By Todd Ceisner
It’s taken seven tournaments and 28 days of competition to get to this point. More than 8,400 fish have come to the scale, weighing 22,294 1/2 pounds – that’s more than 11 tons of bass!
And they’re not done yet.
The Bassmaster Elite Series regular season concludes this week just north of Syracuse, N.Y., at Oneida Lake, which has become a de facto finale site for the Elites. It’ll serve as the final measuring stick for the 2012 season, the decisive backdrop for what proves to be a dramatic close to the Toyota Tundra B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year (AOY) race and the last chance for many in the field to shore up a berth in next year’s Bassmaster Classic.
There’s so much to be decided. And 4 short days to do it.
“It’s the last tournament of the year, so it’s crunch time for points and Classic berths,” said David Walker, who’s currently 11th in points. “Everyone has something they need to accomplish this week. There’s a lot of stuff on the line.”
Not to be lost in the chase for positions and points will be the chase for 4-pounders, which in the past have proven to be the difference makers at Oneida. Early practice reports indicated those specimens have been more elusive than expected this week, but it’s safe to assume that a few will show themselves before the weekend’s out. Don’t be surprised if the script holds close to previous Oneida derbies with largemouth quality trumping smallmouth quantity.
This will be the third time in the last 5 years Oneida has hosted the Elites' final regular-season tournament and the lake consistently draws positive reviews from pros, who like how big it fishes despite its modest 50,000-acre surface area. It’ll serve up a wholesome test as Brent Chapman seeks to hold onto the points lead and capture his first career AOY title.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Oneida Lake
> Type of Water: Natural lake
> Surface Acres (full pool): 51,000 acres
> Primary structure/cover: Humps, weedlines, drop-offs, rock shoals, a few docks
> Primary forage: Perch, emerald shiners, immature white bass/white perch, mayfly nymphs/emergers
> Average depth: 12 feet in west end, 30 feet in east end
> Species: Largemouths, smallmouths
> Minimum length: 12 inches
> Reputation: Mega-numbers lake with easy 2-pound average, 3-pounders abundant but tougher to catch
> Weather: Pleasant with temperatures expected to be in the low 80s with overnight lows in the upper 50s and light winds. Off chance of a shower on Sunday.
> Water temp: Mid to upper 70s
> Water visibility/color: Gin clear on western end, more stain out east
> Water level: Full pool
> Fish in: 1 to 40 feet
> Fish phase: Post-spawn/summer
> Primary patterns: Tubes, dropshots, topwaters, jigs, jerkbaits, Carolina-rigs, flipping, jigworms, spinnerbaits
> Winning weight: 62 pounds (4 days)
> Check weight: (Top 50): 24 pounds (2 days)
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Oneida
> Biggest factors: Decision-making. How to fish, where to fish and what to fish for will be critical
> Biggest decision: Pursue largemouth right away or go after the roaming smallies and chase kicker largemouths later
> Wildcard: Deep flipping bite.
Most pros BassFan spoke with remarked how different the lake is fishing compared to previous visits, whether it was last year’s Northern Open in late September or the past Elite Series events.
The bite’s been tougher, in general, and a lot more boats have been seen trying to get something going in the shallows.
Oneida Lake is one of Dean Rojas' favorite fisheries. He has three Top-4 finishes there in his career.
“The whole lake just seems kind of dead right now,” said Elite rookie Michael Simonton, who finished 2nd in the Open last year. “There aren’t a lot of fish breaking the surface and the birds are just kind of sitting on shore. It seems like nature, in general, is slow right now.”
Tony Buffa is 70 years old and has fished Oneida since he was 14 and has spent the last 37 years guiding on the lake for bass and walleye. While Lake Ontario salmon trips dominate most of his guiding schedule this time of year, he’s well versed in the ways of Oneida’s bass.
He calls the lake “nature’s banquet” right now as there is so much going on and so many ways to catch fish, both largemouth and smallmouth. Since most in the field have been here at least once, there won’t be many secrets – just tough decisions to make. Go power-fish the grass or chase schools of smallmouths? Run to the east end or stick close to Brewerton on the west side? Chase an early limit and hunt for kickers the rest of the day or hunt for just big ‘uns?
“There are so many options, it’ll drive you nuts,” he said. “There are days I go out there and feel like it’s my first day out there. It’s such an obstinate lake.”
He thinks more of the fish “have returned to where they should be – in 3 to 12 feet of water,” after feeding up following the spawn. The hotter-than-normal summer up north has pushed water temperatures consistently into the mid and upper 70s and he even saw it touch 80 not too long ago.
