has been guiding on Anna since 1975 and now has a reputation that allows him to charge $100 a day for his services. "Most people would rather sit home and watch the tube."
On Thursday, only three bass boats were working out of Sturgeon Creek Marina, on the east side of the lake. All three came back with at least one fish weighing eight or more pounds. By any standard, those are big bass. For Lake Anna, they are becoming almost routine.
"There are some gargantuan fish in this lake," said Mathias. "And they're growing bigger every day."
Mathias is not exactly a neutral party. His business depends on the lake's good reputation. Each year, however, it takes less work to convince people that Anna is worthy of their angling ardor and money.
This spring, the lake's good name was hurt by published reports that a dangerous organism had been discovered living in the super-heated water near the Vepco plant. The organism--called naegleria--can cause a potentially fatal nervous system disorder.
Virginia health officials described the risk as "very, very remote" and said there is no evidence that anyone has ever contracted the obscure disease at Anna. But the reports scared people, including some anglers who had nothing at all to fear from the microscopic organism.
"It didn't help business any down here," conceded Mathias. "Hopefully, that'll be water under the dam soon."
Thursday, the only organisms we were interested in were bucket-mouthed bass. Because they are sluggish this time of year, you almost need to put the bait right down their gullets. Mathias hooks a black jig to a black rubber frog coated with pork fat, dips the whole mess in a commercial fish scent, then drags the bait across the bottom, over submerged tree stumps and thick brush, as slow as possible.
"You've got to really work for your fish," said Mathias after we had powered our way from the marina to a choice spot not far from the power plant. "You don't get many strikes but what you do get is quality." Two minutes later, Mathias seemed to contradict himself by catching his citation-size bass. But despite a few more good strikes, it was to be the only fish we would catch that day.
If Mathias was happy with his bass, Carl Bowzer of Springfield was ecstatic over his. Fishing alone, Bowzer pulled in a 10-pound 8-ounce bass, then sat in his boat for a few minutes and shook.
"I've made three trips to Florida trying to catch a bass this size," said Bowzer, who admitted he has become something of a fanatic about bass fishing since retiring recently. "I've been fishing for this thing since I was a little boy."