BREWERTON, N.Y. Lee Bailey told a couple of his fishing buddies on Monday that he would catch 18 pounds on the first day of the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series Empire Chase tournament at Oneida Lake. Two-thirds of the way through Thursday's tournament-opening weigh-in, the likelihood of anyone catching 18 pounds appeared extremely doubtful.
But Bailey did just that, plus six ounces, to take the Day One lead by 1 pound, 10 ounces over Tommy Biffle.
In a lake dominated by smallmouth bass, Bailey made a long run on Oneida Lake to fish some of the best largemouth structure that he found during practice.
"I knew if I could catch the fish I swam out of there during practice, I would catch 18 pounds," said Bailey, who calls Alabama home now but until a year ago lived in nearby Amston, Conn. "I didn't catch a single smallmouth all day."
Biffle, of Wagoner, Okla., was one of the first to weigh-in Thursday. His total of 16 pounds, 12 ounces sat atop the leaderboard for almost two hours. Like Bailey's, Biffle's five-bass limit contained nothing but largemouth bass.
"I don't know if it's strong enough to hold up for four days," said Biffle of his largemouth bass honey hole.
That was the consensus before the tournament started here in the Syracuse area; that a few "kicker" largemouth might put you among the leaders, but the winner won't be able to rely strictly on largemouth bass and win this event and its $100,000 first-place prize.
"I think I'll be right up there if I can average 14 to 16 pounds a day," Bailey said. "But I'm going to have to go smallmouth fishing some time."
Normally, a 1-pound, 10-ounce lead wouldn't sound like much in a tournament featuring 102 of the best pro bass anglers in the world, but the separation between Biffle and the next three anglers is a mere three ounces. Two ounces behind Biffle are Alton Jones of Waco, Texas, and Ken Cook of Meers, Okla. Another ounce behind them, at 16-9, is Yusuka Miyazaki, good enough for fifth place. Paul Elias of Pachuta, Miss., also hit the 16-pound mark with 16-2.
And another seven anglers caught at least 15 pounds, including Gary Klein of Weatherford, Texas.
"This is a great fishery," said Klein. "Every time we go to places like this you see how critical that extra pound is every day. You have to be consistent. Guys that average 13 pounds a day will get no check and a guy that averages 14 pounds a day finishes 30 places above them and gets a check."
Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., was considered one of the pre-tournament favorites here because of his overall ability plus the presence of smallmouth bass. He agrees with Klein that what happened Thursday isn't the key. Getting to the top 12 for Sunday's final and then winning that $100,000 first-place check will depend on consistency.
"The guy that wins this tournament is going to be slow and steady all the way to the last day," said VanDam.
That's what will make this tournament so interesting. There are likely to be significant shakeups in the leaderboard each day because a pound here and a pound there will send a white-capped wave rather than a ripple through the standings. Of the 102 pro anglers, all but three weighed five-bass limits. It's that limit of three pounders that will keep you in the running.
"Two big bites in this tournament will win it," said Timmy Horton of Muscle Shoals, Ala., who is eighth with a 15-7 total.
Horton weighed only one smallmouth in his limit Thursday.
"I think catching a five-pound largemouth is going to be easier than catching a five-pound smallmouth," Horton said.
But then there's Ken Cook, who didn't catch a largemouth all day, didn't plan to catch a largemouth all day and is in that two-way tie for second place at 16-10.
"I caught enough two-and-half-pounders to make the world look flat," said Cook, who also lost a five- to six-pound smallmouth near the boat. So you aren't going to convince him it would be easier to catch a five-pound largemouth.
And then there's Alton Jones, who is tied with Cook. He occupies the midpoint in the smallmouth vs. largemouth philosophy.
By 8 o'clock Thursday, Jones had a limit of three-pound smallmouth in his livewell. Then he went largemouth fishing the rest of the day. He was able to cull fish and up his total another 1-pound, 10 ounces, which, if you'll remember, is also the difference between first and second place.
"Culling is so important in a tournament like this," said Jones. "When ounces are the difference, it can come down to that one thing."