“That’s too warm for a northern lake,” he said.
Buffa believes the smallmouth bite on the numerous offshore shoals could keep someone in the hunt for a couple of days or serve as a fall-back plan, but largemouths will likely rule in the end as they have in the past.
“On any given day, the smallmouth bite can be vicious,” he said. “There are some that are 19 to 22 inches with shoulders and they can be comparable to the largemouth we’re catching.”
At the same time, he’s noticed an uptick in quality of the largemouth in the lake, likely a direct result of the proliferation of near-shore vegetation.
“There’s so much good habitat and sanctuary zones that these fish have been able to survive better at early stages,” he said. “People who target them are going to do well.”
Chapman, DeFoe & Co.
When trying to size up the AOY race as it nears its conclusion, it’s only natural to thumb through the contenders’ past results at Oneida to try to gain some understanding or insight into how they’ll fare this week.
Chapman’s best finish in four Elite Series stops at Oneida is 38th and his average placement is just shy of 50th. Another average finish could put his AOY hopes in jeopardy as Ott DeFoe, who sits 13 points behind Chapman in the standings, has missed just one cut in nearly two full years with the Elites.
DeFoe hasn’t fished Oneida before and didn’t make a trip before it went off limits. It’s just his routine and he stuck to it. He’s proven to be a versatile stick and is apt to find something others missed despite the lack of secrets at the heavily fished lake.
Todd Faircloth, who’s 20 points back of Chapman in 3rd, has always fared well above the Mason-Dixon line. Aside from a 93rd at Oneida in ’08, he’s a safe bet to at least cash a check at any tournament held in the Empire State.
Oneida seems to suit Terry Scroggins’ strengths with its mix of flipping habitat and off-shore structure, but it’s likely going to take a Top-12 finish (he has three Top-40s there) and stumbles by those ahead of him if he hopes to make up the 39-point deficit to Chapman.
“I’m going out and will fish as hard as I can,” Scroggins said. “It’s out of my hands in a way because I can go out have the best tournament of my life, but the guys ahead of me are going to have to struggle if I’m going to catch them.”
The ample pattern information available for summer tournaments at Oneida through BassGold.com paints a clear picture of how things might go down this week.
A quick look at the “Macro Factors” indicates anglers have as good a chance of winning by fishing “main lake offshore structure” as they do focusing on “shoreline” areas. At Oneida, that means offshore shoals, rock or drops versus flipping grass closer to shore.
Greg Vinson is 46th in Toyota Tundra B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year points so a 2013 Classic berth hinges on his Oneida showing.
Nearly 30 percent of the tournaments used to generate the pattern report for July and August were won fishing one or the other and they accounted for nearly 50 percent of Top-5 finishes.
When it comes to habitat, it’s no secret that Oneida’s largemouths this time of year are likely holding in and around weed beds, which are plentiful around the lake. “Submergent vegetation” is the dominant “habitat factor” when breaking down past results.
Getting into the “lures/baits” is where things spread out a bit. This is where the “pick your poison” phrase comes into play. The top three players here are “tubes, grubs, craws” as well as “topwaters” and “jig-n-pigs,” illustrating the variety of ways to effectively break down Oneida.
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“My practice has been pretty poor overall. It’s a lot different from last year. There’s just not a lot of fish up shallow. It seems like everybody is struggling, but I’m not sure if that’s the truth.
“The places I caught them in the Open (last September), I went there but didn’t get a bite. Some of the water is gin clear and I remember there being more stain last year. I think this might be the week where something off the wall might do real well.”
“The fish seem to be in real good shape, but the lake is totally different from the last couple times we’ve been here. There’s not near as much grass as there is normally. The quality is there, but it’s harder to get bit than it normally is. I expect that we’ll see similar weights to past events here.
“I’m really surprised about the grass. With the mild winter and warm summer we had, I expected to see a lot more grass from end to end. Normally, this lake is blessed with a lot of milfoil beds, but I’m seeing very little milfoil and it’s almost as if the grass has cycled through already.
“This is one of those tournaments where I came into it in decent shape to make the Classic so I probably haven’t fished for bites so much. I’ve spent most of my time looking for quality and will try to fish for those better bites.”
“The lake’s fishing a lot different. There’s some sort of bloom going on right now. It’s hard to explain. It’s like little spores in the water, just clouds of it and they seem to stay together. It’s really weird stuff. In some areas, you can’t see down a foot it’s so thick.
