Smallmouth bass ruled a slick-calm day at the Oneida Lake Bassmaster Eastern Open and day-1 leader Grae Buck of Harleyville, Pa., bagged 17-12 to establish the lead pace. He holds a 4-ounce advantage over 2nd-place Ben Nielsen of Lowell, Mich., and Patrick Walters of Summerville, S.C., both of whom weighed five-fish limits for 17-08. Walters actually anchored his bag with a largemouth, which was the only green bass caught by the top 3.
A strong storm front swept through the area mid-week, which colored the water, and overcast conditions gave way to sun and slick-calm conditions most of the day. The famous schools of Oneida smallmouth failed to materialize and several of the day's top limits were caught junk fishing, while several others came via slow and meticulous finesse fishing.
Only 12 pros will earn the right to fish day 3, and such tough conditions should paint a backdrop full of drama during Friday’s second round, as the junk fishermen battle the finesse fishermen, again under high, clear skies and light winds.
Buck has only fished one previous B.A.S.S. event at Oneida, an Open in 2013 that produced a 16th-place finish. But fans who follow Oneida events closely will no doubt recognize his name because he's won two BFLs here, the most recent of which was four weeks ago.
Buck has a lot of Oneida history, which he said helped him after missing more than a day of practice due to his cousin's wedding. Overall, Buck described his practice as “tough.”
"In practice I checked two main areas I knew – one had them, one didn't – so I fished that one today and hit them hard," Buck said. "There were a few other boats in there, but I was the only one who caught them, so I hope I can fish there tomorrow.
"I've spent a lot of time here and I'm just sort of out there picking at them. The lake has mixed rock and grass, which I love, and I just hope I can keep catching them."
Buck caught most of his weight during a morning flurry, but added a 4-plus-pounder around 1:30 p.m. that he caught in deeper water. His goal is to make the 2020 Bassmaster Classic, he said, and a win here would put him in.
"Overall, I'm very happy with how the day went,” he said. “I dropshotted a Cornerstone Baits Shimmy Shot, which is what I won the BFL on."
Nielsen made the trek from Michigan and things started slowly for him, he said. But he eventually moved into one patch of water that produced four of the five smallmouth he weighed. With a fairly decent sack of fish, he decided against going to his remaining two areas in anticipation of Friday.
There were a few other boats in his primary area, but given his competitive position, Nielsen hopes he'll have some room to move around more there tomorrow in addition to fishing his two other spots held in reserve.
He noted he's fishing a moving bait and he's "fairly optimistic about tomorrow."
Walters, a Bassmaster Elite Series pro, likewise mentioned the slow nature of the fishing overall and estimated he boated just one fish per hour. He culled only four times on his way to 17-08, and each time he replaced a largemouth with a smallmouth.
"I fished half-half," Walters said. "I fished half the day on my practice water and half the day on new water. I have 14 rods on my deck – seven casting, seven spinning – and I'm junk fishing. You just have to run around and work hard and hope to get lucky.
"I'm going to do the same thing tomorrow," he added. "I feel good about it. Sometimes you cull 10 times and things don't work out. Sometimes you cull five times and they do work out. Today it worked out."
Here are the totals for the initial top 12:
1. Grae Buck: 17-12
2. (tie) Ben Nielsen: 17-08
2. (tie) Patrick Walters: 17-08
4. Jamie Hartman: 17-06
5. Kyle Welcher: 17-03
6. Stanley Sypeck Jr.: 17-01
7. Andy Hribar: 17-00
8. Jamey Caldwell: 16-15
9. Tyler Berger: 16-13
10. (tie) Andrew Heivly: 16-11
10. (tie) Bryan Schmitt: 16-11
12. Austin Felix: 16-08