SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Don't let the Cresson, Texas, mailing address fool you. Chad Griffin, leading the Ramada Champion's Choice on Oneida Lake as the remaining 50 anglers head out for the third day of competition, is truly a northerner.
In this case, north doesn't mean New York, Wisconsin or even Montana. We're talking serious latitude — he spent the first two decades of his life in the great white north of Alaska. He fished, but the quarry was typically salmon and trout.
"I didn't bass fish until I was 22 years old," he said.
Despite his late discovery of the sport, something must've clicked because in the past decade he's risen to the top echelons of the sport. As a result, he finds himself a few credits shy of his bachelor's degree.
"I finished three years of college but I didn't finish up because it was tough to go to class when the fish were spawning," he said.
Despite the lack of a diploma, his education hasn't stopped. On his first trip to Oneida, and only his second time fishing in New York, he finds himself with a murderer's row of bass pros nipping at his heels. Griffin has a one and a half pound lead over second-place contender Bernie Schultz of Florida. In a tournament where the weights are tight, he finds himself with a comparatively monstrous lead of over four and a half pounds over the angler in 12th, Virginia's John Crews.
Griffin is fishing an EZEE Jig of his own design and manufacture. The color is "Conroe Craw," which is "a peanut butter and jelly kind of skirt, with brown and purple strands," he explained. He's tipping it with a "Sprayed Grass" colored Reaction Innovations Sweet Beaver. The combination of the two resembles a bluegill, he believes.
"These fish are feeding on brim," he said. "They're all very healthy."
He fished a 1½-ounce jig the first two days, but also had a 1-ounce model on the deck today. While he's apparently taken a shine to fishing in New York, the technique is straight-up Lone Star state.
"I can relate it to Choke Canyon or Amistad," he said, referring to two well-known south Texas fish factories. "I'm not really flipping it as much as dropping it."
He added that he has six different "scrapes," a Texas term for caverns in the deep, thick grass where numbers of big bass can congregate.
"Some have largemouth, some have smallmouth," he said. "On one of my best largemouth holes the smallmouth moved them out."
Griffin's first two bags of fish have weighed 15-3 and 18-8, respectively. Although the smaller of the two included the big fish of the tournament so far, a 5-8 brute of a northern largemouth, that day on the whole was a disappointment.
"That first day, my first 12 bites I landed zero fish," he recalled. "I thought I'd have 18 to 20 pounds each day."
Once he got into that range yesterday around 11 o'clock, he pulled off his best areas and went practicing, and still managed to cull a few more times.
He claims not to be intimidated by the anglers pursuing him — "I've been fishing against legends in Texas for the past 10 years," he said — but noted that after a tough rookie campaign if he were to win the final event of the year he'd likely get emotional.
"I'd break down like a little girl," he said. "You don't want to see that."
Another rookie who has made big strides over the past two events is Billy McCaghren of Arkansas. He snuck into the third day cut at 48th, earning a check, but more importantly strengthening his bid to qualify for a Bassmaster Classic berth.
With Matt Herren leading the Rookie of the Year race since the season-opener at Amistad, McCaghren generally flew under the radar until the seventh tournament of the year, on the Mississippi River in Iowa, where he led before ultimately falling to fellow Mayflower, Ark., resident Kevin Short.
He said the key to his success in recent events has been to press on the gas with a little more oomph. "I just fished a little harder," he explained. "I'm grinding it out."
But he has also learned when it's time to take a more laid-back approach. When a Day One haul of 10-14 left him near the bottom of the standings this week, he didn't panic.
"I didn't go looking for something that I didn't find in practice," he said. Instead, he slowed down and sacked a 14-13 limit.
The emotional roller coaster didn't stop, there, however. He had to wait for the rest of the field to weigh in before he'd know whether he'd get to fish another day and thereby remain in control of his own destiny.
"My wife went and loaded up my stuff and I hung around," he recalled. "I stayed and watched the whole thing."
When the scales closed, he'd snuck in by a mere two ounces.
Friday was a good day for two rookies fishing far from home, but not far out of their element.