BREWERTON, N.Y. — Tommy Biffle dropped from second place Thursday to fourth place Friday, but moved seven ounces closer to the lead in the CITGO Bassmasters Elite Series Empire Chase. That perfectly illustrates how tight the field is bunched in this tournament on Oneida Lake near Syracuse.
Only 2 pounds, 6 ounces separate second-day leader Yusuke Miyazaki (32 pounds, 6 ounces) from the two anglers tied for seventh place — Mike Iaconelli and Kevin Van Dam (30 pounds, 2 ounces).
"Two ounces will make a difference," said Ken Cook.
When Cook made that statement, he was referring to the 2-pound, 9-ounce smallmouth bass he culled in favor of a 2-pound, 11-ounce smallmouth during the final hour Friday. But he might as well have been talking about the entire tournament, where ounces rather than pounds separate the field from first place to last place.
And though he didn't know it at the time, those two ounces allowed Cook to have third place to himself Friday with a two-day total of 31-5, rather than share it with Biffle, who has 31-3.
The field was cut from 102 anglers to those with the top 50 two-day totals for Saturday's competition. Ounces were even more valuable at the cut mark. Only five ounces separated Shaw Grigsby, who is in 41st place with 25-8, from Mike Reynolds, who is 50th with 25-3.
VanDam, who just crossed the $2 million mark in career earnings, predicted it would take a slow but steady effort to win this tournament. So far, Miyazaki has been the steadiest with 16-9 Thursday and 15-13 Friday. But the 36-year-old Japanese angler, who now calls Mineola, Texas, his hometown, admitted that he got worried early Friday.
"(Thursday) the reaction bait strike was very strong early, but I struggled this morning," Miyazaki said. By alternating soft plastics, like a worm, and reaction lures, like a jerkbait, Miyazaki was able to steadily put together a solid second round. There's that word again — steady.
Miyazaki has weighed nothing but smallmouth bass so far.
Edwin Evers moved from eighth place to second with a two-day total of 31-9. He focused on catching a five-bass limit of smallmouth bass early, then was able to concentrate on largemouth. He eventually culled all but one smallmouth.
"I like to get that limit in the boat first," Evers said. "It takes the pressure off me."
First-day leader Lee Bailey of Boaz, Ala., who had 18-6 Thursday, totaled 12-12 Friday, and fell to fifth place at 31-2. Bailey concentrated on largemouth bass Thursday and tried to do the same Friday, but simply couldn't find any four-plus-pound fish, like he had the day before. He weighed-in nothing but largemouth again, but admitted he'd probably have to go smallmouth fishing Saturday.
Cook and Iaconelli, the current points leader in the angler of the year race, are sharing a section of the lake that Iaconelli estimates at about three miles long. They are catching nothing but smallmouth bass and that's where both anglers plan to spend the next two days, provided they make the cut to 12 for Sunday's finale.
"If Ken and I are in the finals, the potential is there to win the tournament," Iaconelli said. "It's just an incredible area. I don't know how many thousands of smallmouth bass are in that area. I've never seen that many fish in one spot."
The key is to keep rotating around to the various hot spots in the area — Iaconelli says he has four main ones — and give the smallmouth a variety of looks.
"The guy that stays open-minded will definitely have an advantage," Iaconelli said. "I'll put it this way. I've got 30 rods in my boat, and all of them will have different baits on them (Saturday)."
The five-pound-bass barrier was finally broken Friday, but only twice. Dave Wolak had a five-pounder — exactly — that helped him stay in the hunt at 16th place, only 3-5 behind Miyazaki. And Terry Butcher caught the big bass of the tournament so far, a 5-14 largemouth, that helped him leapfrog 53 places into a tie for 14th Friday with a total weight of 29-2.