SYRACUSE, N.Y. — As he squeezed out a 12-ounce lead Friday in the Bassmaster Elite Series’ season finale, Randy Howell was feeling a whole lot more love for Oneida Lake.
Oneida was the scene of his precipitous fall from a first-day lead in 2009, and the setting of a win just out of reach in 2011. And those weren’t the only times he’s driven away from the upstate New York lake feeling frustrated.
But now, the Bassmaster Elite Series pro from Springfield, Ala., says he’s got something key figured out about Oneida Lake’s big smallmouth and largemouth populations.
“I love this lake. I have 100 waypoints on this lake from fishing it, and there’s fish on a lot of them,” he said.
Howell brought 16 pounds, 6 ounces to the scales Friday for a two-day total of 32 pounds, 2 ounces and the lead in the Ramada Championship. He stayed 12 ounces in front of Boyd Duckett of Demopolis, Ala., who sacked the day’s biggest bag — a 17-11 — to jump from 27th place from Day 1.
Scott Rook of Little Rock, Ark., pulled up from eighth place into third by producing consistently over two days: 15-7 Thursday followed by 15-9 Friday. Fourth by Friday was Tommy Biffle of Wagoner, Okla., with 30-14. Day 1 leader Michael Iaconelli of Pittsgrove, N.J., unable to come close to his huge first-day catch of over 20 pounds, slipped to fifth place with a two-day tally of 30-9.
The field was cut to 49 for Saturday’s competition. By Sunday, only the Top 12 will compete for the event’s $100,000 first-place prize and an entry in the 2013 Bassmaster Classic.
Howell has virtually earned enough points for a Classic berth already, but he’s shooting for a win. Not to mention the satisfaction of conquering a lake that’s gotten the better of him in the past.
“It’s exciting to catch them better the second day,” Howell said. “I’ve had some tumbles on the second day.”
That was in the Bassmaster Elite Series event of 2009, when he led the first day, but “burned” through his fish so fast there was little left for the next day. This time around, Howell held back, conserving his fish for Friday, but the tactic proved to be unnecessary.
Conditions changed overnight. He returned to his spot Friday morning, but floating grass mats had covered it.
“So I moved to another area, and that area ended up being good. Two or three times I had schools of 3- to 4-pounders — smallmouth — chasing my bait back to the boat. So I know there’s plenty of big smallmouth in the area. But they move, they’re chasing shad. As long as I keep moving around and finding them, I’ll be OK.”
He said most of the fish he hooked into were 3- to 3 1/2-pounders. The bag he brought in was four cookie-cutter smallmouth supplemented by one 3 3/4-pound largemouth he kept instead of a slightly smaller smallmouth.
“That helped me by 2 ounces, but every ounce is going to count here,” he said.
The area Howell left was one he’d been sharing with Brent Chapman, the leader for the 2012 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year award. According to Howell, Chapman’s section of the area didn’t have the same surface mats Howell encountered, but Howell, in part, left to clear the way for Chapman — they are close friends and collaborators during competitions — just in case Chapman needed it to close the AOY deal.
Chapman of Lake Quivira, Kan., retained his points lead. He’s 27 ticks in front of Todd Faircloth of Jasper, Texas, his biggest threat heading into the third day of the Ramada Championship. Howell, who led the AOY race earlier in the season, is virtually out of it now, but still in contention for a Top 8 postseason qualification to be awarded after the Oneida event.
Duckett’s bag of two largemouth and three smallmouth for second place came to him throughout the day.
“It’s a mixed deal. I’m swapping it up; my area’s got both,” he said. “I move in shallow, fish for largemouth, then move out for a smallmouth. It’s a pretty neat area.”
He worked the same area Thursday as Friday, and shared it both days with two other competitors, Jeremy Starks and Kelly Jordon. All three made the cut to fish Saturday. Was there enough for two more days for all three?
“I hope so,” smiled Duckett, the 2007 Bassmaster Classic champ. His main goal at Oneida is to earn enough points to get back into the Classic in 2013. Or to win the event and achieve the same goal.
That’s also Rook’s strategy at Oneida. He figures he’ll need a Top 10 or even a Top 7 to pull it off.
Rook said he’s targeting smallmouth on a shoal. He’s keying on bare bottom with rock, watching for flurries of smallies feeding on baitfish.
“Yesterday started slow. Today was the opposite. I caught them early, had a limit by 8:30,” he said.
Friday’s largest bass was Duckett’s 5-1 largemouth. That left Iaconelli’s 5-5 from Day 1 as the top candidate for the event’s Carhartt Big Bass bonus of up to $1,500 — $750, plus another $750 if the angler was wearing Carhartt clothing.
The Ramada Championship continues Saturday and wraps up Sunday. Fans are invited to watch the pros take off at 6:30 a.m. from Oneida Shores Park in Brewerton, N.Y. Afternoon activities will be on the infield at The Great New York State Fair in Syracuse. The family-friendly Bassmaster Elite Series Expo will open at noon. The weigh-ins are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m.
Host organizations for the event include the Syracuse Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, Onondaga County Parks, New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, and The Great New York State Fair.