Revenge or repeat performance?

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but a cooler head might prevail in Syracuse in the Ramada Championship, Aug. 23-26.

Among the favorites to win on Oneida Lake are leaders in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year (AOY) race with distinctly different histories here. AOY leader Brent Chapman and current second-runner-up in points, Todd Faircloth, have fared especially poorly here, never having made a Sunday cut. Dean Rojas and Randy Howell, on the other hand, can boast several Top 10 finishes between them, including a Rojas win in 2008.

And then there’s always Kevin VanDam to consider.

So who’s in the best position to win?

Inform your Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing pick by reviewing anglers’ past performances here and analyzing some of the intangibles beyond the data. And keep in mind that most — if not all — anglers will need to target both largemouth and smallmouth to win.

Todd Faircloth

You can’t talk about Oneida without mentioning Faircloth, who enters this year’s event here third in AOY points. In 2008, he was leading the AOY race heading into an Elite Series season finale on Oneida but tanked, finishing 93rd and “opening the door for Kevin VanDam and ending his best chance to date for an AOY crown,” as reported recently.

So it’s tempting to pit Faircloth in the underdog role here, assigning to him special motivation to take revenge on the lake that dealt him one of the worst blows of his professional careers. Do so, however, with caution, as the soft-spoken Texan’s other finishes on Oneida include zero Top 12 cuts: 36th in 2006, 26th in 2007 and 23rd in 2009. His average finish? 45th.

Dean Rojas

Judging on past performance alone, you could pick Rojas and feel pretty comfortable. He won here in 2008 and in three other tournaments here since 2006, he’s finished third, fourth and 38th (12th-place average).

Momentum makes Rojas an even better pick. In the last four Elite Series events, he’s finished in the Top 10 three times — fourth on Douglas Lake and Green Bay, and eighth on the Mississippi River. And he finished 11th in the season opener on the St. Johns River.

Need another reason to pick Rojas? Oneida sets up perfectly for Rojas’ signature bait, a topwater frog.

“This lake is really conducive to the way I fish,” Rojas told in 2008. “It has a lot of shallow grass and I can use a couple of techniques that I excel at.”

Rojas will undoubtedly target largemouth grass and other shallow cover with his beloved Spro Bronzeye frog, as he did when he won and made Top 10’s here.

But doesn’t current conventional wisdom hold that a mixed bag of both largemouth AND smallmouth will be necessary to win here this year?

Yes. But that need not deter you from picking Rojas.

Remember that Rojas benched his frog last month on Green Bay in favor of a drop shot rig and was rewarded with a fourth-place finish.

“Today I had to completely change what I was doing,” he told after taking the Day Two lead on Green Bay. “I caught them all deep — 9 to 20 feet — on a drop shot rig.”

So, if he has to, Rojas can supplement his shallow largemouth haul with deep smallmouth.

The only factor working against Rojas is that he has less to fish for than some other competitors, which could cause him to fish conservatively. At 10th place in the Angler of the Year race, he has virtually guaranteed himself a berth in the 2013 Bassmaster Classic, but he is far enough back in points to have little chance to win AOY. He doesn’t NEED to make the Sunday cut here to qualify for the Classic. Will he ease off and fish a conservative game plan, or will he boldly fish to win?

Judging by the fire in Rojas’ eyes when I interviewed him last month at ICAST, another Top 10 would not surprise me. He was practically licking his chops to get back out on Oneida. At only 8.2 percent ownership (at the time of this writing), he offers good Fantasy Fishing value.

Kevin VanDam

KVD is a threat in any tournament, especially a tournament north of the Mason-Dixon Line in which smallmouth could be a factor. Still, in the last four events here, KVD has finished in the Top 10 only once, a third-place finish in early July 2006. His other finishes: 22nd in 2007; 38th, 2008; and 27th, 2009.

With his 23rd-place average finish and 53.3 percent Fantasy Fishing ownership, KVD offers little value as a roster here. You’d be better off picking an angler with a combination of low ownership, solid past performance and momentum.

As far as intangibles go, KVD will be fishing to win – as he stated in his column recently. But will that steam be enough to overtake Chapman and others who, with a win here, have a more achievable chance to win AOY? More than a half-dozen AOY leaders would have to tank epically for KVD to repeat as AOY.

Then again, this is KVD’s last chance to win an event, a feat he’s accomplished every year since 2006, when his best finish was second. In 2011, KVD’s win came in the Bassmaster Classic, not in the regular season, but he was able to finish high enough consistently to win the AOY for the seventh time. In that season, he scored enough points to win AOY before the final day of the last regular season tournament, so he didn’t need to win that event to repeat as AOY. So, did he let off the gas on Sunday? Of course not. He finished second, narrowly, to David Walker (who needed to win to qualify for the Classic). The lesson here? Don’t expect KVD to let up.

Randy Howell

At 1.1 percent ownership, Randy Howell is an intriguing pick.

In five events here dating back to 2006 (including an Open), Howell’s average finish is 17th place — fifth in 2011; 26th, 2009; 20th, 2008; ninth, 2007; and 24th, 2006.

Howell’s momentum, however, has slowed after he started the 2012 Bassmaster Elite Series season with two Top 10s and two Top 15s. He faltered on Toledo Bend and Green Bay, with 75th- and 58th-place finishes, respectively. He did, however, place 11th between those two finishes by fishing a frog around shallow grass and cover on the Mississippi River, so Oneida sets up well for a bounce back.

Brent Chapman

So, how does AOY leader Chapman stack up against Oneida? Not very well. In the last four Elite Series events here, he averaged a 50th-place finish (38th, 40th, 49th and 71st). That said, Chapman is fishing better than ever this year, and he has the look and feel of a man on a mission.

Chapman’s last three finishes this season — 20th, 27th and 22nd — fell short of his momentum-building start, which saw him place in the Top 5 three times. But his finishes in the 20s followed a victory on Toledo Bend that double-qualified him for the Bassmaster Classic (he first qualified by winning a Central Open prior to the Elite Series season kickoff), so it’s understandable if he let off the gas a little in those events, playing it just safe enough to protect his AOY standing and not swinging for the fences.

Here at Oneida, though, everything is on the line, so don’t expect Chapman to fish as conservatively. If he goes down, he’ll go down swinging.

In an ensuing column, I’ll handicap Buckets B, C, D and E. Stay tuned!


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