Anytime BASS schedules an event on Lake Oneida, I get fired up. The fishing is so good, it always takes solid weight to win. And after posting three top-12 finishes in previous events there, my confidence was sky high.
At just over 50,000 acres, Lake Oneida is unquestionably one of the best small lake venues in the BASS Elite Series schedule. It's covered in grass and features countless docks and other shoreline targets. Add to that its many shoals and creeks and the lake offers plenty to keep the competitors busy.
Both smallmouth and largemouth thrive on Oneida, and either species could provide the winning weight. My personal history includes both. The first time the Elite Series visited Oneida, I relied strictly on schooling smallmouth. Last time I put together a mixed bag of each. Going into this event, I tried to keep an open mind.
Pulling up to the launch site at Oneida Shores Park, I fell in line behind a row of other anxious competitors—all of us trying to get an early start at practice.
The final event of the season always brings added intensity. At stake are yearend titles and crucial qualifications—Angler of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Classic berths and those trying to re-qualify for next season's tour. So much is on the line.
Me? I was here to win! And considering my record on
After finally splashing the boat, I ran directly to Big Bay in the western end of the lake. This area is known for largemouth and shallow cover in the form of matted grass and shoreline wood. It also features a long line of docks along its southern bank. I started with a silver-foil SkitterPop, fishing it over scattered grass clumps in 6-8 feet of water.
While working my way slowly into the bay, a stream of boats blew past me. The steady pounding of boat wakes killed my confidence there, so I moved into a large field of matted grass. Throwing a hollow-bodied frog over the denser sections, I raised a couple of small fish. But the pattern seemed weak at best. Inside the grassbed I reached a bank of shallow wood. During our first Elite Series event on
While working along a grassy edge adjacent to the channel, I noticed some movement on the opposite side—it appeared to be fish chasing shad. Rushing to that location, I found a school of bass boiling the surface. My first two casts with a Rapala SkitterPop connected with quality largemouth. I switched to a Yamamoto D-Shad to see if they would respond to that and they did. After shaking off several fish, I marked the numbers on my GPS and moved away to avoid detection from other competitors.
In the next two hours I tried expanding the area, but only managed an occasional bite. I spent the rest of the day fishing grass, but never found anything like the spot by the bridge.
Back at the hotel I compared notes with travel partner, Zell Rowland. He reported having a good catch of smallmouth using his signature Pop'R. I told him I, too, had caught some fish on a popper, but that I was afraid the pattern might not hold up based on the weather forecast. Stiff breezes were headed our way and that usually kills a good topwater bite.
On day-two of practice, Zell continued with his topwater approach, I ran some shallow docks, skipping them with a variety of worms and jigs. By I had marked a few good stretches, trusting the fish would hold until tournament time.
From there, I moved to several open-water shoals. Although they looked good, all I could manage were a few scattered smallmouth. All were small in comparison to the schooling largemouth at the bridge.
On day-three of practice, the wind finally came. Predictably, Zell's topwater pattern died. I ran to a protected shoreline hoping to make something happen. Unfortunately, the area was barren of fish.
I moved into a nearby creek and started cranking steeper banks with an X-Rap Shad in a perch pattern. In minutes I caught a 3-pound smallmouth. A few minutes later, a nice largemouth came aboard. I called Zell to see how he was doing. He said he was struggling in the waves, so I invited him to share the creek with me. Together, over the course of a few hours, we had put together a decent number of hits.
Only one other competitor entered the creek and that was Ott Defoe. I could see Zell was pleased with the find. We knew we had a good back-up if the weather kept us off the main lake. With that we left for the tournament briefing, hoping to get an early draw.
School In Session
Apparently my luck was holding, as I drew an early number in the take-off order. Knowing the schooling activity near the bridge had probably been discovered by others, I wanted to get there quick. When my number was called, I raced directly to those GPS coordinates.
In just a couple of casts I hooked up with my first fish—a 3-pound largemouth. The very next cast yielded another in the 2-pound range. Shortly after that I boated another fat 3-pounder. I was off to a great start when suddenly, over my shoulder, David Walker appeared.
He obviously knew the school's exact location, as he didn’t even cast until he was within range of the sweet spot. Side by side, we pounded the bass as they fed in an open hole in the grass.
Minutes later Pete Ponds showed up. I recalled seeing Pete there in practice, but wasn't sure if he was dialed in. When Walker and I doubled up on a couple of nice fish, Pete closed in. Almost immediately,
After nearly an hour of protecting the key spot, Pete was finally forced to leave. By that time the schooling was pretty much done with.
By day’s end I had put together a solid stringer of bass that averaged nearly 3-pounds apiece. It was a solid start and I couldn't wait for a repeat performance on day-two.
Something Good—Something Bad
The next morning started out differently. Realizing the rotation of the take-off order, I returned to the schoolie hole expecting
An hour had passed when Walker finally showed up. He said he had only one fish, that someone had beaten him to his other spot. I told him the bite was much slower and the fish were running smaller, and to my surprise he pulled his trolling motor and left. I couldn't believe it. I had the entire area to myself. The hours passed slowly as I eventually beat out a solid limit of largemouth.
Nearby stood a series of docks with mats of grass between them. I told my marshal we would finish there and maybe catch a kicker fish. Throwing a frog across the very first mat, a 4-pounder exploded through the greenery. With that one in the boat, I knew I was set to make the weekend cut. I continued along the bank, catching more fish on the frog. None of them helped, but it was fun—the pressure was off completely.
