Nothing is certain in this game, but it would be hard to imagine Brent Chapman falling from his perch atop the Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year standings. He increased the lead over his closest rival from 13 points to 40 points with his second-place bag of 16-12 Thursday.
In addition to finding catchable fish yesterday, Chapman is almost bullet-proof against any unexpected mechanical breakdowns; his prime spot is easy trolling motor-only distance from the Oneida Shores Park check-in site.
It will be interesting to hear Chapman reveal the clues he found at Oneida Lake when he came here over a month ago for three or four days before it went off-limits. That pre-practice is something Chapman almost never does. But with the AOY title at stake, he felt like he needed it. And, apparently, it paid off.
"If I hadn't pre-practiced, I'd be pulling my hair out right now," Chapman said Thursday.
But when he got here this week, he initially thought that was wasted time, after the amount of aquatic vegetation in the lake had "exploded" since his previous visit.
If nothing else, that pre-practice gave Chapman a chance to slow down and closely examine the lake, which he'd fished in Elite Series events several times.
"I know what to do (Friday)," Chapman said. "That's the only reason I came up to pre-practice. I've always felt like I was chasing my tail in tournaments up here. I wanted to really look at this place."
It's paying off again today, as he already has two fish in the boat.
Faircloth has moved south, to an offshore grassbed well offshore of Frenchman Island, and the move paid off with a good keeper, which we estimate between 2 1/2 and 3 pounds. I can see through binoculars that it's a beautiful, olive-gold smallmouth, and it gave Todd a heck of a fight. It's amazing to watch the Elite Anglers play fish. He only let it jump once, right after it hit his jerkbait on the end of a long cast. From that point, he kept his rod tip down, close to the water's surface, and applied steady pressure. It came to the boat quickly but he let it run near his Skeeter for at least a minute, burning off excess energy so it wouldn't make a sudden surge when he reached for it.
When the time was right, he scooped the bass up by grabbing its belly and sliding it into the boat. That's your only choice with a feisty fish wearing a "jerkbait smile," as they say. A number of fishermen this season have had to go to doctors to get treble hooks removed from their hands, and Faircloth doesn't want to join that club.
Faircloth has the area to himself. In fact, he hasn't had competition for any of the three areas he's tried today. Maybe that's because he's only in 22nd place and no one wants what he has. More likely, there are so many fishing areas to go around, so many good grassbeds and shorelines and underwater structure where bass congregate. As Aaron Martens summed it up yesterday after the weigh-in, "This is a little lake that fishes big."
Chapman's movement around this big bed has paid off. He just reeled in his second keeper. He estimated the weight at 2 1/2 pounds.
By this time yesterday, Brent Chapman had a limit in the boat. Today he has just one. He's fishing one of Oneida's big "dumping grounds," the areas where earth from the Erie Canal was dumped more than 100 years ago. This one is now covered in tall grass.
There's more wind today, coming out of the northeast, and more chop on the water, changing the fishing dynamics. We're thinking the wind is repositioning the baitfish, so Brent is now trying to find them. This time yesterday the water was dead calm.
Todd Faircloth, still the main threat to Brent Chapman for 2012 Angler of the Year, moved about 1/2 mile closer to shore and is fishing again, still alternating between a jerkbait and a finesse presentation. He just missed a fish on the jerkbait. He needs five big ones before the day is out to have any hope of catching Chapman, who sits 20 positions ahead, in second place.
Faircloth is in a good area. "He's on one of my honey holes," said Mike Fox, our boat driver. "Sure enough, there's a waypoint on Mike's GPS unit, and Faircloth's boat seems to be sitting right on top of it. Mike has a camper parked at the campground just around the point from here, and his GPS trails crisscross the weedbeds Faircloth is working. Fox said the bottom depth ranges from 8 to 11 feet here and grass -- mostly cabbage weed -- grows in sparse patches over a mixture of sand and rock. If I were a smallmouth, I'd live here.
A day like today makes you glad to be an on-the-water blogger. Sunrise over Oneida Shores Park, which silhouetted the 97 Elite Series anglers against and orange sky, was gorgeous. There's a steady breeze this morning. The fishermen have been praying for wind today to break the surface and make their lures harder to distinguish from something real. Oneida needs wind for fishing to be at its best.
Unfortunately, the wind's from the east, when fish bite the least. I'm sharing a chase boat with Seigo Saito, veteran B.A.S.S. photographer, and our driver, Mike Fox, a New York B.A.S.S. Federation Nation member who has won the state tournament on these waters in the recent past. "An east wind messes things up here," he said.
Todd Faircloth just confirmed that assessment. "They're not biting here like they were yesterday," he said. "I thought the wind this morning would help, but it's not working." Faircloth seems to be alternating between a jerkbait and a finesse lure. From long-lens distance, it's kind of hard to tell. Looks like he's giving up on this place, and we're moving with him.
Here's Steve Bowman shooting photos of Brent Chapman today, which you'll see on Bassmaster.com a bit later.
Also out on the water today, James Overstreet and Dave Mercer are on Mike Iaconelli.
Rob Russo is with Randy Howell. And Dave Precht and Seigo Seito are following Todd Faircloth.
Back in the office we have a talented team of content producers pulling it all together for the website, and posting on Facebook and Twitter. Boys and girls this is a rock star team bringing you all the action today!
The first tournament day of the Ramada Championship on Oneida Lake turned out like so many Elite Series events do: After much grumbling about lack of bites in practice, these guys figured it out once the tournament started. But — make no mistake — it wasn't as easy to catch 'em at Oneida as it has been in the four previous Elite Series tournaments here since 2006.
"We're used to catching 40 or 50 a day here, now it's 10," said Mark Davis. "The fishing is not like it has been here, I promise you.
"But a lot of times when that happens, guys bear down and the weights go up."
There was no better example of that than Mike Iaconelli's 20-pound, 3-ounce tournament-leading bag Thursday. Iaconelli was shocked — that's the word he used over and over — to catch 20 pounds after struggling to get more than five or six bites a day during practice.
Throughout the day we'll have more details on Iaconelli, Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year leader Brent Chapman and all the other battles waging that will come to an end this weekend in the last regular season Elite Series event of the year.
As far as the weather, it's almost a carbon copy of yesterday: 60 degrees at launch, light wind, few clouds, with the temperature to rise as high as 90 degrees by mid-afternoon.
Todd Faircloth always has a serious demeanor, but surely he's smiling right now. We pulled up on him just a few minutes ago and already he's caught two keepers, including one weighing more than 2 pounds. The first, which we estimated to be 1 1/2 pounds, he summarily tossed overboard. Surely he can't be culling. It may have been the wrong species -- some of the pros have been catching big perch and sheepshead amongst their bass.
Faircloth appears to be fishing a jerkbait. We know he's over a grassline in the northwest section of Oneida Lake. When I chatted with him before launch this morning, he said everything is going according to plan. Except he didn't plan for Brent Chapman, whom he's chasing for Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year, to catch 16 pounds, 12 ounces yesterday. "I exceeded my expectations," said Faircloth, who sits in 22nd place with 14 pounds, 5 oundes. "I thought I had a good catch, but Brent had a great one."