This year Oneida offered up a mix of the old and the new. Chad Griffin, Elite Series rookie from Cresson, Texas, and winner of the event, was part of the new. Dean Rojas, longtime pro from Lake Havasu, Ariz., and last year's victor, finished a close third. In between them stood Ardmore, Okla., resident Jeff Kriet, trying once again to earn his first Elite Series win.Here's how they did it.
(1st Place — 65 pounds, 10 ounces)
Alaska transplant Chad Griffin was forced to face an ugly reality going into the Oneida event. "I said going into this thing that if I didn't win, I couldn't fish the Elites next year. The reality of my situation was that I didn't have the money for another season."Even second place wouldn't have been enough. I went so far as to have guide business cards printed so I could go to work this week. I'm thankful that wasn't God's plan for me."Although Griffin had never fished Oneida before the official practice, he studied past results with great care."I knew Iaconelli had caught heavy sacks flipping the grass last year, so that's what I decided to do. I also knew that a lot of bass are caught in the 6- to 11-foot range, so I limited my search to that depth range."
Griffin began his largemouth search across the river from the launch, no more than eight minutes from the ramp. His usual grass strategy is to flip and pitch at random until he gets a bite. Only then does he stop and compile information.
"You can almost always find bass in grass, but it changes from day to day. I try to figure out things like the types of grass that are holding bass, water depth, the angle of the sun and anything else I see in the area. But you can only do that after you've caught one."Once you have a pattern, you can concentrate on finding similar places in the lake you're fishing. The bite changes, and they may move a ways, but they'll never stay away from home for very long."
His theory was perfect on Day 1. He caught bass more or less all day, including the biggest of the tournament. Come Day 2, however, his flipping bite dropped to almost nothing. As he was sitting in his boat, thinking about what he should do next, a huge school of smallies erupted in the middle of the bay.He immediately reached for an old Zell Rowland popper he had in his boat and began firing away.
"That's how I caught most of my better fish the final three days. I threw to the ones busting the surface and over the top of them when they weren't as active. It all worked out well. I weighed 10 largemouth and 10 smallmouth over the four days."Griffin's topwater lure was an XCalibur Zell Pop — chartreuse top, white bottom, with a feathered hook on the back."There's no telling how old that lure was. The hooks were rusted and had stained the sides of the bait. I had to replace all the hardware before the tournament. Who knows, maybe that's why it caught so many fish. I was heartbroken when I lost it."Griffin lost his lure on the final day of competition when his line broke on the reel spool. He never caught another keeper after that.His topwater rod was a 7-foot, heavy action Rick Morris RMC Rattle Trap Special. His reel was a Shimano Curado (6.2:1 gear ratio) spooled with 20-pound-test Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon.
"I used the heavy rod and fluorocarbon line because I didn't want problems getting my bass out of the grass. The fluorocarbon had another purpose, too. As it sank, it pulled the nose of my Zell Pop down toward the water. That gave it a much deeper and louder bloop as it moved along. That was one of the keys to my success.
"This is a lesson which explains why every fishing rule has an exception. No one ever uses fluorocarbon with a topwater lure. It sinks. But that's exactly what I needed this week to win and be able to continue with my career."
(2nd Place — 63 pounds, 6 ounces)
Jeff Kriet had two patterns going; both of them involved fishing with tubes and homemade jigheads. When it was cloudy I'd fish on the bottom over deep shoals and eel grass. I was always fishing between 8 and 16 feet deep. When the sun was out and the water slicked over, however, I targeted suspended bass in the 3- to 18-foot range. Those were my biggest ones."I used my Lowrance LCX-113 to spot baitfish and the bass hanging around them. I'd count down my bait — a Big Bite Tube — to where they were and then swim it through the school.
"I mostly threw green pumpkin, but the color wasn't all that important. What was important was the rate of fall. I rigged five rods with five of my homemade jigheads on them ranging in weight from 1/8 to 1/2 ounce. That allowed me to meet the needs of the fish — slow to fast."Kriet said he needed a soft tip on his rod but a tough backbone and a really fast reel to efficiently fish his suspended bass."I fished with a 7-foot, 2-inch Falcon Swim Jig Special rod and a 7:1 gear ratio Abu Garcia Revo reel spooled with 12-pound-test Hi-Seas fluorocarbon line.
"That rod design let me load up on the bass before I set the hook. If you jerk too quick when suspended bass bite, you pull the lure away. They'll chase it and the whole school will follow. You've lost them.
"If you let them load up the rod before you set the hook — with a gentle and soft motion — they'll keep hunting the bait even if they spit it out. You'll catch a lot more of them that way.
The fast gear ratio on my reel enabled me to get the bait back quickly and make another cast in another direction when necessary. I was able to get my lure to the bass before they had a chance to move. With schooling bass that often makes the difference between catching them and not catching them."
(3rd Place — 59 pounds, 3 ounces)
"Basically, I just covered miles and miles of water with my Bronzeye Frog," said Rojas. "I fished anything I could find along the shoreline — grass, wood, rock, docks — anything that I thought might hold a fish."I think the thing that helps me in situations like that is confidence and commitment. I know that Oneida is made for my frog. I made the commitment to fish for largemouth with it and never looked back. It's really that simple." In Rojas' world commitment means fishing for as long as three hours without a bite, knowing that they'll come eventually and that when they do a heavy sack will be his."You have to believe — know — that you're fishing with the hot bait and that eventually it'll pay off. A lot of guys say they'll commit to largemouth on Oneida, but when the going gets tough they move out and target smallmouth. I didn't do that, and it paid off for me."Rojas threw his black Spro Dean Rojas Bronzeye Frog with his Quantum Dean Rojas Tour Edition PT Signature Series Frog Rod (Model PTC706FDR) and a Quantum Tour Edition PT Burner reel (7.1:1 gear ratio) spooled with 55-pound-test Izorline braid.