Surviving Oneida

I dream winning a Bassmaster Open tournament and qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic the way millions of Americans dream of winning the lottery. I’ve never plunked down a single dollar for a lottery ticket, yet I’ll pinch pennies for cash to fish the next Bassmaster Northern Open.

Sometimes I think I’d have better odds of winning the lottery than a Bassmaster Open. I certainly felt that way on the Sunday prior to the first Northern Open of 2017 at Oneida Lake. It was my first practice day and I put in 14 hours on the water.

As I drove my boat on its trailer in the fading light, the bilge pumps were running. A repair I had done for a crack in the hull had failed. There was no way to fix it before the tournament started. It appeared that I was out.

I’ve done a series of articles about fixing up my 27-year-old boat for BASS Times and articles and videos on this subject for Bassmaster.com. The videos are now posted on youtube.com, as well.

The fault for the breakdown is mine, as are most things that go wrong with my existence. I was running late to the weigh-in a few years ago while fishing a Northern Open at Lake Champlain. I didn’t realize how brutal the water had become until I hit the open lake several miles north of Plattsburg.

I tried to keep my 18-foot boat running on top of 4- to 5-foot waves. Bad idea. I pounded the boat so mercilessly that the cowling was jolted off the outboard, never to be seen again.

When I slowed down, the waves pushed my bow up at such a steep angle that it forced my outboard’s engine partially under water and killed it. That happened even at idle speed. I had to call BoatUS for a tow. Buying their insurance is one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

The rough ride also put a crack in the boat’s hull near the bow. I repaired the damage at home and the boat later held up through rough-water rides at Northern Open tournaments on the big waters of lakes St. Clair and Erie.

Oneida should have been a piece of cake for the boat. It wasn’t. It was rough and windy during my Sunday practice session, alternating between spells of rain and sunshine. That afternoon a sudden windstorm blew up, creating serious waves. I pounded my way through them into a protected bay that several other boats had retreated into.

When I loaded my boat a few hours later, I was devastated to find that my hull repair had failed. A huge incentive for fishing the Opens is that you qualify for the Bassmaster Classic if you win one, provided you fish all three tournaments in that division.

If I didn’t compete at Oneida, that possibility, no mater how much of a long shot, was gone.

I called my wife, Debbi, and my daughter, Valerie, and told them the bad news.

Valerie is married to Andrew Upshaw, the first Bassmaster college champion to fish in the Bassmaster Classic. Andrew is currently pursuing a professional bass career. He would have loaned his boat to me, but he and Valerie live in Tulsa, which was 20 hours away.

Andrew contacted his friend, Indiana Elite Series pro Jacob Wheeler, to see if he knew anyone closer who could loan a boat to me. Wheeler called Wieda’s Marina in Alexandria, Ky., one of his sponsors, and they offered to let me use one of their boats.

So, after being on the water for 14 hours I drove all night without sleep to reach my Ohio home at 6:30 a.m. I dropped off my injured boat and drove across the state to Wieda’s Marine, which is about 20 minutes south of Cincinnati, Ohio. There I met owner Sean Wieda and several members of his staff.

I learned that Wieda has fished several Bassmaster Opens and once finished in sixth place at an Open on the James River. With three very young children, a thriving business to run and a working wife, he has taken a break from tournament fishing. However, he vows to be fishing Bassmaster Open tournaments again at a future date.

I also learned that Wieda started his marina when the economy was at a low ebb, yet he was able to be enormously successful. He did so by catering to the most discriminating bass anglers across the country.

Wieda’s Marine sells Phoenix, Skeeter, Triton and Legend fiberglass boats and Triton and G3 aluminum boats. They will expertly rig any boat with any brand outboard you wish, along with any accessories you desire. For example, if you want a Skeeter boat with a Mercury outboard that’s no problem.

I was taken back when I saw the boat Wieda was loaning to me. It was a brand new 20-foot Phoenix promotional rig with a 250 hp Mercury and every imaginable feature. There wasn’t a scratch on the gleaming rig.

I was apprehensive about pulling it off the lot. I tried not to let it show. By the time I got home, it was late in the evening. I wasn’t up to another sleepless all-night drive. I crashed for 5 hours and headed for Oneida the next morning.

Wired from too many miles and too little sleep, I fished Oneida for a few hours that evening and again Wednesday morning before the official pre-tournament meeting.

I failed to catch a limit on either of the two tournament days I fished at Oneida. No excuses. The smallmouth were committing suicide. I should have been able to catch a limit of them blindfolded. However, I did survive it and can now fish the remaining Northern Opens with my dream of qualifying for the Classic still alive.

I spent much of the week after Oneida on my back beneath my old bass boat making a more extensive repair than I had done the first time. Working with fiberglass is nasty stuff, especially when you’re trying to defy gravity making a repair on the underside of a boat hull. I applied enough layers of fiberglass to withstand a torpedo. Bring on the James.

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