SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Today's weather threatens to produce a carbon copy of the rolling violent storms that battered the 106 Elite Series pros and their co-angler partners during the first day of the Champion's Choice Presented by Ramada Worldwide. Heavy rain pelted Oneida Lake as the anglers launched their boats this morning, but even though it had subsided in time for take-off, no one was quite ready to put away the rainsuits just yet.
In fact, no one seemed ready to change much of anything at all.
Those who had focused on largemouths maintained that focus, while those who favored smallmouths likewise stuck by their guns. Even the anglers who targeted both species had boiled it down to a simple formula.
"A 3-pound largemouth and a 3-pound smallmouth both weigh the same," said veteran Oneida angler Dave Wolak. He's catching both species in the same areas, targeting neither one nor the other.
Ever since Tommy Biffle won the Empire Chase tournament held here in July 2006 on a steady diet of shallow largemouths, the general consensus has been that the winner will have to have some largemouths in his catch. It may even be necessary to weigh in nothing but largemouths.
Dean Rojas, in fourth place, is one of those who've targeted nothing but green fish. Last year, he led the Bassmaster Memorial held here after two days, but fell to fourth when the top 12 moved to another lake. He's happy they'll stay on Oneida all four days this year — and is also pleased with the weather.
"We don't see rain like this at home," said native Californian Rojas, who recently moved from Texas to Havasu City, Ariz. "My goal is to get through the first two rounds. I can't let the leaders get too far ahead of me, so I need 15 to 17 pounds today. I'm behind by a pound and a half, so I have to keep pushing."
It's an open secret that the frog synonymous with Rojas' name has played a large role in his past and current success here. And while he said the frog is easy for even the most novice angler to relate to, "because everything's visual," catching a big bag with it is not as simple as putting the trolling motor on high and covering water.
"I know what to look for, what to key in on," Rojas said. "They're not necessarily on the banks. I'm catching some in 5 or 6 feet of water. Also, I can make it go wherever I want."
Fred Roumbanis, who won the Carolina Clash on Lake Murray two months ago — primarily on a frog bite he had to himself — had no frogs among the five rods lying on his deck at launch, but made clear that a hollow-bodied frog is an essential part of his game plan.
He's not sure what the unstable weather will do to his frog bite, thus the need for the other rods.
"Sometimes, when it drops down at night and then it's cold during the day, they get off of it," Roumbanis said. "They may boil on it or roll on it, but they won't take it."
He also acknowledged the cloud cover may have the opposite effect, causing the fish to roam and eat more aggressively. But if his frog bite fizzles, he'll turn to his flipping stick in pursuit of the type of bites he needs to move up from a current three-way tie for 27th place, only a pound and a half short of the top 12.
"Yesterday I fished fast," Roumbanis admitted. "I might have to be more thorough."
Much like the tournament at Murray, Roumbanis has his water to himself and is throwing a Snag Proof frog in his namesake color pattern. At Murray, he said it imitated the bluegills residing in his primary area. Here, however, he believes the orange throat on the frog gives it a perch-like appearance.
Roumbanis said with a win under his belt and a spot in the Classic all but assured, he's in position to swing for the fences.
"I can fish free," he said. "I still want to win every tournament, but I'm just so much more relaxed, which has helped my timing on hooksets. I didn't miss a single fish yesterday."
Last year's Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year, Skeet Reese, also professed to be stress-free after last week's 59th place finish at the Empire Chase on Lake Erie dropped him out of the running for this year's title.
"After the letdown last week at Buffalo, I have no chance left at Angler of the Year," Reese said. "That left me with very little motivation. Obviously, I want to try to win the tournament, but Angler of the Year is more important to me, so I had to make up my own little goal and try to battle for third."
Reese is always one of the first anglers on the water, regardless of which flight he's in, but today he was joined there early by Kevin VanDam, normally a relative latecomer. With a few minutes left to go before take-off, VanDam had picked up his co-angler and motored away, but his competition, Todd Faircloth, had tied up one dock over.
"There's one of the puckered ones," Reese said with a smile. "Where did the other one go?"