FLW Tour pro Grae Buck caught a 15-06 stringer on Saturday to win the Oneida Lake Bassmaster Eastern Open and garner a berth in the 2020 Bassmaster Classic with a three-day total of 50-10.
"I'm ecstatic," Buck said. "I can't believe I made my dream come true of fishing the Bassmaster Classic. I fished all the Bassmaster Eastern Opens this year just to come to Oneida Lake, because this is the lake I know the best in the country. It's about 3 1/2 hours from my house and I've made a lot of money up here.
"I remember being 7 or 8 years old. I played ice hockey, and I remember being at an ice hockey game and all I wanted to do was watch the Classic on the TV there. It's always been my dream."
The bite turned tough Saturday – a factor of the relentless fishing pressure as well as wildly shifting winds (they were stiff and out of the west). Four of the final top 12 failed to catch a limit and only one angler weighed more than 17 pounds during the Championship round.
Buck not only had to move ahead of day-2 leader Kameron Harbin of Abbeville, S.C., he also had to fend off local hammers like Jamie Hartman and Stanley Sypeck Jr., both of whom struggled Saturday. Hartman finished in 3rd place, where he started the day. Harbin finished 9th.
Brisbane, Australia, resident Dean Silvester weighed the day's heaviest bag at 17-05, which pushed him all the way from 9th to 2nd. He fished a green pumpkin Z-Man ChatterBait all three days.
Buck hails from Harleysville in eastern Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. He won a BFL at Oneida four weeks ago, and another several years ago. He's got the lake wired, and he fished the same pattern that earned him last month's win.
"I was fishing between 6 and 9 feet all tournament," Buck said. "I was throwing a dropshot with a Cornerstone Baits Shimmy Shot. It's been a strong pattern here for a month. When you get around the fish, they eat it.
“The only difference from how I won the BFL is that this week I switched to the ghost color, which is white. I think before they were eating a lot of perch fry and gobies. Now they were probably focused more on shad. I also caught quite a few yesterday on a Ned Rig, which was a Shimmy Shot on a 1/10th-ounce Hayabusa Brush Easy jig."
Buck made long casts with the Ned rig and precise drops with the dropshot into mixed areas of rock and grass.
"I think the most important thing for me was finding concentrations of fish," Buck said. "I had three spots I found in practice and they held through the tournament."
Sylvester, with his 2nd-place check money, now faces a decision. He sold his house in Brisbane and used the proceeds to fund his four-event experiment in the Eastern Opens.
"I'm amazed I finished 2nd," Silvester said. "I had a really good practice and a really good tournament. My goal was to catch a limit each day, and I did that. But I think I probably cost myself on day 2, when I lost three or four fish that really could have helped me."
Silvester said his Eastern Open campaign cost him more than $35,000. He still has $8,000 left from selling his house, but needs to purchase a bass boat in order to keep competing. He said he's going to start looking for financial sponsors immediately.
White was a key color all week, along with the ever-effective green-pumpkin, and most anglers fished some form of white at least part of the time, whether it was a ChatterBait, dropshot, frog, topwater or swim jig. Buck was fairly alone among the top finishers in his 100-percent reliance on plastics.
This was the final 2019 Eastern Open. The top 5 finishers in the points standings, who are not already qualified through the Elite Series, will earn a berth in the 2020 Elites. That quintet includes FLW Tour stalwarts Bryan Schmitt (1st), John Cox (4th) and Buddy Gross (5th).
Here are the final totals for the top 12:
1. Grae Buck: 50-10
2. Dean Silvester:48-01
3. Jamie Hartman: 47-10
4. Jamey Caldwell: 46-11
5. Ben Nielsen: 44-15
6. Alex Wetherell: 43-12
7. Stanley Sypeck Jr.: 43-04
8. Andy Hribar: 43-04
9. Kameron Harbin: 42-03
10. Bryan Schmitt: 42-03
11. Kyle Welcher: 38-13
12. Bradley Dortch: 35-10