SYRACUSE, N.Y. — After catching a limit weighing 14 pounds by 8:30 a.m., Spike Stoker went on a shopping spree, returning around noon to fill out his Day 1 limit of 17 pounds, 2 ounces at the Basspro.com Bassmaster Open underway on Oneida Lake.
Was he crazy? Not at all. The lithium batteries in his boat went kaput, leaving him without power for his trolling motor. Stoker had no other choice than to return to the shore and go shopping for new batteries, after receiving the okay from Senior Tournament Manager Chris Bowes.
His first stop at an outdoor sporting goods retailer was a bust. The sales associates recommended a battery store in Syracuse, and Stoker phoned ahead to have them ready for pickup.
While Stoker’s limit swam around in his livewell, the tournament service crews performed at NASCAR pit crew speed to install the new gel batteries and get him back in action.
“Those guys were great and got me back on the water in no time,” Stoker said.
Stoker went back out and filled his limit. Saving the day was key, as Stoker sits currently in 3rd place in the Northern division of the Falcon Rods Angler of the Year standings.
“I don’t really fish much for smallmouth, so I’ve adapted something that I do for offshore largemouth back home to this tournament,” said Stoker, of Cisco, Texas.
Here are other notable happenings from Day 1.
Where are the birds?
In previous summertime derbies on Oneida, the presence of diving gulls was a giveaway of schooling and feeding smallmouth, which pushed perch to the surface. That semi-pattern is less likely to be happening.
“The smallmouth are looking down, not up,” Tom Knee said. The Pennsylvania angler took 5th place with 17-11.
The blooming population of round goby is the reason why. The smallmouth are looking down, and for, the bottom-dwelling exotic first discovered in the lake in 2013. There are so many in the lake that the smallmouth have transitioned from perch to goby as their primary forage.
The smallmouth diet shifting from perch isn’t the only factor that is changing the fishing dynamics at Oneida Lake. Anglers are also shifting their bait selection to line up with goby behavior.
Previously, perch gathered in large schools and roamed about the lake, with the smallmouth ambushing them from the concealment of the isolated vegetation growing over offshore rockpiles. That made reaction baits an ideal choice.
“That’s changed our bait selection to more finesse choices,” said Thomas Hughes, a local angler from Cicero, N.Y. “We still use horizontal tactics but the vertical presentations are much more productive.”
Hughes took 3rd place after Day 1 with 18-2. He ditched his plan to begin with a topwater pattern after the wind kicked up on the main lake, blowing strong from the east.
“East is least here, and it threw a complete curve ball in what I planned to do,” he said. “We don’t like fishing those conditions here, because of how it repositions the fish, but we are oftentimes forced to fish that way.”
Like the nearby Finger Lakes, Oneida gets its shape and geology from retreating glaciers. As the glaciers disappeared, they carved the lake bottom unevenly. Shoals popped up around Oneida. The largest, Shackleton Shoals, rises nearly dead center of the lake and ranges in depth between 6 and 26 feet. Not surprisingly, the shoals became prime habitat for smallmouth, and thus, emerged as community holes during tournaments.
“When I first started coming here in 2015, the shoals were the places to be,” said Sam George, 3rd place after Day 1 with 18-2. “You set up on those shoals and fished for smallmouth chasing perch near and just under the surface.”
“Back then, the smallmouth were bait chasers, and you had best success on moving baits,” he added.
Now, not so much.
“The overwhelming majority of the smallmouth moved deeper, and are feeding on the goby,” George said. “It’s a whole new lake, but the smallmouth are averaging a much heavier weight, which is good.”
Angler of the Year update
Jacob Powroznik, 25th after Day 1 with 14-13 and 863 points, holds his lead in the Falcon Rods Angler of the Year race. In 2nd place is Masayuki Matsushita with 831 points. Andy Hribar and George, both of whom had good catches on Day 1, are 4th and 5th, respectively. The Top 4 finishing anglers receive invitations to join the 2022 Bassmaster Elite Series, pending other contingencies that will be sorted through after the final events of the season.
In the Northern division, Brandon Palaniuk leads with 387 pounds, followed by Michael Iaconelli with 373 points. Stoker is 3rd with 372 points. All three anglers had good Day 1 performances, all landing in the Top 15 of the leaderboard.
Dream come true
Hunter Stuckey wanted to fish a Bassmaster Open event on his 16th birthday, and his wish was granted at Oneida Lake. Stuckey, of Kilgore, Texas, is also a member of the Sabine High School bass fishing club.
“It was fun but different,” said Stuckey, more accustomed to power fishing with heavy tackle in the East Texas bass fisheries where he lives.
“I learned to drop shot for the first time,” he added. “But I won’t be taking that technique back to Texas.”
Stuckey fished with James Mignanelli on Day 1.