Big Water, Part 2: Oneida Lake Bass By Mark Usyk

I was surprised by the lack of weed beds. Between that and the heat, I wasn’t expecting to find many fish, but I wasn’t going home either. I was on Oneida Lake. Big water. It was a lake I’d never fished really, except for a couple opening days of walleye with an uncle and my brothers. On his pontoon boat. I guess when it came right down to it, I’d avoided it for the most part. With nothing but old canoes in my past, Oneida had been nothing short of intimidating.  Nearly eighty square miles of water with an average depth of only twenty-two feet, the lake was known for only one thing possibly better than its fishing… The boats it sank. Flat water one minute, white caps the next. By the time you saw the black clouds and felt the wind pick up on this lake, if you didn’t have a fast boat, a really fast boat, you could be in for one serious adventure that might not end so well. And even a really fast boat might not save you unless you knew the lake well enough. There are plenty of unmarked shoals and rocks scattered across all the water ready to bash hulls and destroy props.

Someone gave me a book years ago, a collection of local stories all centered around the lake. The very first story was plucked from the journal of a missionary, the year…1765. In that journal entry he talks of crossing the lake with natives in a birch bark canoe and barely making it to the north shore before losing the canoe and all aboard as the swells and crashing white caps had been too much for the primitive boat.

My cousin John lived on the north shore and I’d met him in the early morning in his driveway. After catching up like cousins do when they don’t see each other often, he gave me the run down of where I should fish and helped me carry the kayak down to the shore. Now here I was on the lake a few hours later, only a couple small bass to show for a couple hundred casts. Not that I was counting. I could really only find one weed bed, and the wind was just right that I could set up at one end of it, stand and begin casting and drift almost perfectly parallel to it it’s entire length. Having a rudder and a simple steering knob on the side of the kayak next to the seat made this not only possible but easy. I’d be standing and casting, and as the kayak would begin to turn one way or another, simply reaching down and making a half second adjustment at the rudder control would keep me on course without any trouble. It was as close to having a trolling motor as possible without actually having one I thought.

I’d left the weed bed once I’d come to terms that nothing monumental was going to come from it. I had tried everything from Clousers to large weighted red and white streamers on steel leaders, but other than the couple twelve-inch bass early on, nothing was happening. So I’d made my way over to a large shoal marked off a few hundred yards out from John’s house and was making drifts across it in the same way I’d done the weed bed. Set up, stand and begin making casts, make quick adjustments to the rudder to keep the kayak straight, and then after drifting past the end of the shoal take a seat and pedal back to the other end and set up the next drift. Working my way across it over and over the way an old typewriter would drop letters across a page only to ding at the end and be pushed back to the other side to begin the next line.

There were reeds in the middle and off the end of them was one large rock and some type of wreckage. It looked like it might have been some tubing from a dock wedged there against the rock, gentle waves passed through it and splashed over the top of the rock. I assumed there was hardly any depth at it, so I’d ignored the structure in the middle of the shallow open water. It was nearly ninety degrees, the breeze wasn’t even refreshing. Every now and then I’d sit down on the deck of the kayak in front of the seat and dangle my feet in the water like a little kid on a dock just to cool off a bit. It was when I was so close to look right down on it that I realized how stupid I’d been to make the assumption that there wasn’t enough water there to hold fish. Behind the rock and the wreckage was a pocket in between more submerged rocks and I found myself looking down on two large sheepsheads. Fresh water drum.  I didn’t think there was a chance in hell that I’d could hook up with either of them, I was looking down on them, right on top of them, and they looked to be backing up, annoyed at my presence. There was no time for a fly change, the white and yellow clouser I had on would have to be good enough to make a hasty cast and strike out, and so as the kayak drifted by I waited until they were about twenty feet away and then made the cast.

As soon as the Clouser began to rocket forward a wind came from out of nowhere and blew it a good fifteen feet to the left of the fish and I let a four-letter word fly. Not that I would’ve caught either one of those fish, but a bad cast only adds insult to injury. Then the unexpected happened.

I was going to just lift the streamer out of the water, use the line on the water to load the 9wt and send the streamer back out to the right place, but as the rod began to bend and before the streamer could leave the water the line suddenly went tight. I saw a white bucket open under the water and then the bass turned, gills flared, its head thrashing like a dog tugging on a rope. I couldn’t believe my luck.

If it wasn’t the biggest largemouth I’d ever caught, then it was at least even with my largest. And it was on a bad cast, in a spot I assumed there were no fish. I claim to be a marginal fly fisherman on most days. And stories like this prop up my claim. Luck is sometimes on my side. And I bet those two freshwater drum were laughing all the way across that shoal at that bass.

I stayed on the lake for a couple more hours and nothing else much happened. I spent a lot of time casting that 9wt into the wind as it picked up through the afternoon and pointing the kayak into the waves, gaining confidence on the big water. Confidence is a good thing. But I'll never have too much... The fish will always keep me humble.

Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod and Carp are Jerks. Both are now available as e-books as well as paperback on Amazon. Signed paperbacks are available on this site,


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