SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Steve Kennedy stopped to shop at the local Gander Mountain sporting goods store Saturday. It was a few hours after he'd caught a five-bass limit weighing 20 pounds, 3 ounces, on the first day of Bassmaster Memorial competition on Onondaga Lake. Kennedy's weight, one of three 20-plus-pound bags, came all on largemouth bass, no smallmouth.
"I ran into some of these guys that fish a tournament every Wednesday night (on Onondaga)," Kennedy said. "They said everybody shoots for 15 or 16 pounds of smallmouth. That's what it usually takes to win it.
"They were like, 'What are we doing wrong? What are we missing?'
"They were just totally amazed."
Jerry McKinnis, host of ESPN's "The Fishing Hole" for 40 years and head of the Bassmaster Elite Series TV production team, had a similar experience at Onondaga.
"I talked to one of our (camera) boat operators, who is also a Wednesday night bass clubber here," McKinnis said. "Going out that first day, he said it'll take 16 or 17 pounds of smallmouth to win.
"When he came back in, he said he was embarrassed. He said, 'I'm from here. I've fished this lake for 25 years, and I didn't know that was available.'"
There's no need for anyone to feel embarrassed. Amazed? Yes. The Bassmaster Elite Series tour always opens local bass anglers' eyes to new possibilities, wherever it goes.
That's one aspect of his job that McKinnis will never cease to enjoy. Educating people has always been a personal philosophy of McKinnis. And he's always had a big-picture view of the educational opportunities available in fishing.
"The good thing is that it makes everybody aware of what they have," McKinnis said of the two successful tournament days on Onondaga, a 4.6-square-mile lake in the middle of Syracuse that was once considered one of the most polluted in the country. "It was a whole new world to everybody up here.
"The next thing in line is it forces them to work harder at cleaning it up. If 10 years from now, the lake is a lot cleaner, maybe in happened, in part, because the Bassmasters were here in 2007 to really shine some light on what's here.
"That's what I think our usefulness is. We showed these people how to fish. Obviously we had a great time; we had a great tournament; and we're going to make a great television show. But the little things that spring off that are how much we taught these guys how to fish, and how much pressure we put on these big companies around here to say, by gosh, we've got to get after it and clean this thing up."
Onondaga is an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Cleanup site. The odor wafting from it would indicate there's still work to be done. Because of high mercury content, there remains a health warning about eating anything caught from this naturally formed lake that is named for the original Native American tribe that inhabited the area.
Because of that reputation, some of the pro anglers approached Onondaga with caution. But that attitude was shattered during Saturday's weigh-in at Onondaga.
"I was told this lake is polluted," said Skeet Reese, after weighing an 18-5 bag of largemouth bass. "It's polluted with fish."
Maybe you want some tips on how to catch the big bass on Aug. 4 in the annual "Fishing for Dollars Tournament on Onondaga." (Big bass pays $2,000, and there's a tagged fish worth $25,000 in the lake.) Or maybe you simply want to be a better bass angler anywhere. Let Randy Howell take you through the process of how the pros break down a body of water.
Howell, who grew up on a marina in his home state of Alabama, qualified 10th after two days on Oneida Lake to make the top 12 cut and advance to Onondaga. Howell was "sick" that he missed the top 6 cut Saturday by just over two pounds, as he'd discovered a "honey hole" that day on Onondaga.
Along Interstate 81 in Syracuse, there's a snow plow parked with these words painted on the blade: Average annual snowfall 117 inches. Howell said a combination of cold winters and "localitis" were likely the two main factors in local anglers underestimating what it would take to win here.
"They don't get as much time to fish as we do in the south," Howell said. "As little as this lake is, it's probably frozen over for several months.
"And everywhere you get what I call localitis. You fall into the trap of doing the same thing every weekend. If your buddy wins a tournament one week, you go out and do what he does. Everybody fishes in the same place every week.
"You could tell Saturday. I looked at a lot of these fish, and they hadn't ever been caught before. Their mouths were clean, no hook marks. They were fat and healthy. You could just tell they hadn't been fished a lot."
With heavy aquatic vegetation around its edges and no boat docks to hold fish, it was obvious to all the pros that some form of fishing in and around the "grass mats" would be the ticket to a $250,000 payday in the Bassmaster Memorial presented by Evan Williams Bourbon.
But that still left a wide variety of options. In the hole-course format of the last two tournament days, Howell started in "Hole No. 6" Saturday. Each angler had 70 minutes to fish a hole before rotating to the next, followed by an 80-minute "Happy Hour" where they could fish wherever they wanted.
"It took me probably an-hour-and-a-half to figure out a pattern," Howell said.
Howell tried punching through the grass mats with a heavy jig and working outside edges with other lures at various depths. He started shallow, then moved deeper. In Hole No. 1, located along the shore of the Bassmaster weigh-in site, Howell saw the clue he needed to put together a pattern.
"I looked down, and I saw a patch of rock, and I saw a bunch of fish swim off of it," Howell recalled. "I turned my boat back out. I knew then that the fish were up shallow, so I tied on a plastic worm, made six casts and caught 16 pounds."
Howell was able to find places like that in every other hole the rest of the day.
"I just went around and patterned fish, looked for that same type of grass, 3 or 4 feet deep," he said. "After that it was pretty easy catching fish. I don't know that there was such a thing as figuring out how to catch a 5-pounder or it was just catching a 5-pounder, because everybody else was doing the same thing, I think -- Senkos, worms, flipping jigs with big weights into grass mats."
Just to make sure that he hadn't depleted the stock in his "honey hole," Howell went back to Hole No. 1 during Happy Hour.
"I pulled up there with 15 minutes left just to check it out, because I thought I was going to make the cut," Howell said. "I wanted to see if there was really a lot of fish there, or I'd got lucky and caught five real quick.
"I saw the spot and made a cast. My line started moving sideways. It was another 3-pounder. A couple of guys on the bank were cheering. I made three more casts and caught three more 3-pounders. So I made a total of nine casts into that one spot Saturday and caught a fish every time."
That was enough to convince Howell to leave.
"I didn't want to keep wasting 'em because I knew I'd need them the next day," said Howell. "Then I didn't make the cut.
"I was just sick."
Howell felt bad, but by listening to those tips from him and the other Elite Series pros, you should be able to improve the health of your bass fishing. And maybe in the process of discovering more about that valuable natural resource, you'll play a role in improving the health of your lake, too.
You know, like the Bassmasters do.