Why the bass are biting at Oneida

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Ronnie Moore

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Nearly every one of the anglers competing in the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open on Oneida Lake expected the smallmouth bite to set the table for a successful tournament.

It did, but in reality, the forage fish those bass consume are the true table setters.

Goby minnows, perch, shad, crawfish – there’s a veritable smorgasbord swimming in Oneida Lake here in upstate New York. And a recent mayfly hatch doubled as aerial aesthetics for the anglers and flying snacks for the forage. The combined forces started a feeding frenzy and led to a rollicking start of the first Bassmaster Northern Open of the year.

Consider:

  • Of the 198 pros in the field, 150 of them caught a five-bass limit on Thursday.
  • A whopping 163 of them produced bags that weighed at least 10 pounds.
  • The biggest bass caught on Thursday weighed 5 pounds, 1 ounce, which means there were a lot of solid 2 and 3-pound smallies caught on Oneida Lake. Consistency was king.

What’s most impressive however is that a mere 2 pounds, 5 ounces separated first place and 40th place when Day 1 was complete.

How big a deal is that, you ask? Well, the angler who wins the tournament will take home a boat/motor package valued at nearly $50,000, as well as a berth in the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods should he fish the two remaining Northern Opens this season. The angler who finishes 40th, meanwhile, is the last person to collect a check before the field is cut to 12 for the final day of fishing.

That check usually is for about $2,000. It’s good pay for two days of competition, but it pales in comparison to the glory and prizes that are the spoils of finishing first.

What all this means, of course, is that the Northern Open here on Oneida is completely wide open with nearly every angler in the field maintaining a legitimate chance to win. And the reason is the tremendous amount of food in the water.

The goby is an invasive species from Russia and it got into Oneida Lake via the rivers connecting it to Lake Ontario. Several anglers this week have said gobies are like “steroids” to bass and that the smallmouths will aggressively attack the minnow much like it did on Thursday.

But it was more than just the bug-eyed gobies that made for great fishing on Day 1. Tournament leader Alex Wetherell of Middletown, Conn. said he saw bass chasing various kinds of forage on Thursday when he snared an 18-9 limit.

“I had mayflies and crawfish all over my boat today,” Wetherell said. “There are gobies and perch in the lake everywhere, and I even had to two shad spit up in my live well today. So the bass, they’re chewing.”
Chris Groh of Spring Grove, Ill. is only four ounces behind the leader with 18-5. He said the perch were the linchpin to his bites.

“It’s all perch,” he said. “Just unbelievable balls of perch. They’re all balled up, and there’s some cabbage and milfoil in there too. All kinds of fish are around those balls…I’m like ‘What is that?’ and it’s ball of 100 perch or more. It was incredible.”

Elite Series pro David Williams of Newton, N.C. is in a tie for 12th place with 17-5. He was happy to see the mayfly hatch and said it was vital to his success on Thursday.

“I’ve got a lot of bait fish around me coming up to eat the mayflies, but the thing is, the bass were really hard to catch,” Williams said. “I caught a few this morning, but then the wind got up and made them stop. That’s when they went to the gobies and the perch. You just have to get around some grass or some rocks and they’re usually hanging around there.”

Regardless of what forage they’re eating, the tremendous number of quality smallmouths caught Thursday further proved that Oneida seems to be getting stronger each season. In 2015, Randy Howell won the open here with a three-day total of 49-2. The 40th place angler that year caught 24-11 in two days, or just more than 6 pounds of Wetherell Day 1 total this year.

Last year, Wil Hardy won with 53-13 over three days and 40th place caught 29-9. Doubling Thursday’s totals, the winning three-day weight in the current tournament would be 55-11 and 40th place would 32-10.

“Fishing was a whole lot of fun today,’ said Forney, Tex. pro Steve Sennikoff. He entered Friday in a tie for 144th place, but with a 12-pound total on Day 1, he’s still only 6 ½ pounds away from the lead.

“These smallmouths are something else,” Sennikoff told the crowd at Thursday’s weigh-in. “It might take you a week or a month to catch this many smallmouth in Texas. There’s just a lot of them out there wanting to bite.”

The Day 2 launch of the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open No. 1 began at 6 a.m. from Oneida Shores County Park. Weigh-in will begin Friday at 2 p.m. at the same location.