SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Thirty-two-year-old Chad Griffin caught his first bass at 22 years old and instantly became addicted.
Ten years later, the Cresson, Texas, resident who grew up in Alaska — a state reportedly with no largemouth bass population — cashed in on a dream at the regular-season finale, the Ramada Champion's Choice on Oneida Lake on Sunday.
Griffin, an Elite Series rookie, worked Oneida for both relevant species — largemouth and smallmouth — and tallied 65 pounds, 10 ounces, enough to hold off hard-charging Jeff Kriet of Ardmore, Okla., by more than 2 pounds.
He credited his versatility, a must on Oneida, to his years of toiling in grassroots and lower-level tournaments in various states. His main bait for the final two days was a white XCalibur Zell Pop with chartreuse. Heading into the final day, Griffin carried a stout lead of 4-plus pounds and got off to a blazing start Sunday. But as the day progressed, so did his troubles — including battery issues and a few missed fish.
"I thought I blew the tournament. I was really worried," said Griffin, who moved up to 42nd in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. "Honestly, I'm not sure what the heck I just accomplished. This means the world to me."
While growing up in Alaska, Griffin followed The Bassmasters and idolized anglers like Kevin VanDam through hellacious winters. He said his passion was so strong that he used to tell family members that he was going to be a pro.
Seizing the lead Friday, Griffin didn't waiver, catching the biggest bass of the tournament, a 5-pound, 8-ounce largemouth. It helped him land the biggest limit of the tournament of 18 pounds, 8 ounces..
He wiped out two less-than-perfect days with two stellar days in the four-day event. On Thursday he failed to cash in on what he thought could have been more than 20 pounds, and Sunday he failed to land several fish that struck his lure. In the end, Griffin's Friday and Saturday performances were enough.
Throughout the tournament, he executed a pattern developed in practice — targeting smallmouth in the grass. It was something he has never done, on a lake he had never before seen. But the one-time BASS winner has spent considerable time in Texas scouring Lone Star fisheries, where an abundance of grass also exists, and that helped his cause in New York.
The victory netted Griffin $100,000 and peace of mind. Perhaps most important, after struggling through his rookie year, Griffin gained confidence in addition to the financial security.
"It certainly takes some pressure off," he said. "It's nice to be able to tell my family that it finally happened. I always wanted this so bad. It's just really special."
Kriet nearly toppled Griffin on Sunday with an 18-pound, 2-ounce limit. Despite some obvious disappointment in the finish, Kriet sewed up a qualifying berth into the 2010 Bassmaster Classic — his sixth — set for Feb. 19-21 on Lay Lake out of Birmingham, Ala.
Kriet strictly targeted smallmouth — despite the tournament being won on largemouth in previous visits. He said his bite didn't really turn on until Sunday, when he boated the event's second-largest catch. He was throwing jigs and a drop-shot rig to suspended fish in the grass.
Second is a familiar position for Kriet, who has failed to land an Elite Series win despite being in contention numerous times.
"Sometimes I scratch my head and wonder why I haven't won one of these yet," said Kriet, 40. "I sure would like to. But I have been working it out, and when I win one of these I think the door is going to open and I'm going to get a few."
Last year's Oneida champion Dean Rojas of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., was third with 59 pounds, 3 ounces. Home-state favorite Matthew Sphar of Pavilion was fourth with 58 pounds, 14 ounces, while Jason Quinn of York, S.C., rounded out the top five with 57 pounds, 8 ounces.
Gerald Swindle of Warrior, Ala., finished ninth, which was good enough to sew up the final berth in the inaugural Bassmaster Elite Series postseason.
Toyota Trucks Championship Week is set for Sept. 10-18 on two productive Alabama fisheries. The first of the two postseason tournaments, the Trophy Chase, will take place Sept. 12-13 on Lake Jordan out of Wetumpka; the finale, the Evan Williams Bourbon Trophy Triumph, is slated for Sept. 17-18 on the Alabama River from Montgomery.
Terry Butcher of Talala, Okla., sewed up his first Bassmaster Classic berth by way of his 10th-place finish at Oneida.