“There’s no topwater bite to be had. I haven’t seen a fish blow up all week. It’s been a really tough practice so I’ve just put my head down and put a flipping stick in my hand and that’s all I did the first 2 days. I covered a lot of new water – water I haven’t fished before.
“From what I’ve seen from the smallmouth, I think it could be won on smallmouth this year. I went and fished some largemouth water and that area just doesn’t have a good concentration of fish right now.”
“I’ve found a couple or three schools of smallmouth that I think I can get a Top-50 finish out of, but I’m not sure they’re going to get me a Top-15 finish, which is what I think I’m going to need to make the Classic.
I pretty much dedicated today to finding some largemouth because this week 6 ounces can be the difference between 15 or 20 spots in the standings.
“There’s more grass and a greater diversity of grass than what I remember seeing before. The water’s a lot cleaner than before, but with so much grass, it takes so much time to cover an area. Your day just flies by so fast. It’s almost like Florida where you go into an area and you need to take your time and pick it apart."
“I’ve only fished here once before and that was last year’s Open. I thought it was your typical Northern lake where the fish are happy to see you.
Steve Kennedy needs another strong finish at Oneida Lake to secure a '13 Classic spot.
“The biggest problem this time is it’s been so hard to catch smallmouths. Last year, the smallmouth fishing was really good. It was almost addictive to the point where you couldn’t keep yourself from going after them.
“This time, it’s been the complete opposite. It’s like they don’t exist. I know there are millions of them here, but we’ll just keep searching for them.”
‘When practice started, I decided I was going to gamble a bit, but on (Tuesday), I went out and spent the whole day offshore looking for a backup plan. It’s a different Oneida Lake this year. It’s tougher than it has been in the past.
“In recent years, largemouths have always played a role with the winner here. This year, there are a lot of guys fishing the bank in practice and beating those fish up pretty bad. The guy who goes up there and catches them will have done his homework because I think it’s going to be tough.
“It seems like there is a lot more grass throughout the lake, but on the upper end near takeoff, there’s not quite as much as there has been. That might have them spread out a little more.”
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Dean Rojas – His Oneida track record is second to none, likely because he targets only largemouths. He won with all largemouths in ’08 and badly wants to make the postseason this year.
2. Greg Hackney – Grass + flipping = Hackney’s kind of tournament. His results have improved each time there.
3. Jeff Kriet – Has fared well with offshore tactics here before and needs a top-half finish or better to secure Classic berth.
4. Kevin VanDam – A versatile lake calls for a versatile angler. Few are better at changing on the fly.
5. Randy Howell – Always finishes well at Oneida. Placed 5th in the Northern Open last September.
6. Steve Kennedy – On the bubble for the Classic (30th in points), he hasn’t finished lower than 30th at Oneida.
7. Tommy Biffle – Posted a win in 2006 by targeting all largemouth. Sitting in 38th in points, he has some work to do to make the Classic in his backyard.
8. Bernie Schultz – He’s struggled this year, but Oneida seems to bring out the best in him – Top-12 cuts in 2008 and ’09.
9. Brent Chapman – Has the Classic made, but wants nothing more than to close out the AOY crown.
10. Ott DeFoe – He’s never fished Oneida before, but his overall consistency and ability to figure out new water should keep him in contention yet again.
Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. ET Thursday and Friday and at 6:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday from Oneida Shores Park (9400 Bartell Rd., Brewerton, N.Y.). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will get under way at 4 p.m. at Oneida Shores Park (same address). Weigh-ins on days 3 and 4 will be held at the Empire Expo Center at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse (581 State Fair Blvd., Syracuse).
> Thurs., Aug. 23 – Partly Sunny - 80°/56°
- Wind: From the WSW at 4 to 8 mph
> Fri., Aug. 24 – Mostly Sunny - 82°/57°
- Wind: From the N at 4 to 6 mph
> Sat., Aug. 25 – Mostly Sunny - 85°/62°
- Wind: From the S at 3 to 5 mph
> Sun., Aug. 26 – Partly Sunny - 83°/64°
- Wind: From the S at 7 to 12 mph
> The field will consist of 97 pros this week after the suspension of Kyle Fox following the Lake Michigan tournament. The day-2 cut will remain at 49 anglers.
> Chapman's practice was tough from start to finish. Today, he figures he got one bass bite. Ouch! To read his practice recap, click here to go On Tour With BassFan Big Sticks.