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Local man's fishing prowess pays off at Bassmaster event

October 07, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

It's not so unusual for a guy to go off on a weekend fishing trip with some pals.

But for Lee Cox, fishing is more than mere recreation.

This past weekend, Cox went off to fish in Oneida Lake in upstate New York and returned as the amateur champion in the CITGO Bassmaster Northern Open fishing tournament.

The prize: A $24,000 certificate for a new fishing boat.

The tournament paired each amateur fisherman with a pro, and participants fished with different partners each day, Cox said.

Originally scheduled to run from Thursday through Saturday, the tournament was cut short because of poor weather.

"The first day, the wind was between 20 to 25 miles an hour," Cox said. "We had 8- to 10-foot waves." He heard that more than 20 of the low-lying bass boats used in the competition had either been swamped or ran aground because of the unruly water.

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"The second day it died down and we had a good fishing day. But on the third day, they were predicting 30 to 35 mile-an-hour wind gusts, and the Coast Guard stepped in because of dropping temperatures, rain and sleet, and asked them to call it off."

By that time, Cox had accumulated a total fish-weight of 26 pounds, 11 ounces, enough to clinch the amateur win.

The Oneida Lake tournament was the last in a series of three in the Northern Division of Bassmaster competition, Cox said. Earlier tournaments were held on the Potomac River near Waldorf, Md., and on Lake Erie near Buffalo, N.Y. Though he fished in both, Cox said he didn't win in those tournaments.

Though he has won prizes for fishing before - he won his first money tournament in 1983 - this prize was the biggest. And it may be his last amateur tourney.

"It looks like I will qualify for pro next year," he said. "The pro tour level, that's where you can make $100,000 per tournament - and that's cash."

Cox said a recent fishing tournament on the James River near Richmond, Va., paid its winner $500,000.

Cox, a salesman at Hoffman Chevrolet, has fished on the pro tour before. The owner-operator of East Coast Guide Service, he stopped a few years ago to get his fishing-guide business off the ground. Ironically, the weather has been so wet that there wasn't much call for fishing guides, and he returned to Hoffman last November, where he's worked at various times since 1976.

He's hoping the weather will calm enough to let him concentrate on his business - and the pro fishing tour - next year. The tournament season begins in March.

At 47, Cox has been fishing for decades.

He grew up in Baltimore County, moving to the Hagerstown area in 1979.

"My mom used to take us fishing a lot," he said. His wife, Marlene, doesn't fish much because she doesn't like to be on the boat in rough waters, he said. But "she's pretty patient" with his fishing, he said, taking care of the clerical side of the guide business in addition to operating her own day-care center. He hopes to take her along on some of the pro tournaments next year.

Having a supportive spouse helps keep Cox on the tour, he said.

"She's my biggest supporter. If it wasn't for the support of my wife, I couldn't do it," Cox said.

Fishing, Cox said, "can be a hobby or it can be a business. For me, it's a business."

It also can take a physical toll.

He'll be having surgery soon for a biceps tendon that's nearly severed from repetitive casting. The expected recovery time is eight to 10 weeks.

And it can be expensive - his entry fee at the Oneida Lake tournament was $400. Had he been fishing on the pro level, the fee would have been $1,000. But the payout is bigger - the winner of the pro division won $50,000. Cox said purses for pro fishermen can reach $1 million at some tournaments.

Since he already has a boat, Cox said he may sell his certificate. He said he'll probably put the money into his business account. But the win has brought other tangible results, both for himself and his business.

"Truthfully, they could have kept the $24,000," he said. "The win will help me gain sponsorships. And I've been getting calls from outdoors writers and friends. It's really touching to hear from all these people who want to give you an 'attaboy.'"

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