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Vegas Stripers

2/3/2010
Courtesy Getty Images for Reebok

LAS VEGAS — The only odd part of the situation was that they were in a limo.

There were champagne glasses, couches and running lights. But everything else looked and sounded pretty much like a standard fishing trip.

Super Bowl Prediction

Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington says the Colts are going to beat the Saints 34-31. In fact he made the prediction before the conference championship games, although he did add that he'd like to see Drew Brees win a title. At the same time Redskins tight end (and current OCNN reporter) Chris Cooley picked the Vikings to win it all.

Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington was in boots, jeans, a Reebok jacket and a camouflage Dolphins hat from the new Reebok/Realtree Open Field Collection. Redskins tight end Chris Cooley was in jeans, with a Realtree camo jacket and hat.

The 40-minute drive to Lake Mead saw the conversation move from Cooley's dad fighting Cowboys fans, to climate change, the Lake Mead water level and the environmental effects of coal.

It was just another group on its way to the lake to catch some fish (and promote a new clothing line) — a group willing to get up early in a city where there is no early (or late) to have a shot at catching fish.

It was two very different NFL football players, who fish for different reasons, with different styles, for different fish, stretched out in one limo with striped bass on the mind.

"You have to get a photo of me getting out of this limo in the camo jacket," Cooley said, after the limo pulled up 300 yards down a Lake Mead launch ramp that keeps getting longer because the lake's water level keeps getting lower.

The players found their captain on the dock and piled into a 22-foot, center console boat that looked more suited for saltwater, but makes sense on the 247-square-mile reservoir -- the largest reservoir in the United States.

The 250-horsepower motor fired up, the boat pulled out of the cove and the game had started: man versus Lake Mead striper.

The Roster (player/position)

R.W. "Bob" Wood / Captain — Captain Bob, as he liked to be called, had gray hair, a handlebar mustache and was wearing a gray and black sweatshirt with jean shorts. From the sound of things, Wood takes the Ronald McDonald approach to his wardrobe — he wears pretty much the same thing every day.

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Before he left the state of Colorado for the warmer Las Vegas a decade ago, Wood invited his friends over for a pants-burning party, which was exactly what it sounded like. He piled up and burned his pants — all of them.

"I had to wear pants to a wedding this past summer," said Wood, who's been guiding on Mead for eight years. "It ticked me off."

Shorts were apparently sufficient on what Wood described as an "unseasonably cold morning," (mid-40s) but he was stretching the cotton on his socks, which were pulled up to his knees.

Chris Cooley / The Entertainer — To describe Cooley in only a few words, which isn't doing him justice, he's a guy who likes to have fun. Whatever fun is happening at the time, in this case fishing for stripers (note that's one "p" not two), he's up for it.

When he was 11 and living in Wyoming, Cooley's mom signed him up for a fly-fishing class and he's been chasing trout ever since.

"I've always enjoyed being outside," Cooley said. "I could go to pretty much any river and match the hatch."

But to paint Cooley as an Orvis boy would be more than just a little incorrect.

Case in point: Last March, former Redskins cheerleader and current Chris Cooley wife, Christy Cooley, mentioned while sitting on the deck of their house in Virginia that she'd like to go fishing. The rest of the day was spent looking for, and finding a bass boat.

"I had never owned a boat so I didn't really know what I was doing," Cooley said.

When he took the boat out on the Potomac River the next day it was a disaster. Every time he tried to get the boat on plane, it would take in gallons of water on the back end. You can watch the video on his blog. Cooley said it turned out to be a manufacturing problem, and he went to the dealership 15 times to try to get it right. He even wrote an angry letter the boat manufacturer.

He's Chris Cooley the entertainer, a serious angler who really isn't serious about anything — or maybe everything — in short bursts. He's an "Animal House" character who spent 10 hours a day studying the art of making pottery after he was put on injured reserve this season because of a broken ankle. He's a little hard to figure out.

Chad Pennington / Analyzer — A few minutes with Chad Pennington and you know he is a quarterback. He talks, thinks, looks and fishes like a quarterback. He's plenty comfortable with a rod in his hand and likes to make educated decisions.

Pennington was born in Knoxville, Tenn., and started fishing for crappie when he was 6 years old with his grandfather. Early in high school, when he could start driving himself around, Pennington and a friend started fishing for smallmouth bass on some of the rivers in the area. That pretty much ended his relationship with other types of fish.

"I love fishing for smallies," said Pennington, who now lives in South Florida. "It's hands down my favorite type of fishing."

He's more interested in asking questions than he is answering. He quizzed Captain Bob about his electronics and wanted to know what Michael Iaconelli is like off camera. Who is the best finesse fisherman on tour? What makes Kevin VanDam so good? What type of bait is that? What makes Lake Mead a good striper fishery? How do you fish for bass on this lake? What are zebra mussels?

Pennington said a shoulder injury that sidelined him midway through this season didn't affect his casting motion.

"The shoulder's feeling pretty good," he said. "I'm still rehabbing, but I've been throwing a ball."

He gets out only three to four days a year, but Pennington said he's a sucker for a bait shop. He likes the process of figuring the bass out almost as much as getting them in the boat. It's cerebral for him — kind of like playing quarterback.

The Game

It was about 20 minutes out to the first spot. Wood never took his eyes off his electronics.

"Stripers are always on the move," Wood said. "They have to move to live. It makes it hard to find them and catch them in a certain spot."

The process was a lot like inshore saltwater fishing. Wood chummed the water with sliced frozen anchovies, stuck a piece on the end of four lines and let them drop to the bottom, about 50 feet. He anchored his boat, stared at his graph and waited.

Cooley grabbed the rod with his right hand and Wood tried to correct him.

"What are you going to when you set the hook, switch hands?" Wood asked.

"It doesn't matter Bob," Cooley replied. "I can't set the hook with my left hand."

Unfortunately, Cooley was right — it didn't matter. Wood said there are an estimated 10 million striped bass in Mead, but none of them was eating for the four hours Cooley and Pennington were on the lake.

Cooley got bored and Pennington wanted to know possible reasons the fish weren't biting. It could have been bad luck, or the storm from a day earlier that dropped an inch of water in an area that gets four inches a year, or maybe temperatures in the 40s scared the fish stiff.

"They've been like this for a couple days," Wood said. "There's no way to know, you just have to keep trying. That's the life of being a guide."

The losers walk back down the tunnel

Thanks to an incoming storm, the smooth, 20-minute ride out to the first spot early that morning turned into a bumpy, painful 30-minute ride back to the limo and ultimately downtown Las Vegas.

At the dock, Cooley and Pennington got a taste of what could have been. Hundreds of striped bass and carp, big and small, packed the no-fishing zone. Cooley and Pennington just stood on the dock and stared.

One thing they do share is a hatred for losing.