UTICA, N.Y. — Back in 2008, Carl Jocumsen won the Australian Bass Tournament equivalent of the Bassmaster Classic. Called the Grand Final, the winner receives all-expenses paid trip, including entry fees, to the tournament of their choice in the U.S.
The rest is history, as the story goes for Jocumsen, who worked his way up through the ranks of the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens to reach Bassmaster Elite Series status two years ago.
Fast forward to the present. This year's Grand Final winner was Peter Phelps, 31, of Hunter Valley in New South Wales. For his prize, the power plant employee chose to fish as a co-angler at the Open on Oneida Lake.
The dream trip began the week prior at the Busch Beer Bassmaster Elite at Cayuga Lake, where Phelps spent two days as a marshal. After the tournament he went fishing with Jocumsen on Onondaga Lake near Syracuse.
"I've followed the Bassmaster tours online for years and this was a dream trip," said Phelps. "Carl is just a fish-catching freak and to spend time with him was unreal."
Phelps is the Australian tournament version of his now-famous mate. Phelps won the Grand Final fishing with a jig pattern, something unheard of in Australia until recently.
"He's the first Australian tournament angler to win using the technique," beamed Jocumsen.
"We watch what American anglers are doing and adapt those techniques to our fishing in Australia," explained Phelps.
Australian tournament anglers fish for barramundi. It's a bass-like fish with the same predator instincts. Barramundi are caught using American techniques and tackle.
It was completely coincidental that three Australians competed at the Northern Open on Oneida Lake. That's never happened before in American bass tournament fishing.
Another Australian, Shane Compain, joined Jocumsen and Phelps. Compain, of Humpty Doo in the Northern Territory, is the owner of Top End Tackle World, a tackle shop in his hometown.
Ironically, Compain had no idea of Phelps' trip to the states. Before the tournament he'd not met Jocumsen, although he is a fan and Facebook follower of the famous Australian.
"I'd been thinking about coming over here for about three years to fish in a tournament," said Compain. "To meet Carl was great since I've watched him become successful."
Compain hopes to return and compete in American tournaments.
"I've done about all I can in Australian bass tournaments and want to try it here," he said.
The Day 1 and 2 catches by anglers and co-anglers at Oneida were impressive, given the daily total weight of the collective catches. The cumulative Day 1 catch weighed over 3,500 pounds. Day 2 was slightly less, due in part to developing high winds, with 2,900 pounds.
"Oneida is just a rich bass fishery and one of the best in the state," noted Chris Bowes, senior tournament manager and a native of Syracuse.
Great bass fishing is all around his hometown, in fact. To the northwest is Lake Ontario, a premier smallmouth fishery. The Finger Lakes, including Cayuga, are about an hour drive.
B.A.S.S. first visited Oneida Lake in 2003. Since then the western New York fishery is a regular stop, mostly for the Opens and occasionally for the Elite Series.
Until B.A.S.S. showed up the bass fishing focus was on smallmouth. In 2006 Tommy Biffle cast the spotlight on largemouth after winning an Elite Series event with 63 pounds, 10 ounces. Largemouth made up most of that weight. Since then mixed bag wins have grown common on Oneida.
This go around smallmouth played the starring role on Oneida. Smallmouth easily accounted for most of the bass caught during the event. A likely reason is the expanding food supply available to the bass and especially the smallmouth.
"The forage base in this lake is changing and in a good way, even though it's due to exotic species," noted Mike Iaconelli, who finished sixth with 48 pounds, 7 ounces.
Round goby are the reason why. The bottom dwelling fish shares the same offshore habitat as the smallmouth, super charging their food supply in deeper water where they congregate around the lake's rocky shoals.
Just like home
Joel Willert brought his smallmouth bass fishing skills from Minnesota and went back home with a new boat. Willert caught 29-9 to win the co-angler division and a fully rigged Triton Boat powered by Mercury. Willert fished a drop shot and Ned Rig to target smallmouth all week. On Day 1 he fished with Shayne Barlow and the next day with Steve Mui. The final day was a bonus as his partner was pro winner Wil Hardy.
Any given Open series final day weigh-in is usually held at a Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World. In recent years the Syracuse weigh-ins were held at the store in Auburn, N.Y., just west of Syracuse.
This year the Top 12 weighed in at the Bass Pro Shops Outpost in Utica. The entire store is a tribute to the vast diversity of the central New York landscape, history and the culture of the people. Hand painted murals from renowned artists depict scenes of the nearby Adirondack Park. State and record wildlife mounts are displayed alongside local period prints depicting early New Yorkers enjoying sporting adventures.