Everything was going great, until I reached weigh-in.
While tied to the dock waiting on a bag, Zell pulled up beside me. Recounting his day, he said he was concerned about fishing in one particular area—that he was told by Bill Lowen it was considered off limits. I immediately became concerned for Zell. I knew if Lowen felt a rule had been broken, he would protest him.
As we progressed through weigh-in, we learned that Lowen had, in fact, filed a protest. The thought of Zell losing his weight made us both sick. But until tournament officials could reach a decision, it was a waiting game.
The area in question was a boat basin adjacent to the same creek I showed Zell in practice. The rules for this event designated manmade marinas and boat basins to be off limits to competitors. But according to Zell, this particular basin was actually part of an enhancement to a natural feeder creek. Seeing it on his GPS map, he accessed the basin in an attempt to reach the back of the creek. When he realized it was blocked off, he retreated. Lowen found him exiting the basin by happenstance.
We talked about it till we were blue in the face. Although I tried to support Zell's rationale, deep inside I knew the likely outcome.
Eventually weigh-in concluded and we both had made the cut. BASS officials told Zell they were on their way to inspect the boat basin and that they would call him with a verdict. Zell and I left for the hotel to prepare our tackle, then headed to dinner. That's when the call came.
Tournament officials determined the area in question was, in fact, off limits. Zell was disqualified. Sickened by the call, neither of us could finish dinner. I knew the year had been tough on Zell, and that a money finish was essential. And with the exception of that one wrong move, he fished a really clean tournament.
That night, we spent hours trying to find evidence that would prove the basin was actually part of a natural creekbed. Both Google and Bing maps indicated it was. In fact, on one map the name "Chittenango Creek" was superimposed directly over the basin BASS considered off limits.
By midnight, we were drained. With so much at stake, I told Zell he should file an appeal and try to reason with them the following morning. He said he would and with that I drifted off to sleep.
Fishing The Finals
The morning of day-three came quick. While preparing to leave the hotel, I couldn’t help but recount last night's drama. I knew Zell probably hadn’t slept a wink. I told him I would see him after weigh-in and to press BASS to overturn the decision. He said, "Good luck!"
Finally in the water, I fell in line and waited for my number to be called. The wind was howling from the east. Knowing the schoolie hole would be blown out, I decided to start in a protected area and fish a frog over matted grass.
I threw the frog patiently across isolated grass mats. Twenty minutes in, a largemouth well over four pounds crushed the frog off the edge of a mat. Seeing that, I kept the boat at a safe distance, working every retrieve well away from the cover. The adjustment paid off. Ten minutes later I boated another 4-pounder. It too, hit off the edge of the mat. Less than an hour had passed and I already had nine pounds in the box.
Completely relaxed, I advanced along the protected shoreline. Fishing the frog at a snail's pace, I soon hooked up with a 2-pounder. The fish struck three times before finally engulfing the lure. My marshal was stoked. He said he'd seen a lot of fish caught during the week, but none as exciting as these.
Two hours passed before I connected with a fourth fish. But it, too, was a solid 2-pounder. By that time I had fished more than a mile of shoreline grass. The best targets were small and isolated. Looking at them, you would never think they would hold a bass, much less the quality I was catching.
The wind continued to blow hard throughout the day. Just before weigh-in I hooked up with my fifth and final fish—another largemouth weighing nearly two pounds. What I lacked in numbers was made up for in average size. It was one of the most rewarding days I've had all season. Fishing with patience, my percentage was a perfect five for five!
Back at weigh-in, it was obvious the wind had hindered most of the anglers—the weights were down considerably. I wondered if my catch was enough to advance me to the top-12 for Sunday. When the results were made official, I was in by an ounce!
Day-four brought more wind. I knew the schoolie hole was shot, so I started with the frog again. Hours passed without a single strike. Eventually I gave it up and started running docks. I thought I could improve my position if those fish were still available. But after fishing more than 30 docks without a sniff, it was clear things had changed. Either the fish had been caught in the previous competition days, or the weather had moved them.
I was at a loss. I moved to a series of small points, alternating with a spinnerbait and jerkbait. I noticed several smallmouth chasing, but none would commit. I tried anchoring on the next few points, probing them with soft-plastics, but they still wouldn't bite. With less than two hours to go, I returned to the docks and finally caught a keeper largemouth. My day finally ended and I headed to check-in.
BASS had arranged the weigh-in ceremonies to take place at the New York State Fairgrounds. The fair was in full swing with more than 100,000 people attending. The prospect of crossing the stage with one small keeper was bothersome. Although I had fished a great tournament, I would ultimately be embarrassed in the end.
There to support me were local friends Dawn and Dick Ottman. If there's a more avid pair of fishing fans on the planet, I'd like to meet them. The Ottmans follow us on tour like roadies and we love them for it.
After weigh-in they invited me to stay at their home on the south shore of Lake Oneida. Arriving there, I found Zell and Mark Menendez relaxed in front of a 50-inch flat screen. I dove into a vacant easy chair and dozed off while the Ottmans prepared a feast of fresh walleye. After seven hard days of fishing, I couldn’t imagine a better group of people to break bread with. The season was over and I was ready for the break.