CHICAGO (AP) -- At dawn Thursday, 46 high-powered boats slipped into the waters of Lake Michigan, unnoticed by the flow of commuters rolling toward the high-rises of downtown.
The Super Bowl of bass fishing -- the BASS Masters Classic -- had arrived in the nation's third-largest city, a place where many residents see fish only at the supermarket or the Shedd Aquarium.
Organizers are gambling on Chicago's high profile to highlight what advertisers are learning: Fishing is big business.
BASS -- the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society -- hopes to equal the success of NASCAR racing, which also started from humble Southern origins before springing into mass popularity.
The fishing group boasts 600,000 members -- most of them weekend anglers -- and plans to use the $100,000 tournament as a lure for new advertisers eager to tap that market.
"We're introducing it to a whole lot of people that have never seen it before to a lot of companies and businesses that have never looked at fishing and thought of it as a way to promote their products," said Kevin VanDam, a 32-year-old tournament star from Kalamazoo, Mich.
"People have preconceived notions that it's all about Bubbas and chewing tobacco and drinking beer. It's not about that."
VanDam, a photogenic, media-savvy angler, epitomizes the image BASS tries to promote. He is among a number of big-name anglers who make more money from corporate sponsorships than they do on the tournament circuit.
Bass fishing has grown to a nearly $60 billion industry, according to BASS Inc. The group, started in 1967 when founder Ray Scott wrote the rules for competitive bass fishing, has a $6 million professional tournament circuit.
A small crowd cheered from the shoreline Thursday as the Masters Classic anglers motored off for their own version of a hard day's work: chasing little green fish in hopes of catching bass big enough to win the tournament
The participants -- 41 professionals and five amateurs who endured grueling road trips and tough competition on regional circuits -- are to the traditional worm-and-bobber crowd what NASCAR drivers are to weekend hot rodders.
Classic competitors head out in identical fiberglass bass boats with 150-horsepower motors capable of highway speed and a wonderland of electronic gadgets such as depth finders. Sponsorship patches for companies such as Chevrolet, Daiwa and Ranger often crowd every thread of their shirts and caps.
Using their knowledge of bass biology, weather and water conditions, they are highly adept at flipping, pitching and casting artificial lures into exactly the right spot to land bass.
Contest rules let each angler bring in five fish measuring 12 inches or longer for weighing each day; the angler with the heaviest three-day total wins the tournament. The fish are kept in aerated tanks on the boats, and anglers are penalized if any die.
Some participants ranged along the Lake Michigan shoreline and beyond Thursday, looking for schools of smallmouth bass, despite concerns that strong northeast winds earlier in the week had muddied the water.
Others concentrated on harbors and rivers, creeks and canals connected to the lake. The waterways, which pass through the industrial heartland south of downtown, have bounced back after years of crippling pollution.
Rust Belt wreckage such as sunken barges in the canals mean fish, said Shaw Grigsby, an author and host of a TV fishing show.
"The bass love 'em. They get right in there and say, 'This is home,"' Grigsby said.
Local and state officials have a stake in the tournament as well. They see it as a way to showcase their cleanup of Lake Michigan and the long-polluted waterways, and give tourists a new reason to come to the city.
For the tournament, the best sign of the success may be how many people attend Saturday's finale, a festival of lights and country music at Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears.
There, the anglers will hold up wriggling fish to the cheers of fans. After being weighed, the fish will be released back into local waters.
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