SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Liam Blake was just the fourth angler to weigh in on Championship Saturday of the St. Croix Bassmaster Northern Open at Oneida Lake presented by Mossy Oak Fishing weigh-in, but he spent the majority of it occupying the hot seat. The Syracuse native caught over 18 pounds of smallmouth on Championship Saturday, putting himself in position for his first Opens win.
But the final angler in the bag line was not only the Day 2 leader, but also his best friend and mentor. Casey Smith of Victor, N.Y., took Blake fishing for the first time when Blake was just 16 years old and since that moment, their bond has only strengthened.
“This is the perfect scenario,” Blake said on stage. “We met when I was 16, and we talk two or three times a week. He is one of my best friends … he’s the man.”
Mentor and student stood side by side as Smith’s bag of smallmouth sat on the scales, Blake’s arm around Smith’s shoulder, and when tournament director Hank Weldon declared Smith the winner, the two New York anglers embraced before Blake exited stage left and Smith hoisted the trophy in front of his family and friends in an emotional celebration.
“That was very bittersweet. He is my best friend,” Smith said of Blake. “I have taught that kid a lot about fishing, and he teaches me now. If I can’t win, I want him to win. It is hard to watch him take second when I know how bad he wants it and needs it. He needs to win to be the monster he is going to be. I am upset I took that moment from him. It is good to see him succeed, and we are first and second coming back to the house tonight.
“He is going to win his fair share. There is no doubt about that,” Smith added.
Both anglers established they would be contenders early on in the event, with Smith landing in sixth after Day 1 and Blake not too far behind in 16th. As Smith jumped to the lead on the second day with nearly a 19-pound bag, Blake jumped into sixth heading into the final day after catching just under 18 pounds.
While locals, Oneida Lake has changed quite a bit over the last few years, and it required anglers like Smith and Blake to acquire a new approach.
“Liam is part of the reason I know how to fish this lake so well,” Smith said. “I was on top of this place pretty good and then I had lost track of it as things changed with the gobies. He and a little group of us dedicated ourselves to relearning the lake. The Opens are here every year, and I knew it would be necessary. He’s seen me over the last few years of little tougher times and struggling in tournaments. He got the phone calls when I was struggling. So to be standing up here at the same time as him is pretty sweet.”
His friend may have bested him this time around, but as Blake noted before the weights became final, Smith will get the opportunity of a lifetime next spring.
“I didn’t fish the James River, and he did. So I have half a mind to say I hope he pulls it out,” Blake said. “If he makes the Bassmaster Classic, I’ll be down there.”
Smith’s victory on Saturday marked the second time in as many years a New York local claimed the trophy at Oneida. Last year it was Bill Perkins of Rochester who left with the top prize. Smith’s local knowledge helped him decipher a fishery where the bass were constantly moving.
Postspawn and early summer smallmouth called for constant adjustments to be made throughout the week, whether that was a change in presentation or evolving with the weather.
Even though quality largemouth did hit the scales throughout the event, the Top 10 anglers proved smallmouth were the species of choice to contend for the victory. Of the 44 bass measured on the final day, 43 were smallmouth.
Top anglers use similar presentations to land smallies
When you talk about catching Northern smallmouth, several baits come to mind no matter the time of year. Drop shots, Ned rigs, hair jigs and football jigs were the popular bait choices of the Top 10 anglers on Oneida Lake.
The drop shot, arguably the most popular smallmouth technique throughout the North country right now, was present on the decks of at least five of the 10 anglers along with many more anglers scattered throughout the field. Carolina rigs and jerkbaits were also popular bait choices.
Speaking with many of the local anglers who competed, the days of Oneida being an excellent topwater fishery are gone with the introduction of gobies to the system. That, however, didn’t keep anglers like Coop Gallant, Jacopo Gallelli, Cody Meyer and Craig Townsend from catching key fish on a popper style bait.
Grae Buck differed from the field slightly. While he caught bass on the drop shot, he also utilized a deep-diving crankbait.
Kenta Kimura probably had the most unique presentation as he utilized a weightless creature bait he designed for Berkley Japan called the Jago Rocket.
He would drift with the wind across the structure he was fishing, making sure his bait would touch the bottom where the smallmouth were hunkered down. Although tedious, with 10 minute or more casts, Kimura notched his second top five of the Northern Opens schedule.
Pitching and flipping creature baits in grass has always been a productive way to catch largemouth. Townsend flipped a Strike King Rage Bug into patches of grass holding smallmouth.