BREWERTON, N.Y. After a week jetting around massive Lake Champlain, followed by another crashing about the motocross hills that form on the surface of Lake Erie, Aaron Martens had a succinct take on Oneida Lake, home to the first half of the Bassmaster Memorial presented by Evan Williams Bourbon.
"It's small, dude," Aaron Martens said as he tied big topwater baits on his boat Thursday morning. "And it fishes really big for its size."
Geographically, the most glaring differences between Oneida Lake and the previous two lakes of the Elite Series Northern Run are acreage and depth. At 110 miles long, 400 feet deep in spots and 435 square miles, Champlain was as formidable in its commutes as it was in its fishing. At more than 9,900 square miles and with more than 2,700 miles of shoreline, Erie, the 11th-largest lake on Earth, was bass fishing on an inland sea, so vast and rough that anglers could hope to explore only a fraction of it.
Oneida, by contrast, is only 21 miles across and 5 miles top to bottom less than 20 percent of Champlain's surface area, and less than 1 percent of Erie's.
"I'll be commuting a lot," Fred Roumbanis said. "But it's a five-minute commute instead of 30. Not even five. A two-minute commute."
The average depth of Oneida is only 22 feet, meaning its entire 51,000 acres are hospitable to bass, though anglers said few fish will be caught in more than 15 feet of water, whereas they were pulling smallmouth up from 45 feet deep in Erie.
"Two feet is like 10 feet in most lakes," angler John Murray said. "That's pretty deep here."
To a man, the anglers said the lake is teeming with fish. "It's a phenomenal lake for quantity," said Ish Monroe, who has heard that Oneida has the most bass per acre of any lake in the region, an assessment he's inclined to believe.
"I feel bad for the guy who doesn't get a limit," said Martens, one of the consensus favorites in this tournament, along with Kevin VanDam. "It'd be hard not to get a limit. You'd have to have a really bad day not to get a limit."
Added Roumbanis: "You can target big fish here. You don't have to fight for five."
But anglers all said the bite was off somewhat since the Elite Series event here last year. Martens was a little baffled, because the yellow perch that the bass feed on are doing great, while the bass themselves "are not quite as fat," he said. "This year, they're a little behind. They're not quite as chubby."
A 15- or 16-pound daily average, anglers expect, could be enough to make the top-12 cut.
Angler Dave Wolak attributes part of the difference to winter weather that kept the lake colder later this season. Nearby Lake Ontario took longer than usual to freeze, he said, which contributed to greater snowfall in the area. When the snowpack finally melted, temperatures in the lake remained cold and water levels rose, obscuring the sunlight, both of which hurt the grass that populates the lake. Thinner grass means that the bass aren't as easily found in the cover it normally provides.
"Flatter lakes change a lot more on a year-to-year basis," Wolak said. And Oneida is nothing if not flat. The deceptively shallow middle has eaten its share of boat props, and this year, after a dry summer, it's several inches lower than in the last tour event. "It's just a long dish bowl," Wolak said.
Key areas will be those that marry rocks and grass, though some sandy flats will come into play. Look for some largemouth to come from around wood underneath banks.
"Last year, you just had to go to the bank," angler Brent Chapman said. "This year, I'm sure if someone finds them out deep, they'll find a load of them."
The 51 anglers in the Memorial will fish Oneida on Days One and Two before the top 12 move to nearby Lake Onondaga, in Syracuse, to fish Days Three and Four.
Editor's note: Check in each day for live video of the weigh-in and the realtime leaderboard at 6 p.m. ET. There will be a special Hooked Up show at 10 a.m. ET Saturday, with tournament updates Sunday at 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and noon ET. The Hooked Up show begins at 5 p.m. Sunday and leads into the live final weigh-in.
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