The plan was pretty simple: spend a few days in New York before the Elite Series event at Oneida Lake. Get in tune with the smallmouth. Learn a little more about the ways of the brown fish. Become one with my brown, Northern brothers.
Yeah, well, that didn't work out so well.
Smallmouth in the North are not quite like smallmouth in the South. SM in the North relate almost entirely to their food, as do SM in the South. The Northern smallmouth (NSM), however, rarely hang with their green cousins, the largemouth (LM). They may eat the same things, in terms of crayfish and perch, but they do it in totally different parts of the lake.
LM's in the North (NLM) are typically caught super shallow around some type of vegetation in most of the lakes. There are a few exceptions, Champlain being one, where the NLM's will set up in water 10 to 15 feet deep on the outer edges of milfoil. In this situation, you might actually catch both species relatively close.
Southern Smallmouth (SSM), on the other hand, are commonly caught alongside their cousins the Largemouth (SLM) and Spotted bass (S). In several of the reservoirs along the White River chain in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri, the SLM, SSM, and S can all the caught within a cast of each other, many times on repetitive casts.
They all live in a beautiful, southern synergy of piscatorial bliss. Find one, you'll likely find the other. Typically it's a find the bait, find the fish kind of thing. Not rocket science — just fishing.
Part of the plan for coming up early was to spend more time trying to figure out just where the NSM's hang. Catching them is usually fairly easy, once you find them. They know there is only a short feeding period during the warm months and NSM's, as well as NLM's, aren't bashful at the dinner table. That's the reason the photos we see of northern bass typically show a fat fish — they're pigs when it comes to eating. Finding and staying with the little boogers though, can be a chore.
Of all the lakes we've visited over the past four Elite seasons there are two that stand out as being a pain in my butt: Kentucky Lake and Oneida Lake. I have never gotten a check at either one and, in fact, haven't been even close to getting a check.
This year's trip to KY Lake was my best finish ever and it was a 67th-place showing. Neither lake is especially hard to figure out how or where to catch fish. Figuring out where and how to catch BIG fish is a different story, though. A story I wanted to read to the end, too.
Therefore the plan: spend more time fishing for NSM's in hopes that I would be more "in tune" with what was happening on Oneida Lake.
If only it were that easy. Biggest problem lies in the fact that there are few lakes in New York that are similar to Oneida. Most of the Finger Lakes are deep, glacial lakes with little or no vegetation. NSM's live deep in most of these lakes, unlike their cousins in Oneida. Kind of hard to find similar patterns on similar lakes when there are no similar lakes.
Lake Chautauqua in western New York is supposedly as close as it comes, but it's just not the same. As an added bonus, Chautauqua was in the midst of a massive algae bloom the few days we were in the area. I'm not talking about just a little color to the water, I'm talking about clods of algae the size of Wisconsin cheese curds — the jumbo curds, too. Not very pleasant conditions for fishing.
While in the Chautauqua region, we also spent a day out on Erie, which was fun. Fun, but totally unlike anything at Oneida. Pretty unusual to fish a dropshot rig in 50 foot of water on Oneida, but standard fair for Erie.
After Chautauqua and Erie, we traveled across to the upper end of Champlain and the town of Swanton, Vermont. Spent a few days out on Champlain pre-fishing for the next Northern Open event, which fell immediately after the Elite Series on Oneida. Never spent any time in Vermont and I was unsure if it was the Green Mountain state or the Green Mountain state. After being there just a few days, I wanted to become Green in a Blue state.
I wanted to trade in the 3500 dually for a hybrid.
I wanted to eat only organically grown vegetables.
Maybe vote for a Green Party candidate in the next election.
Almost bought a bumper sticker that said "Save the…" something's.
Stop using deodorant.
Nah, I like eating, shooting, and catching stuff too much for that crap.
Fishing at Champlain was not good for NLM's — not for me, anyway. I knew they would be caught during the derby, but I spent two days trying to figure out how to consistently catch 3 — 4 pound NLM's and never found anything consistent. Switched to NSM's and was rewarded with some nice ones in the 3- to 4-pound class, which is what it normally takes on Champlain to finish well in any tournament.
Most multi-day tournaments there are won with somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 to 19 pounds a day. To do well, you must find those fish in the 3- to 4-pound class and lots of them, too. I knew that what I had found on Champlain wouldn't transfer well to Oneida, but at least I was getting some time on the water with NSM's.
Before practice began for Oneida, several of us got together and had a little jackpot derby at nearby Onondaga. If you haven't already, you can check out Barone's account of his first derby (and first catch — ever). Again, Onondaga was not much of a warm-up for Oneida, but it was NSM's.
Monday of the Oneida event finally came and it didn't take long to figure out that I could catch NSM's by flipping milfoil. Pretty simple stuff. Problem was, I wasn't finding the 3 pounders that I knew I would need to get those few extra ounces to finish high enough to stay in the top 12.
I had done the math (Oh, how I had one the math. I probably spent too much time doing the math and not enough concentrating on catching) and ciphered that I needed a top 40 or better to maintain my place in the top 12. Looking back at the results from our previous visits, 13 pounds a day has been in the top 40 with room to spare.
Hindsight being the 20/20 that it always is I probably shouldn't have limited myself to 13 pounds a day. That was my goal all during practice and that's what I set out to catch each day of the derby. Might have been better off swinging for another home run.
I also somehow missed the "drive-down-the-lake-and-have-them-come-up-schooling-at-the-front-of-the-boat" pattern like Mr. Lucky-and-good, Steve Kennedy. Oh, yes, he did. Check it out here. For some reason, I don't remember ever being that lucky.
Guess the plan would have been perfect — if I had brought in my goal each day. The Oneida monster reared its ugly head on Day One when I brought in a measly 10-10. Oops. That meant I needed to catch over 15 pounds the next day, which was obviously possible since almost 30 anglers had topped that mark on Day One. Moral: Don't limit yourself to a certain poundage. Catch the screamin' blue dog poop out of them every day.
Day Two on Oneida was more in line with where I needed to be, but I was too far in the hole to make up enough ground on the field to get those points needed to stay in the top 12. Disappointed? Hell yes. I had been hanging around the top 12 all season long and wanted to see this thing out to the very end. Wanted to compete in the last two events to decide the 2009 TTBAOY. Wanted to shoot it out on the Alabama River.
Complaining and whining? I don't think so. Plenty of guys below the 18th place where I finished the season (and several above) would love to have had the Elite Series season that I had in 2009. Only eight of those big blue and silver pieces of hardware were handed out in 2009 and I had one in my house.
I had earned a spot in the Bassmaster Classic. I had traveled from border to border chasing green (and brown) fish. Lived a life that many dream about but few will make the commitment to follow. For all that I'm both thankful and proud of what I've accomplished in 2009.
Who said it was over?
For more info on Kevin Short or to contact Kevin, check out his Web site at www.kfshort.com.