AUBURN, N.Y. – The smallmouth bite on Oneida Lake was incredible.
The smallies already were fat, and yet they still were hungry. Just about every angler in the field was hammering them, and it was that bite that figured to make or break an angler's chances of winning the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open No. 1 presented by DICK's Sporting Goods.
Stanley Sypeck Jr. had other plans, though. From the start of the three-day tournament, he figured largemouth bass would be key to winning on Oneida. It certainly wasn't the most-popular strategy, but it definitely was the most effective.
Sypeck weighed the big bag of the tournament on Saturday when he presented a five-bass limit that tipped the scales at 20 pounds, 7 ounces. That was enough to vault Sypeck from seventh place into first, and it sealed the victory for the Pennsylvania pro here in upstate New York.
Sypeck won more than $9,000 in cash as well as a Nitro Z20 bass boat with a Mercury 225 Pro XS engine for the win. He also earned a spot in next year's GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK'S Sporting Goods provided he fishes the Northern Open events on the James River in Virginia this August and on Tennessee's Douglas Lake in September.
It was a thrilling come-from-behind win for the 50-year old Sypeck. He started the tournament on Thursday with an 18-1 bag that put him third place. He slipped to seventh place on Friday with 17-0, but was only a mere 27 ounces out of the lead with a day of fishing remaining.
Had Sypeck caught a lighter bag on Saturday, he still would have been well within striking distance of the anglers ahead of him, many of whom caught lighter bags on Day 3 as heavy rain and strong winds from the east buffeted Oneida Lake.
But Sypeck's bite continued despite the foul weather. He had five fat largemouths in his sack on Saturday; the heaviest weighing 5-4 which won the Phoenix Boats Big Bass Award on Day 3 and also was the heaviest bass of the tournament. Sypeck's was the only bag of the week that topped 20 pounds and it helped him blow past the competition in what had been an extremely close tournament. He wound up winning by more than 3 pounds when the Top 12 was separated by less than that margin heading into the final day of fishing.
Sypeck said he decided to fish for largemouths just before the tournament started, even though he had just spent $300 on drop-shots preparing to fish for smallmouths. And for three hours on Day 1, he did fish for smallies. The result was disappointing.
"I didn't get a bite when I was out deep drop-shotting," he said. "So I switched up and went after largemouths. I caught 18 pounds on Day 1, but still the next day, I spent the first two hours with a drop-shot. Didn't get a bite again. So that was it. I switched to largemouths for good. I knew that's what I would do all day today."
Sypeck fished isolated rock piles and weed lines in anywhere from 6-9 feet of water. When the water on Oneida rose nearly 1 foot overnight Saturday, he had to move to shallower water.
"At one point this morning I had five fish in the boat for 6 pounds," Sypeck said. "I had to go even shallower. I was at 5 or 6 feet today and I probably hit 25 or 30 different spots."
Sypeck threw one lure all week to catch the largemouths – a 7/16 jig (Cumberland Craw color.) He tried to mimic the forage crawfish present throughout the lake, and the plan worked.
"A local guy here in New York makes them for us," Sypeck said. "That was the one thing that I went to all week. It worked."
Sypeck lives about three hours from Oneida in Sugarloaf, Penn., but he has a camp here and he fishes on the lake about 100 times a year, he estimated. The familiarity with Oneida paid off, he added, as he's won numerous tournaments at various levels on this body of water through the years. He never had won a Bassmaster Open though – until Saturday. Sypeck's son Jordan was a co-angler in the tournament, and having him in the crowd to witness the moment of victory was special.
"It finally worked out" Sypeck said, choking back tears. "Your dream is to go to the Classic. You see it on TV and think it would be nice. Now to say you're going; it's just unbelievable."
Wesley Strader of Spring City, Tenn., finished second with a three-day total of 52-3. Glynn Goodwin of Marietta, Ohio, placed third with 51-14. He had the same overall weight at Connecticut pro Alex Wetherell, but Goodwin claimed third with the heaviest sack tiebreaker.
The remainder of the Top 12 are: Fifth, Patrick Walters, 51-3; sixth, JT Kenney, 50-0; seventh, Chad Pipkens, 49-5; eighth, Steve York, 49-4; ninth, Josh Douglas, 48-3; 10th, Kyle Kempkers, 47-5; 11th, John Garrett, 46-14; and 12th, Jason Putnam, 46-13.
Mike Elkins of Kalamazoo, Mich., won the co-angler division with a three-day total of 29-9. He was the last co-angler to weigh-in on Saturday and his three-bass limit of 10-3 edged him into the top spot. Elkins won at Triton 179 TrX boat and Mercury 115 ELPT 4-stroke outboard with the win.
The tournament started with 396 anglers (198 pros and the same number of co-anglers.) Each field was trimmed to the Top 12 for Saturday's competition.
The Syracuse Convention and Visitors Bureau is hosting this Bassmaster Northern Open.