Elites make Oneida wish lists

No one would blame Brent Chapman, Ott DeFoe or Todd Faircloth for wishing that the Bassmaster Elite Series season finale on New York’s Oneida Lake would just get started.

The three pros are champing at the bit to begin the Ramada Championship, Thursday-Sunday, Aug. 23-26, out of Syracuse, N.Y., because that’s where the 2012 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title will be decided, and they’re the Top 3 in contention.

The race is the tightest in years. Chapman leads, DeFoe trails by only 13 points, and Faircloth is 20 points behind Chapman. If all three choked, someone else — say, Terry Scroggins in fourth place with a 39-point deficit — could move up to take the crown and its $100,000 prize.

The AOY competition promises to be the biggest show at Oneida, but it won’t be the event’s only showdown. Bassmaster Classic berths for 2013 will be fought for, won and lost. The Bassmaster Rookie of the Year race will cross the finish line. And eight qualifiers for Toyota Trucks All-Star Week in September will be determined.

A date in September is what Dean Rojas is after. Ranked 10th in points, Rojas virtually owns a Classic spot already, but a postseason entry is iffy. Rojas goes into Oneida 18 points out of the No. 8 spot on the Angler of the Year list, the cutoff for automatic qualification for the event.

Four additional pros will be added to the All-Star roster by fans voting online at Bassmaster.com, but Rojas said he’d prefer to be among the group of eight.

“I’d rather earn my way in,” said Rojas. “I think it’s within reach.”

His Oneida credentials give him a long arm: He won the 2008 Elite event on Oneida, and finished third when the Elite field returned in 2009. He was successful in both trips with shallow-water frog and plastics patterns. Targeting the lake’s largemouth paid off big back then, but he contends that he hasn’t eliminated a smallmouth strategy from his 2012 game plan.

“The lake has big largemouth, but a lot of big smallmouth, too. You have to keep an open mind because largemouth might not be the winning pattern this time,” said Rojas. “I have to be tactical about how I approach the lake.”

Like Rojas, Bill Lowen is hoping to land his first postseason berth. A qualification is especially important to Lowen because the All-Star competition will be on Lake Shelbyville and Decatur Lake out of Decatur, Ill. Lowen lives in Brookville, Ind., about four hours away. The chance to be in a high-profile tournament close to home is added pressure to do well at Oneida.

“I’d like to say that it’s not on my mind, but naturally it is,” he said. “I’m going to try to fish like I’ve done all year and hope to qualify.”

Lowen definitely wants to improve on his poor Oneida showing in 2009. Then, as it is this season, the Oneida stop was the finale. Lowen was several points away from a 2010 Bassmaster Classic qualification, so he had to turn in a top performance.

The first few hours went well, and he was 14 pounds to the good. Suddenly he realized he had six fish, not the regulation five, swimming under his livewell lids. He immediately tossed back one bass, then called tournament officials to report his miscount. But the rules at the time stipulated that tournament officials had to perform a sixth-fish cull, so Lowen’s entire first-day weight was disqualified.

He finished the event in last place, falling about 20 points out of Bassmaster Classic qualification. It was a big hit to his season and his career.

“It doesn’t haunt me now,” he said. “Maybe things happen for a reason. I’ve noticed that I’m a lot more cautious with culling, and I pay more attention now.”

Unlike in 2009, Lowen can rest easy about a Classic berth. He’s a shoo-in for 2013. But for the majority of the Elite field, a Classic berth is high on the Oneida wish list. The first 28 pros in points after Oneida will automatically be awarded a Classic berth. Then more Elite pros will be added to the Classic field because several pros qualified multiple times, pushing the cut-line further down the points list.

Among those floating on either side of the bubble going into Oneida are Michael Iaconelli, Marty Robinson, Keith Combs, Andy Montgomery, Mike McClelland, Jamie Horton and Britt Myers.

Tommy Biffle, also riding the bubble, is in a unique position. He’s been in 17 Classic competitions — but not 2012’s. To skip it again, when the Classic will be on Grand Lake in his home state of Oklahoma, would mean heartache.

If he misses his Oneida shot, he’d have one more chance through the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open’s “win-and-you’re-in” rule. The event will be on his home lake, Fort Gibson. He won an Elite event there in 2011 (and, in the same year, an Open on the Arkansas River near his home).

“But I want to get it done on Oneida,” said Biffle.

His Oneida history is strong and consistent: a win in 2006, 15th in 2007, 16th in 2008 and eighth place in 2009. He’s done well targeting largemouth, often the winning pattern in Elite events on Oneida, but he might end up chasing smallmouth instead.

“There’s going to be a time when there’s enough of us fishing for largemouth that there won’t be as many big ones to go around, and the smallmouth will win,” Biffle said. “I’ll stick with whatever will get me into the Classic.”

For the Elite pros low on the points list, the “win-and-you’re-in rule” is the only door still open to the 2013 Classic. Also carrying a $100,000 first prize, the Oneida event title is on the wish lists of all 97 Elite pros.

The Ramada Championship will receive all-out coverage on Bassmaster.com. Onsite, fans are invited to watch the morning launches and weigh-ins in the afternoon.

The pros will launch their boats at Oneida Shores Park in Brewerton, N.Y., at 7 a.m., Aug. 23-24, and at 6:30 a.m., Aug. 25-26. The first two days, the weigh-ins will be at the park beginning at 4 p.m.

On the two final days, Aug. 25 and 26, the action will shift to 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 on Saturday and Sunday will begin at 4 p.m. During the tournament, the Angler of the Year will be crowned.

Host organizations 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.