SYRACUSE, New York – When Wil Hardy showed up for the first Bassmaster Northern Open of the 2016 season, he figured he’d be covering every inch of 50,000-acre Oneida Lake.
That’s because during practice rounds, he would get a bite or two in nearly every spot he fished before the area went cold. And so, he was forced to move again and again. Running and gunning seemed inevitable when the tournament finally started.
When it did, however, Hardy found a special place where he was able to load the livewell early and often all three days of the tournament. Hardy caught 15 bass in that open event for a total weight of 53 pounds, 13 ounces. It was enough to clinch a tournament championship and give the pro from Harlem, Ga., entry into the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods.
Hardy, now 27, is a year older, wiser and more confident heading into this year’s Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open on Oneida; the first of the three Northern Opens this year.
Competition begins Thursday morning with a 6 a.m. launch. Nearly 200 pro anglers and 200 co-anglers are here in upstate New York seeking the same glory Hardy achieved last year by earning a spot in the most prestigious bass tournament in the world.
“I didn’t do all that well in the Classic,” Hardy said of the tie for 51st (and last) place he shared with reigning Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle. “Still it was an incredible experience. I don’t know if it made me feel any different, but what it did was make it real. Before I won on Oneida, the Classic was something that other people did. Now, it’s something that’s attainable.”
Given the right circumstances, of course. Hardy is fishing both the Northern and Southern opens in 2017, and he hasn’t performed particularly well in either of the two tournaments in the South he’s entered this year (he was 96th on Florida’s Harris Chain of Lakes in January and 104th on Tennessee’s Lake Chickamauga in April.)
That’s not exactly the stuff of champions, but being back on Oneida has Hardy rejuvenated.
“I was catching one here and one there in practice last year, and I didn’t have really high hopes,” he said. “But on Day 1, I pulled up on my first spot and I caught 17 1/2 pounds. It shut off at about 10 or 11 a.m., but I had what I needed. I went to same place on Day 2 and did the same thing. At that point, I knew I had a shot to win. When it happened again on Day 3, it was like it was meant to be. I could have stayed there all week and caught fish.”
It’s that kind of random luck that has also Hardy thinking he has a chance in the 2017 Northern Open on Oneida. After a couple of decent practice days over the weekend, things slowed up for him when cool and cloudy weather rolled in overnight Sunday.
“Winning here last year didn’t take a particularly great deal of skill on my part,” Hardy said. “The spot was just incredible. I fished harder on the James River (in the second Northern Open of 2016), and I finished 98th. Things just come together some times.”
Hardy has steadily improved on this lake. He said he didn’t catch five bass the first time he competed here in 2013 (he had 6 pounds in two days of fishing), but he cashed a check in 2015 (26th place). A year later, he won the tournament and was off to the Classic.
Hardy said he’ll do everything he can to reach the brass ring of bass fishing one more time. Not wanting to tip his hand to competing anglers, he said he didn’t practice in the spot that helped him win a championship here a year ago.
All that changes Thursday a.m. at safe light.
“You can guarantee that’s the first spot I’ll go,” Hardy said. “Maybe I catch a whole bunch of good fish. And maybe I catch only one 4-pounder, but it’s the beginning of a good day…I don’t know what to expect. I’m not the expert out here. But I’m going to give it all I have. You can definitely expect that.”
Launch begins Thursday-Saturday at Oneida Shores Park, 9400 Bartell Road, in Brewerton, N.Y. Weigh-in on Day 1 and 2 will begin at 2 p.m. ET at the same location. The Day 3 weigh-in will be held at the Bass Pro Shops location at 1579 Clark St. Road in Auburn, N.Y. The drive-through finale featuring the trimmed field of the top 12 pros and another dozen co-anglers is scheduled to begin at 3:15 p.m. on Saturday.
The winning pro will win a boat/motor package valued at approximately $50,000 as well as a spot in the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods provided he fishes in the other two Northern Opens this year. Those tournaments are scheduled for the James River in Virginia this August and Tennessee’s Douglas Lake in September.