• TV Note: Biffle's first win of the season will air on The CITGO Bassmasters Saturday, July 15, at 10 a.m. ET on ESPN2.
BREWERTON, N.Y. Tommy Biffle not only went over the $1 million mark in career earnings Sunday, more importantly, he proved just how good an angler you must be to get there.
On a day when everyone around him dropped in weight, the 48-year-old Wagoner, Okla., resident burst to the top of the leaderboard in the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series Empire Chase presented by Mahindra Tractors on Oneida Lake.
In one of the most competitive Bassmaster tournaments ever, Biffle went against the grain to earn the $100,000 first place prize. Oneida Lake, located near Syracuse, is chock full of smallmouth bass. Tournament history on this lake indicated you couldn't win it by targeting only largemouths. But Biffle never wavered in his belief that the "green fish would turn into greenbacks."
Biffle's Sunday five-bass limit of 16 pounds even gave him a four-day total of 63 pounds, 10 ounces. That was 2 pounds, 15 ounces more than second-place finisher Charlie Youngers of Oviedo, Fla., who finished with 60-11. And it came in a tournament where ounces were the equivalent of pounds in any other event. Only five ounces separated second place and seventh place in the final standings.
Biffle said his last big win was the Bassmaster Illinois Top 100 tournament on the Mississippi River, May 20, 1995.
Biffle has been a force on the Bassmaster tour in the 11 years since then, he just hadn't posted a significant victory. This one tasted especially sweet because of the way he did it.
"I'm kind of proud of myself," Biffle said. "I made a lot of good decisions."
Catching a five-bass limit was no problem for the 102 pro anglers entered in the Empire Chase 99 limits were weighed-in Thursday, 100 on Friday, 50 when the field was cut to 50 Saturday and all 12 finalists had a limit Sunday. But in an event where only two five-pound bass were caught, the key was finding some bigger fish, even if only slightly bigger.
For the anglers focusing on smallmouth bass, that meant culling through dozens and dozens of two- to two-and-a-half-pounders per day.
"This is probably the funnest tournament I've ever fished that I didn't win," said Kevin VanDam, who took third place with a total of 60 pounds, 8 ounces.
Basstracker, a method used to track the anglers' catch on the last day of the tournament when all 12 have TV cameras recording their every move, showed that VanDam caught over 100 pounds of smallmouth bass Sunday.
Almost every angler targeting smallmouths complained of skinned and bleeding fingers from the multiple abrasions endured in taking fish off the hook to release them.
"The only regret I have is that I didn't get to catch 100 fish a day," said Biffle.
Biffle's key to success was very shallow, shaded water often near undercut banks. His primary lure was a Reaction Innovations Sweet Beaver soft plastic in a green pumpkin/watermelon color pattern combination. The lure was weighted with a quarter-ounce True Tungsten slip-sinker in a color pattern that matched the soft plastic.
He was flipping that lure into as little as six inches of clear water.
"That's kind of hard to do when you can see every pebble on the bottom," said Biffle, who said he'd occasionally flip the lure on dry ground before reeling it into the water.
Biffle's other lure of choice was a Ribit Frog, also fished in very shallow water.
There may have never been a happier second-place finisher in BASS history than Youngers was Sunday. It felt like utopia when he made the cut for Sunday. A year ago, it looked like Youngers' fishing career might be finished due to back surgery.
He was tied for seventh place with VanDam going into Sunday.
"The top 12 was a big deal for me," Youngers said, while receiving congratulations from many of his fellow pros. "Quite honestly, if I'd finished the day like I started it, in seventh place, I'd have been perfectly happy."
Youngers used a Bass Pro watermelon/black flake 3.5-inch tube bait with a 3/16ths homemade jighead to catch most of this fish in the tournament. There were two keys for him: 1) the tube bait had to have a slim profile, and 2) it had to be slowly pulled, not jerked, over shallow areas that combined aquatic vegetation and rocks.
"You couldn't throw it in the grass, but you had to get it as close as possible," Youngers said.
The CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series pros have only a few days to heal their scarred hands. The next event begins Thursday the Champion's Choice on nearby Lake Champlain where the abundant smallmouth bass are sure to draw much human blood again.