Elites hits the home stretch

CELEBRATION, Fla. — Among the talented field competing in the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series' Empire Chase presented by Mahindra Tractors on New York's Oneida Lake, July 6-9, are several anglers who have navigated the waters in previous, lower-level BASS tournaments.

 But those experiences may not help the pros who last fished the 51,072-acre lake, according to local expert and former Bassmaster competitor Randy Yager.

 Although the Oneida Lake fishing is expected to again be fast and furious, Yager points out that the BASS events held on Oneida in 2003 and 2005 were fall tournaments. Next week's summer weather will result in different conditions — and different bass locations — this time around.

 "It's going to be good fishing," said Yager, who lives in Syracuse, "but it's going to be totally different than what they've fished in the past tournaments.

 "I always found the first week of July to be a little tough because it's post-spawn and the fish are kind of spread out. They're kind of scattered and not really grouped out yet on the offshore shoals."

 Known as the "thumb" to New York's Finger Lakes, Oneida is a 21-mile-long, 5-mile-wide natural body of water with shelves and shoals formed by glaciers. It features plenty of shoreline vegetation and an abundance of rocky offshore structure. Its clarity is the typical clear water found throughout the region.

 In the two previous BASS tournaments, offshore smallmouth fishing dominated. That was the ticket to Art Ferguson's winning weight of 32 pounds, 9 ounces in 2003 and Joey Rodrigues' top total of 44-14 in 2005 (both were three-day tournaments). Both anglers dragged a tube along windblown points with a mixture of rock, sandy bottoms and aquatic vegetation.

 Yager doesn't expect smallmouth to be as dominant in the Empire Chase, the eighth stop of the Elite Series season, which kicks off the Northern Swing of the series. "Most of the tournaments I've fished this time of year, the largemouth were more of a factor," he said. "Oneida's got a great largemouth fishery, too, and the guys are going to find that out."

 Oneida largemouth tend to be heavier than smallmouth of comparable size, according to Yager. The fish will be caught shallow around docks, lily pads, shoreline grass and in creeks, he predicted, with anglers using soft-plastic stickbaits, spinnerbaits, buzzbaits and jigs.

 The smallmouth most likely are still in fairly shallow bays with gravel bottoms where they had spawned, but may spread out throughout grass patches mixed with boulders. The most productive lures for smallies are likely to be spinnerbaits and hybrid jigs, Yager said.

 Yager predicts the winner will need to average 15 pounds or more on each of the four tournament days.

 In addition to the $100,000 top prize, at stake are valuable points toward the 2007 CITGO Bassmaster Classic on Lay Lake in Birmingham, Ala. The Elite Series is a top-tier circuit featuring highly credentialed tournament pros who have earned the opportunity to compete in 11 high-profile events.

 Daily launches and weigh-ins are free and open to the public at Oneida Shores Park, 9248 McKinley Ridge Road, in Brewerton. Anglers launch at 5:30 a.m. ET and weigh-in at 3 p.m. ET.

 Also, the Salt City Junior Bassmasters — a Federation Nation club — will hold a CastingKids competition in conjunction with the weigh-in at noon on July 8. At 6 p.m., Elite angler Gerald Swindle will meet fans and sign autographs at the Advance Auto Parts, 516 Erie Blvd. W., in Rome. Fishing fans can catch the action from the Empire Chase on the CITGO Bassmasters on Saturday, July 15 at 10 a.m. ET on ESPN2.

 Local sponsors include the Syracuse Convention and Visitors Bureau.

 Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Toyota, Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Berkley, Lowrance Electronics, MotorGuide, Advance Auto Parts and Theraseed.