RICHMOND, AUG. 24 -- While 41 of the best male anglers around have been out on the James River trying to lure king-size bass as they compete for $150,000 in prize money, their female counterparts remain excluded.

While Oklahoma's Tommy Biffle maintained a wide lead through a soggy second day of competition, the 20th annual BASS Masters Classic has been shrouded in quiet controversy.

The trouble began last April after Helen Sevier, chief executive officer of B.A.S.S., Inc. (Bass Anglers Sportsman Society) lifted the ban on women, allowing them to compete on the organization's $2.7 million circuit for the first time since its inception 23 years ago.

The complaints began flowing in almost immediately, forcing Sevier to put her decision to a vote among the 790 members of the Association of B.A.S.S. Professionals.

The result was clear. The 575 anglers who responded to the survey favored male-only competition by a 3-to-1 margin (437 to 137). Once again, women anglers would not be allowed to fish in the B.A.S.S. tournaments, the 10 events leading up to the Classic as well as the famed tourney held the past three years on the James River.

Sevier, realizing she had struck a raw nerve in the predominantly-male angling community, termed the vote "a disappointment."

The society, founded by Ray Scott 23 years ago, has used a fundamental argument to justify the exclusion of women. Tournament rules match up contestants by random drawing, and members of each pair must keep within sight of each other at all times while on the river. B.A.S.S. has interpreted "at all times" to include those moments when nature calls, which lead to problems of privacy.

Ten years ago, in a suit filed by women anglers, a New York judge agreed with the B.A.S.S. argument and denied the women the right to participate.

But it's not the only point for debate concerning women. As one angler summed up: "I've talked to others, and some women would resent their husbands fishing with other women," Roland Martin, nine-time angler of the year, said.

Several alternative women's professional tours have been formed, including Bass'n Gal and Lady Bass, but they are finding it difficult to compete with the million-dollar tour and promotional efforts of B.A.S.S. More than 10 times as much prize money may be awarded for the top B.A.S.S. events as compared with women's tournaments.

Martin, a participant in the Classic 18 times (without a win), with career earnings exceeding $400,000, agreed with the vote, citing the presence of the women's tour.

"My wife, Maryann, has been on the women's circuit as long as I've been on the men's," Martin, from Clewiston, Fla., said. "I support the women's tour. It's not fair for them to compete against the men."

Some B.A.S.S. officials are trying to compare the sport with golf and tennis, where separate men's and women's tours flourish and public discussions are rarely heard about women competing against men.

"My wife feels as a woman and as a past winner {she once captured the Bass'n Gal Classic} that the women should have their own circuit," Martin said. "It just works best that way."

But everybody in the sport seems to realize the controversy hasn't ended. Recognizing the issue is touchy, many anglers decline to discuss it. Missourian Guido Hibdon, 1990 angler of the year and this year's winner of the Maryland Pro-Am tournament, was willing to chat at length about the river conditions after today's weigh-in. But not about the women's issue.

"I'm not going to talk to you about that right now," he said, grinning wryly.


The rains that have drenched the Mid-Atlantic States the past week have thwarted a number of anglers. Roger Farmer entered today's competition in third place. But he caught only one 14-ounce bass today, plunging him to 18th.

"There was no tide," Farmer, from Dalton, Ga., said. "Yesterday, it was low in the morning and then it hadn't moved at all today. It was also very muddy."

Hibdon, who won the 1988 Classic in Richmond, finished the day tied for second behind Biffle's 25-pound 8-ounce total despite the high water and a recent recovery from walking pneumonia. "I went to my spot this morning and somebody turned the floodgates open. I just couldn't find any clear water," he said. BASS MASTERS CLASSIC At Richmond After Two Days

1, Tom Biffle, Wagoner, Okla., 25 pounds 8 ounces; 2, David Fenton, Conroe, Tex., 18-14; 2, Guido Hibdon, Gravois Mills, Mo., 18-14; 4, David Wharton, Broaddus, Tex., 17-12; 5, Woo Daves, Chester, Va., 17-9; 5, Larry Lazoen, Port Charlotte, Fla., 17-9; 7, Hank Parker, Denver, N.C., 16-11; 8, John Hale, Lufkin, Tex., 16-4; 9, George Cochran, North Little Rock, Ark., 16-3; 10, Rick Clunn, Montgomery, Tex., 15-14.

11, Ken Cook, Meers, Okla., 15-8; 12, Roland Martin, Clewiston, Fla., 14-12; 13, Renaud Pelletier, Longview, Wash., 14-8; 13, Peter Thliveros, Jacksonville, Fla., 14-8; 15, Mickey Bruce, Buford, Ga., 13-3; 16, Harold Allen, Milam, Tex., 13-1; 17, Bert Thompson, Shreveport, La., 13-0; 18, Roger Farmer, Dalton, Ga., 12-7; 19, Cliff Craft, Suwanee, Ga., 11-4; 20, Joe Thomas, Mainville, Ohio, 11-3.