It was showtime in a corner of the National Guard Armory. Ken Penrod, a microphone in one hand and a fishing rod in the other, stood before an audience seated on folding chairs, felt its collective fever and knew it was not entirely for him.
"I can see you all have that wild-eyed look," said Penrod, a professional fishing guide who was teasing this landlocked crowd at Bassin Fever 85 with slides of big fish pulled out of sun-splashed waters. "I know where you want to be. And this is second best."
In winter, when the damp freeze of our eastern weather keeps all but the hardiest of anglers housebound, a traveling circuit of indoor "outdoor" shows sprouts like artificial flowers to exploit our permafrost yearnings. The shows are most plentiful when we are most susceptible to their lure -- in mid-February, when the cold has become as bothersome as a bad tooth.
The Pikesville show was just one of many that offered, for the price of admission, a few hours of false spring last weekend. The biggest was the Washington RV and Boat Show, which opened a nine-day run at the Washington Convention Center on Friday. Four acres of recreational vehicles, from motor homes to van campers and travel trailers, sit on one side of the vast convention floor. Another four acres is covered with boats -- cruisers, yachts, inflatables and sailboats. There is no oil or dirt anywhere to soil the glittering fantasy.
"With the money I've got in my bank account, I only need another $80,000 to sail this baby home," joked Martin Frickstein of Rockville, gazing at a yacht equipped with more amenities than a Watergate condo.
The Washington RV and Boat Show tries to appeal to a varied outdoor constituency. There are hunting, fishing and camping equipment exhibitors scattered among the boats and trailers. The Pikesville show had a much narrower focus.
"We've taken the big outdoor show and narrowed it down to fishing," said Al Torney of Chesapeake Sportfishing Shows Inc., a two-man operation that organized shows this winter in Annapolis, Delaware and Pikesville.
In the sea of outdoor shows, the one in Pikesville was no bigger than a farm pond. There were 25 exhibitors, and at times not many more paying customers. "Yesterday was the pits," admitted Torney on Sunday. "But it picked up today. This is our first year here. It takes time to catch on."
Beyond a display of fishing boats, exhibitors advertised products such as custom fishing rods, fishing guide and charter boat services and a few causes.
"We're promoting the ban on rockfish. This is the main thing for our organization," said Mark Stein, a Baltimore clerk who was manning a booth rented by the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association, an organization of sport anglers with chapters in Baltimore and the Eastern Shore. For $5.99 you could buy a T-shirt from Stein that read "Keep The Ban" and pictured a rockfish circled in red with a slash angled across the diameter.
On the opposite side of the Armory, Richard Wilson was trying to sell "a brand new concept" for $10. By splicing together aerial photographs taken before Lake Anna was created in 1972, with topographic maps of the area, Wilson and partner Louis Kellerman offered anglers a view of the bottom of one of the most productive fishing lakes in the mid-Atlantic area.
"You're not guessing what's underwater, you're seeing it," said Wilson of the lake, which provides coolant for a nuclear power plant. "This shows where the woods are, the old shoreline, farm fields and ponds. You can figure out where the fish are."
While Wilson spoke, the crowd was called to hear Penrod's talk on finding bass in tidal waters. The "talkers" at an outdoor show don't have to do much more than give a few tips, show reassuring pictures of fish and game and stay away from too much emphasis on politics or pollution.
A few years ago in Delaware, Torney booked someone to explain the harmful effects of acid rain on local fishing. "Everybody got up and walked out," he said. "People come here because they want to learn how to catch more fish."
Penrod did not disappoint his audience. He showed pictures of largemouth bass caught within the shadow of Washington's monuments and told folks exactly what lures he and partner Ken Wilson used to catch them. Penrod, who stirs a nice mix of humor into his program, has a delivery polished by a full winter on the show circuit.
"Our first show was Jan. 1 . . . our last will be March 16 and 17," said Wilson, a former D.C. fireman who makes a living by guiding, representing fishing product manufacturers and following the fish-show circuit. "It gets a little old sometimes. Standing on a concrete floor for 10 hours at a time is no fun."