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BassEye Challenge weathers stormy skies


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John Hickey/Buffalo News
BassEye Grand Champion Team of Mark DeLorenzo, left, Capt. Joe Fonzi and Carl Benzig used a variety of lures to endure and to take the top trophy.




Anyone can run a tournament in nice weather. That's what Bob Rich Jr. told media representatives and competitors Thursday during the 2004 Greater Niagara BassEye Celebrity Challenge held out of Erie Basin Marina in unseasonably cool, windy, wet weather.

Rich cited the staunch attitude of Western New York anglers in their search for fish to catch, a pursuit that required facing not only the dampening breezes, but also competition held in an area confined mainly to Buffalo Harbor, the head of the river and upper Niagara River waters.

Experienced boat captains and their celebrity and accompanying anglers know Buffalo-area Great Lakes waters offer great fishing opportunities for bass (mainly smallmouths, but also largemouths) and for walleye.

However, charter captains and devoted recreational anglers also know that outings rarely offer the opportunity to catch good numbers and sizes of both bass and walleye while using the same drifting, trolling or casting gear in all of Lake Erie's open waters.

Anglers have great walleye and bass hot spots in New York State waters from Buffalo to Barcelona Harbor, but as the 6:30 a.m. departure time arrived on Thursday, Rich opted for safe conditions in which the 200 participants in 40 boats moved that morning.

High southwest winds pushed increased heights of 3- to 4-foot waves that had built up during high winds on Wednesday. Rich's decision to recommend anglers fish in the harbor and river resulted in fewer fish caught but an enjoyable, safe time experienced by all.

As had been seen during two previous years of competition, in this year's BassEye Challenge few anglers could catch, measure, photograph and release both bass and walleye during the five hours of fishing allowed. Just three of the 40 boat teams logged legal-sized walleye and bass when competition ended at 1 p.m.

A genuine rivalry has developed in this contest, with charter captains performing a "turnabout is fair play" act this and last year. During the 2003 BassEye, Capt. Joe Cinelli of Grand Island took top honors; Capt. Joe Fonzi finished a close second.

This year, Fonzi and Cinelli both amassed 800 points in combined bass and walleye caught, but Fonzi's anglers caught their fish before Cinelli's crew brought in their last keeper. Fonzi cited crayfish as the top live-bait offering right now.

"It was that close," Cinelli said, graciously congratulating Fonzi and his two anglers, Carl Benzig of North Tonawanda and Mark DeLorenzo of Niagara Falls.

Added to this turnabout, Benzig and DeLorenzo had boated with Cinelli for their win the previous year.

Cinelli also guided Dick Holmes to top points as Grand Champion Angler, and Cinelli's team caught more bass than other teams to take the Most Bass Released trophy.

Larry Quinn, representing the Sabres, posted most walleye and bass among celebrities to receive the Grand Champion Celebrity Angler award. Tony DeDante took Grand Champion Celebrity Pro honors.

Channel 2 sports reporter Ed Kilgore did a stand-up job of bass casting to take the Runner Up Celebrity Angler trophy. Kilgore, unofficially, accepted the honor as a "rookie celebrity."

Buffalo News sports columnist Bob DiCesare, while he didn't enter enough legal-sized bass for award status, also did a stand-up job of casting for bass in Niagara River currents and crossing breezes. DiCesare boated five bass during an abbreviated string of drifting near the Huntley Power Plant.

As the day progressed, rainfall increased and strong winds that had crossed Lake Erie from the west gradually shifted to north-northwest, adding a chill to the rocky boat ride.

All endured. All survived. All came into the Erie Basin Marina two hours earlier than planned for a great luncheon-dinner and awards presentations. Walled tents made the gathering more enjoyable for anglers to mix with fellow competitors and talk fishing in ways that often would not be shared at more formal fishing competitions.

All at Erie Basin Marina and the more than 500 who attended the cocktail party the previous Wednesday evening showed the endurance and commitment area anglers and residents willingly offered in gathering funds used to continue research in finding a cure for cystic fibrosis.

At the end of competition, Rich announced that donations made during events both days had risen to a little more than $125,000 for the CF Foundation this year.

To learn more about CF Foundation efforts, call 686-9400. For information about contributing to and participating in future BassEye events, go to: www.basseye.org.e-mail: wille@pce.net