If you wish to be happy for one hour, get intoxicated. If you wish to be happy for three days, get married. If you wish to be happy for eight days, kill your pig and eat it. If you wish to be happy forever, get a bass boat.
Ancient Chinese proverb, slightly altered
The American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association put on a little bass tournament (pronounced tunamint) in Washington Friday as a preliminary to a weekend of festivities celebrating the continuing rebirth of the Potomac.
At 7 a.m., they convened the aquatic equivalent of a motorcycle gang -- 12 glittering, superpowered, metal-flake marine hot rods -- at the Gangplank Restaurant in Washington Ship Channel. An hour later, the hot rods carried 23 officials from Congress, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and the press onto the muddy river in pursuit of something called "hawgs."
The captains of these vessels are a notorious group, informally called "bassmasters" or "bassin' men" or simply "bubbas," who turn their baseball caps backward so they won't fly off when they tear around lakes and rivers in pursuit of a fish that's barely fit to eat and which 20 years ago was widely considered trash: the largemouth bass.
How fast do the $15,000 boats go?
"I was down around Woodbridge this morning and the traffic started backing up about 6:15," said Gene Hord, who guides fishing parties on Lake Anna when he isn't competing in tournaments. "I stopped in a gas station and asked how bad it was ahead. They said it would take me 45 minutes just to get to Mount Vernon. So I went back to Pohick Bay and put the boat in. I came up here at 65, wide open. It took me 15 minutes."
There was a feverish light in Hord's eyes that said he was a very excited fellow, and a brief conversation bore it out. He is consumed by bass fishing, eaten up with it, he admitted, and this was just another day in hawg heaven with a fast boat and plenty of water to fish.
Make that half a day. AFTMA, in an effort to keep the VIPs from having to give up a full workday, scheduled the tournament as a morning-only affair, with a weigh-in a little after noon.
The pairings put Joe Kutkuhn of the Fish and Wildlife Service and me in a boat with a big, cheerful guide named Dale Griffith, who lives downriver near Nanjemoy Creek and fishes in Washington "once a year, in this tournament."
Griffith said that although Washington offers fine bass fishing, the shriek of jets, the traffic on the highways and the general trashiness puts him off. "I guess I've got a little too much country for this," he said as a 737 roared by.
He also said our chances of a decent catch were slim. "The tide will be coming in all morning, and incoming is the worst," he said. "The best time is the last three hours of the ebb, when all the water comes out of the little creeks and guts. The bass lay out at the mouths and wait for bait to wash out. That's when they feed."
But a foul tide didn't keep us from blasting around the water like commandos on a raid, which is half the appeal of modern bass fishing, anyway. Griffith put the hammer down as he rounded Hains Point and the 150-horsepower Mercury sent the little boat, which sits about six inches out of the water, onto a screaming plane. We were going fast enough that if I turned my head sideways, the rush of air flattened my windward-side nostril and blocked the breathing.
Four and a half supercharged hours later, we could count two largemouth under the minimum 12 inches long and a six-inch yellow perch as the day's catch, and the illustrious outdoor editor chalked up a nice goose egg for his score. In all, 35 people fishing in the tournament caught 17 keeper bass, the biggest a little over three pounds.
Ridiculous waste of time? Maybe. But somewhere near Belle Haven Marina, in a quiet stretch when no jets were rumbling over, I got bit by the bug.
Maybe it was the big patch of waterlilies we were fishing, so pretty and peaceful, and the thought that on any cast my lure might bring an angry largemouth crashing out of the bushes with murder in its eyes. I felt like a burglar stealing around a strange bedroom, waiting for somebody to wake up and for the sudden, wild and unpredictable chaos that necessarily would follow.
Back at the bar, I grabbed master of ceremonies Ken Penrod, who guides fishing parties on the Potomac through his company, Outdoor Life Unlimited.
"Any chance of going again?" I asked. "I'd like to catch one of these things."
"Sure. When do you want to go?"
"Is, uh, tomorrow out of the question?"