BREWERTON, N.Y. When Tommy Biffle dropped from second place to fourth place on the second day of the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series Empire Chase, he was asked when he might consider switching to smallmouth bass tactics instead of concentrating on largemouth bass.
"About day five," Biffle said about this four-day event on Oneida Lake, near Syracuse, N.Y.
In other words, the Wagoner, Okla., angler was sticking to his game plan no matter what happened Saturday. And what happened Saturday put an emphasis on persistence, as Biffle caught a five-bass limit weighing 16 pounds, 7 ounces all largemouths to take the lead in the Empire Chase and it's $100,000 first place prize.
The field was cut to the top 12 for Sunday's finale. And those final dozen are dominated by anglers concentrating on largemouths instead of the dense smallmouth bass population in Oneida Lake.
Largemouth bass are viewed as the best option for breaking above the three-pound average that has been the key to success so far.
But that certainly doesn't mean it will take a bag of largemouth bass to win this tournament. Only seven ounces behind Biffle is fellow-Oklahoman Ken Cook with 47-3.
Cook is sharing a smallmouth hot spot with Mike Iaconelli, who is in sixth place with 45-8.
Based on the history of Oneida Lake, the pre-tournament theory was that largemouth bass couldn't be caught consistently enough to win here. Biffle will put that theory to the test during Sunday's finale.
"I'm very surprised about the largemouth bite," said Mike Iaconelli. "I thought it would have fizzled out by now. More power to those guys."
Iaconelli and Cook are sharing the same area of the lake. It's one that's thick will smallmouth bass. Second-day leader Yusuka Myazaki also is concentrating on smallmouth bass, as is Kevin VanDam, who is seventh overall.
"You need one fish over four or five pounds," said Iaconelli, the current leader in the Elite Series points standings for the year. "Are they there? Absolutely. I think both Ken and I are in excellent position to win."
Forget five-pounders only two, a 5-0 and a 5-14 have been weighed-in during the first three days of the tournament. A four-pounder, and preferably two, will be the key to success Sunday.
"I think I need 16 pounds to win," said Cook.
That translates to four three-pound smallmouth bass, plus a four-pounder, which would give Cook a total of 63-3 for the four-day tournament.
However, Dave Wolak jumped from 16th place to third Saturday after he weighed-in a 17-pound, 15-ounce bag of largemouth bass. And Matt Reed moved from 21st place to fifth with a 17-pound, 14-ounce limit of largemouth.
Clearly, to make a big jump in the standings or, in Biffle's case, hold on to the lead, a precedent has been established that favors the "green fish" over the "brown fish."
"I hope everybody else stays out of those (largemouth) spots and goes smallmouth fishing," said Biffle.
Lee Bailey of Boaz, Ala., took the first day lead in this event with the only 18-pound bag of the tournament 18-6 to be exact. But he fell to fifth place Friday and 11th Saturday. And that illustrates the risk of targeting largemouth bass. There's more of a fluctuation factor.
But whichever species these pros target, there's a clear path to success.
If you could get him to admit it, every one of the 12 men fishing Sunday would sell out right now for a 17-pound limit, even Timmy Horton, who is in 12th place, 3 pounds, 7 ounces behind Biffle.
"Before this tournament, I thought 60 pounds would win it," said VanDam, who has 45-4. "I'm going to have to pull a few tricks out (Sunday). It's not going to take one big one, it's going to take two, with a limit of three-pounders."
Said Edwin Evers, who was second Friday, but fell to 18th Saturday, "I think Kevin hit the nail on the head. It's going to take two real good fish to win this thing."