CENTRAL SQUARE, N.Y. — John Murray kicked back on the deck of his boat at Anglers Alley in Central Square, N.Y, signing hats and shirts for a steady stream of young fans.
He was a picture of relaxation with his shoulders slumped and a peaceful smirk across his face. Murray has done better than well on the Northern Run, finishing third in the Empire Chase on Lake Erie and 28th in the Champion's Choice on Lake Champlain.
The one-two punch moved him from 24th to 10th in the Angler of the Year standings and put him in a great position to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic.
And so he sat, content that he had put himself in the right spot and thrilled that the Bassmaster Memorial presented by Evan Williams Bourbon on Oneida Lake didn't have an effect on the points.
"After the last two weeks of stress, this is nice," Murray said. "It might be too nice, maybe a little too relaxed."
Murray said he had a tough practice and he doesn't see it getting any better. He said he caught a lot of fish on Oneida when the Elite Series visited there last year, but none of them were the right size.
"I haven't caught much in practice and the ones I caught were pretty small," Murray said. "I have not caught a 3-pounder in two years here."
But Murray's poor practice could be because he spent the majority of his time looking for largemouth bass. Tommy Biffle gambled last year, targeting the elusive largemouth on a lake packed with smallmouth, and he was able to edge out Charlie Youngers to win the Empire Chase on Oneida.
There are a couple differences as the tournament kicks off this year (time of year and water level to name a couple), but the most glaring is that Biffle's win was in an Elite Series event with Angler of the Year points and Classic qualifications on the line. This year, everybody's going to be looking to gamble.
"I love it because it's kind of like the Classic in the sense that it's a big-time event, but it's not a points event," said Kevin VanDam, who is second behind Skeet Reese in the Angler of the Year standings. "We don't have to worry about how it is going to affect our whole season.
"We can just let it all hang out. I take chances at these that I don't at a normal tournament."
VanDam also referenced the tournament setup as a reason to change his fishing style. The anglers will fish two days on Oneida Lake and the top-12 anglers will move to Lake Onondaga on Saturday with zeroed weights. The field will then be cut to six for the final on Sunday.
"Twelfth is just as good as first for me," VanDam said of the first two days of fishing. "I am going to get second hole selection at worst if Skeet makes the cut because it goes by angler of the year points. My goal is always to try and lead the thing, but in this case, 12th is just as good."
So, with the zeroing of weights, the $250,000 first-place prize and no movement in the points standings, Biffle may find his largemouth honey holes a little more crowded this time around.
"After last year, there will be more guys fishing for largemouth," Biffle admitted. "I think it's going to take a little of both."
VanDam, Steve Kennedy, and Bassmaster American winner Fred Roumbanis all said that a bag of smallmouth won't be enough to make the top-12 cut.
"We've only got two days on this lake, which makes the largemouth more of a factor because you don't have to worry about burning them up," Kennedy said. "The time I spent out there practicing, I've been looking for largemouth — and I found some."
Roumbanis was perhaps the largest advocate of fishing for smallmouth, but only because he said some of them were as heavy or heavier than the largemouth.
"I am actually getting big smallies," said Roumbanis, who will start with largemouth and move to a smallmouth bite. "I'm doing something I guarantee you no one else is doing because I'm the only who has it because it is a bait I designed.
"With these majors, it's definitely different. You're not fishing for anything but a win. I love to swing for the fences. I like to go big."