SYRACUSE, N.Y. — As waves of rain, bolts of lightning and the occasional burst of hail battered Oneida Lake, some of the Elite Series anglers decided discretion was the better part of valor and took cover from the elements on day one of the Champion's Choice Presented by Ramada Worldwide. Others, like Denny Brauer, chose to tempt Mother Nature by sticking it out on the water.
The weather didn't seem to bother either the smallmouths or the largemouths which inhabit this shallow grassy lake in central New York. All but 10 pros weighed in limits and it took over 14 pounds to eke into the top 20 and 12 pounds to make the top 50.
One or two big bites could help an angler jump 30 or more places in the standings and most of the leaders focused primarily on largemouths, which are generally considered more likely to produce a kicker fish. In fact, of the top four — Steve Kennedy, Britt Myers, Terry Butcher and Dean Rojas — only one of them brought any brown fish to the scales at all.
A week after suffering a harrowing mechanical failure on Lake Erie that caused him to forfeit his entire Day One catch, Steve Kennedy made it to the scales on time today with a limit of largemouths that weighed 17-10 and finished in first place.
"I haven't caught a smallmouth since we've been here," he reported. "I'm not sure that (the largemouths) will hold out all week, but on this lake, you have to catch what you can. I'm really concerned that I've used up all of my fish. I'm fishing for individual fish. It's almost like hunting."
He's catching most of his fish in water that wouldn't cover the back of his Jack Russell terrier, Louie, but he's using multiple techniques to lure them into biting. He even caught one on a swimbait.
"I went by the perfect spot for it and I had one at least 5 pounds chase it out," he said. "I came back later and on my first cast there, I caught a 3-12. I know that big one is still sitting there."
Most of his other fish came on a Kinami Flash soft stickbait, fished on a spinning rod with 10-pound-test line. He also caught several of the fish he weighed in on a third lure he wouldn't name.
Oklahoma's Terry Butcher claimed second place on the strength of a bag containing two largemouths and three smallmouths totaling 16-09.
"I'm fishing multiple patterns, just kind of jumping around," he said. "I'm catching smallmouth earlier in the day and then later in the day, I'm looking for largemouths."
He's not certain that his largemouth areas will hold up to the intense angling pressure, so the smallmouths give him something to fall back on, should he need to scramble.
"It's hard to say whether they'll last," he said of the largemouths. "I whacked on them pretty hard today."
Britt Myers sits in third place with 16-06. With an outside shot at qualifying for his first Bassmaster Classic, he entered practice with "swing for the fences" plan.
"I'm hoping to get six or seven bites a day — and that's what I did," he said. His big bite strategy produced the day's Purolator Big Bass, which weighed 4-14.
An illness dramatically shortened his practice period, but that may have actually helped him focus on the quality bites he needs to do well.
"I only got one day of practice," he said. "I had some sort of stomach virus and I spent four hours one day sleeping in my boat and another day back at the hotel. I didn't care if I caught them or not today, as long as I felt good."
The lack of practice time and need for a top finish to move up in the standings left him with no choice but to target largemouths exclusively.
"I've never made a smallmouth cast the whole time I've been here," he said.
Dean Rojas, who led the Major held here after the first two days last year, slid comfortably into the fourth place slot with 15-14. Like Kennedy and Myers, he's banking entirely on largemouths.
"Those are the fish I need to win," he said.
He reported he has his areas all to himself and is using three different lures to maximize his catch. Even if other anglers crowd him, he's confident he'll be able to catch fish that they miss.
"Nobody can cast like I can," he said.
Rojas is not sure whether his largemouth patterns are strong enough to last four days. Accordingly, he fished only one of his three primary areas and pulled off of it once he had five quality bass in the livewell. He's cautious but hopeful about his chances of winning.
"I've been down this road before," he said. "it's a four-day event. But it would be huge (to win). It's the last event of the year. I just have to keep grinding it out."
Regardless of the outcome, he's happier around Oneida's shallow grass than he was on Lake Erie last week, where he had "the worst finish (he) can remember."
"I'm not real good at surfing 8-foot waves and fishing a dropshot," he said.
Veteran Rick Clunn, in 50th place in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, but not entirely out of reach of a Classic berth, is in fifth place, an ounce behind Rojas. Clunn refused to disclose whether he is fishing an area or a pattern, or whether he is targeting one species of bass or the other — or both.
"I ain't saying," he said as he came off the stage. "I could say that I caught all largemouths. I could be lying, though."
Alabama transplant Aaron Martens purposely bucked the largemouth-dominant trend and targeted smallmouths, even though he doesn't think they'll give him an opportunity to win the tournament. He drop-shotted a Roboworm and used his signature Scrounger head to wade through 20 keepers. He eventually culled up to 13-06, which ties him with Jeff Kriet for 33rd place.
"I've got a pattern and I'm jamming," Martens said. "I needed a 4-pounder. That would put me at almost 15 pounds. It's hard to get a kicker bite on smallmouths. There was only about a 4-ounce difference between the largest fish I weighed in and the smallest."
Asked whether he'd switch target largemouths tomorrow in an attempt to climb up in the standings, he remained firmly rooted to his plan to continue doing what he did today, standings be damned.
"I'm sticking to smallmouths," he said. "They're just too much fun. I've made the Classic already, so that's what I'm going to do."