A few minutes after 3 o’clock last Sunday afternoon, Carl Martin put out a call to fellow members of the Fountainhead Bass Club. It was weigh-in time.
“Bring ’em on! Bring ’em on!” bellowed Martin from the marina of the Fountainhead Reservoir in southern Fairfax County, where his group of anglers was sponsoring the latest of its periodic tournaments. Cooler after cooler of still-kicking largemouth bass were then emptied onto Martin’s scale, weighed, and tossed back in the water. While the ceremony was taking place, the competitors, all of whom had been on the water since 6:30 a.m., broke into two distinct camps: those who’d had a good day, and those who hadn’t. The former group was uniformly uninformative about where on the reservoir they’d hooked their fish; the losers were identifiable by how loudly they bitched about the ones that got away.
Thanks largely to cable television, competitive fishing—which has an oxymoronic ring to it—has gone big business in some quarters. A national tour sponsored by a chewing tobacco company routinely offers purses in the healthy six figures. With so much at stake, tourney organizers now spend as much effort preventing cheating as anything else. (Overzealous competitors have been known to claim store-bought fish are freshly caught, or stuff lead weights down a bass’s gullet prior to weigh-in.)
Fountainhead Bass Club members know all about those televised extravaganzas and, to a man, dream of being cast in the big time. “Who wouldn’t want to make a living fishing for bass?” asked Martin, a drywall guy during the work week.
But by necessity, this clique, of which Martin is president, keeps things small. There are no corporate sponsors for its tourneys, which are held at Fountainhead Regional Park twice a month except in winter, so actual prize money is determined by the entry fees of $40 per boat (one or two anglers per). Whichever boat brings the largest total catch out of a maximum of six fish takes the booty. For another $5, anglers can also enter an optional side pool that goes to whoever hooks the biggest single bass of the day. The lack of a huge bounty mitigates the motivation to cheat, Martin explained.
“From my experience, our anglers are a very honest bunch,” he said. “Unless you ask them where they caught their fish.”
Small purses or no, everybody in the Fountainhead Bass Club takes fishing very, very seriously. Nobody more than Martin. Even if there hadn’t been a club-sanctioned event, the prez would have spent his Saturday the exact same way. Martin, a Manassas, Va., native, started fishing area waters when he was 3 years old. Now 37 and single (“That answers a lot, huh?” he smirked), he couldn’t care less about other forms of recreation.
“Fishing at Fountainhead is pretty much all I do,” he said.
Martin doesn’t submit to fishing fads, either. Unlike so many modern anglers, he doesn’t think the key to improvement is in procuring all the latest hardware. “Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t afford the kinds of things a lot of guys are using nowadays,” he shrugs.
To save money, he makes his own jigs and spoons for bait—live bait generally isn’t allowed in bass tournaments. And for the Fountainhead events he casts from a boat that his fishing partner Jim Mathley bought used for $270.
“You see those guys fishing on TV; well, you can’t buy a decent bass boat like the ones they use for less than $20,000,” Martin said. “To a guy like me, well, if you have that kind of money, you put it down on a piece of land, not a boat.”
Martin’s devotion may not be reflected in his cash outlay, but he spends freely with his free time, gathering intelligence on Fountainhead at every opportunity. Martin already knows the reservoir as well as any man alive, but he wants to know more. He fishes there “at least” three times a week (plus the tournaments), and the learning process continues even when he puts down his rod and reel. He acquires topographic charts of the reservoir from Fairfax County—this is where county residents’ drinking water comes from—and studies the lay of the submerged land, paying particular attention to where the creeks channel in. That information comes in especially handy in rainy periods, since it helps him predict water flow beneath the reservoir’s surface and, therefore, fish movements.
During droughts, when the water level at the reservoir drops below normal depths, Martin puts on his mud gear and hikes along the shore line, taking photos of the rarely visible bed of his favorite body of water for future reference.
“I know that most people don’t understand how much work goes into becoming a good angler,” Martin said, a bit defensively. “I can teach anybody some basics that will help them go out and catch a few fish, things like what baits work best here, and casting technique and agility with a rod. But that’s only going to take them so far. To get good, to be able to find the fish, you have to ‘structure fish,’ which means making decisions based on the structure of the body of water, and you can’t do that without knowing a lot about the body of water you’re going to fish. Learning takes time. Too much time, the way some people think.”
Mathley has no trouble understanding his boatmate’s bass fetish. The 29-year-old Lorton resident met Martin at Fountainhead five years ago, just after Mathley, then a fledgling angler, accidentally cast a fishing hook into the arm of a mutual friend. The two have been fishing buddies ever since. Mathley, like his bud, fishes Fountainhead a minimum of three times a week, including every weekend, an avocation that his wife tolerates but isn’t overly fond of. Ask Mathley if he thinks the sport gets enough respect from nonanglers, and it’s easy to see why he and Martin hit it off.
“You talk to people who don’t fish, and they think it’s all about dropping anchor, throw a line out, and start drinking,” Mathley said at the weigh-in. “We don’t care about changing people’s minds about fishing, but, well, look around and you’re not going to see any beer here today.
“Carl and I both know that to be a good angler, you have to be able to read the water, to pay attention when you catch a fish, to understand why you caught them. If you don’t pay attention, if you just do things randomly, then you can’t develop a pattern, and without a pattern, you won’t be able to repeat your successes. It’s a lot of work.”
Since there is a lot more than good luck to good angling, Mathley added, it only makes sense that fishermen are loathe to divulge much about where their catch came from.
“You don’t want somebody stealing ‘your’ spot, not after you went to all the trouble of finding it,” he said.
Their combined efforts paid off Sunday. Of the 23 teams entered, only the Martin/Mathley boat made the six-fish limit. After the weigh-in, the two were awarded the first-place money, $368. It was their first win all season. “We didn’t catch our fish in any one place,” Martin contended, with dubious sincerity.
Brian Reese of Lorton reeled in the Biggest Fish pot of $110 for landing a 5-pound 9-ounce largemouth. He, too, declined to dignify inquiries about where he’d hooked the prize-winning catch with a specific response.
“I don’t tell that,” Reese said, no further explanation required.—Dave McKenna
(For information about the Fountainhead Bass Club tournaments, call (703) 250-9124.)