SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Smallmouth bass ruled a slick-calm day at the Basspro.com Bassmaster Eastern Open on Oneida Lake, and Day 1 leader Grae Buck of Harleyville, Pa., bagged 17 pounds, 12 ounces of brown bass to establish the lead pace.
He holds a 4-ounce advantage over second-place Ben Nielsen of Lowell, Mich., and Patrick Walters of Summerville, S.C., both of whom weighed five-fish limits for 17-8. Walters actually anchored his bag with a largemouth, which was the only green bass caught by the Top 3.
A strong storm front swept through the area mid-week, which colored the water, and overcast conditions gave way to sun and slick-calm conditions most of the day. The famous schools of Oneida smallmouth failed to materialize, and several of the day's top limits were caught junk fishing, while several others came through slow and meticulous finesse fishing.
Only 12 pros will earn the right to fish Day 3, and such tough conditions should paint a backdrop full of drama during Friday’s second round, as the junk fishermen battle the finesse fishermen, again under high, clear skies and light winds.
Buck has only fished one previous B.A.S.S. event at Oneida, an Open in 2013 that produced a 16th-place finish. But fans who follow Oneida events closely will no doubt recognize his name because he's won two BFLs here, the most recent of which was four short weeks ago.
Buck has a lot of Oneida history, which he said helped him after missing more than a day of practice due to his cousin's wedding. Overall, Buck described his practice as “tough.”
"In practice I checked two main areas I knew — one had them, one didn't — so I fished that one today and hit them hard," Buck said. "There were a few other boats in there, but I was the only one who caught them, so I hope I can fish there tomorrow.
"I've spent a lot of time here, and I'm just sort of out there picking at them. The lake has mixed rock and grass, which I love, and I just hope I can keep catching them."
Buck caught most of his weight during a morning flurry, but added a 4-plus-pounder around 1:30 p.m., which he caught in deeper water. His goal is to make the 2020 Bassmaster Classic, he said, and a win here would put him in.
"Overall, I'm very happy with how the day went,” he said. “I drop shotted a Cornerstone Baits Shimmy Shot, which is what I won the BFL on."
Nielsen made the trek from Michigan and things started slowly for him this morning, he said. But he eventually moved into one patch of water that produced four of the five smallmouth he weighed. With a fairly decent sack of fish, he decided against going to his remaining two areas, in anticipation of Friday.
There were a few other boats in his primary area, but given his competitive position, Nielsen hopes he'll have some room to move around more there tomorrow, in addition to fishing his two other spots held in reserve.
He noted he's fishing a moving bait and he's "fairly optimistic about tomorrow."
Walters, a Bassmaster Elite Series pro, likewise mentioned the slow nature of the fishing overall, and estimated he boated just one fish per hour. He culled only four times on his way to 17-8, and each time he replaced a largemouth with a smallmouth.
"I fished half-half," Walters said. "I fished half the day on my practice water and half the day on new water. I have 14 rods on my deck — seven casting, seven spinning — and I'm junk fishing. You just have to run around and work hard and hope to get lucky.
"I'm going to do the same thing tomorrow," Walters added. "I feel good about it. Sometimes you cull 10 times and things don't work out. Sometimes you cull five times and they do work out. Today it worked out."
Kyle Welcher (Opelika, Ala.) and Chris Kingree (Inverness, Fla.) tied for the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Day with a 4-13.
Japanese angler Dai Kitajima leads the co-angler division with a three-fish limit that weighed 11-14. He doesn't speak English, but his pro Trevor Fitzgerald did note that Kitajima is a "remarkably patient and skilled finesse angler, and he spent the day dropshotting."
Also notable is that Elite Series pro Jamie Hartman, a native of nearby Baldwinsville, N.Y., continues his roll and currently sits in fourth with 17-6. He has won two of the past three Elite events (Cayuga Lake and Lake Guntersville).
"I fished very settled today," Hartman said. "I caught probably 25 bass, and I never felt any pressure out there. It was a great day."
The tournament resumes Friday with takeoff at 6:30 a.m. ET from Oneida Shores Park. The Friday weigh-in begins there at 2:30 p.m. The final weigh-in on Saturday is at 3:30 p.m. at Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Auburn, N.Y., near the north tip of Owasco Lake.
The event is hosted by Visit Syracuse and Onondaga County Parks.