It looks like Mother Nature did her best to scare the big-time bass tournament crowd off the Potomac, but it wasn't enough.

When top Lady Bass anglers showed up for their national championship last month, the river was a murky mess after days of rain.

From the city on down past Oxon Hill, it was littered with logs, stumps, lumps of plastic foam, tennis balls, milk jugs and tin cans. "There's so much junk I'm scared to run my boat," said angler Penny Berryman.

The women had fits finding fish in practice sessions and were worried about their prospects come tournament days.

Their concerns should have offended my civic pride. The river is as good a fishing hole as exists in any big city. You hate for people to go away with a misimpression, but secretly, I was delighted.

A few weeks earlier, I'd had a call from Lady Bass' big brother, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS), which is pondering a national tournament on the Potomac, complete with a weeklong products show and weigh-in at the Convention Center.

But if the women went home muttering, the men might decide not to come. Wouldn't that be nice?

No such luck. The rains abated, the water cleared, the flotsam washed ashore and, by the weekend, the Lady Bass anglers were on the hot spots.

Top finishers averaged more than eight pounds of largemouth a day and officials were delighted with the high percentage of five-bass limits. Good news, in short, which may be bad news.

If Lady Bass can pull off a national tournament here, the rest of the world won't be far astern. With its high profile, Washington offers the potential for media coverage organizations like BASS dream about.

The question is, do those who live here and enjoy the river's peaceful, rejuvenating effects really want a bunch of yahoos from afar blasting around it at 60 mph, pursuing prizes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars?

At the moment, tournament bass fishing on the river is unimpeded by special regulations, so there isn't much anyone can do about it, anyway.

But elsewhere rumblings of discontent are heard, and Potomac officials ought to incline an ear.

Wisconsin, for example, has adopted a policy saying fishing "should remain a true amateur sport which combines the pleasures and skills of angling with wildlife and scenic enjoyment, contemplation and other subtle pleasures, not competition."

And, it warns, "Recent trends toward commercialization . . . through contests and tournaments will be closely monitored and appropriate action . . . will be taken to control excesses."

What worries Wisconsin officials is the possibility of weekend after weekend of big-bucks tournament fishing on the Mississippi at La Crosse, at the expense of people who live there. So far, said Ron Poff of the state fisheries department, "We haven't seen it as a devastating problem, but it's getting to where it may be."

Among things fisheries managers are studying:

Redistribution of released fish. Tournaments are almost all catch-and-release, but anglers carry the fish around in live wells all day and usually release them at the weigh-in. Fish the Lady Bass anglers caught in Washington were freed 30 miles away at Mattawoman Creek. Those fish, biologists say, won't come back.

Conflicting use. If tournaments are held every weekend, as they could be on the Potomac, what becomes of the guy in the aluminum boat who wants to take his kids out fishing, swimming or boating? Is he forced from preferred places?

Safety. How desirable is it for boats to go 60 mph in crowded waters?

These are matters that could be addressed by regulation, but there's a hitch.

"Most agencies aren't empowered to regulate groups," said Larry Neilsen, a fisheries professor at Virginia Tech with an interest in the tournament issue. "They regulate resources."

Neilsen said natural resources departments can't just adopt special rules for people who wear BASS hats.

My guess is that with a little prodding, they could find a way.

District regulations, for example, outlaw commercial fishing by barring "taking of fish or other aquatic organisms for sale or profit."

If not profit, what's the motive for fishing a tournament with a top prize of $100,000 and endorsements worth up to $1 million, as in BASS national championships?

Tournament fishing could and should be regulated. Big money changes hands, fortunes are lost and won and it should not be at the expense of a local resource supported by the taxpayers.

Virginia, Maryland, the District and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission ought to look seriously at:

Restricting days of tournament fishing on the river, setting aside perhaps two tournament-free weekends a month.

Requiring redistribution of fish caught in tournaments so they're put back near where they were caught.

A 25- or 30-mph speed limit in D.C. waters and other congested areas.

Setting aside areas for swimming, recreational fishing, water skiing, hunting and other sports that don't mix with tournament fishing.

Says Neilsen: "Tournament fishing is growing, but I don't see it as a peril. I see it as a logistical problem. The thing to get away from is saying, 'These are bad; we have to outlaw them.'

"We're not God. We can't say, 'This is how we will recreate.'

"What you need is a willingness to confront the problem and deal with it in a sensible way."


And that process should start now, before BASS turns up at the launch ramp.