Affectionately known as the “thumb” of New York’s famed Finger Lakes Region, Oneida Lake has a storied history of playing host to big-time bass and walleye tournaments. It’s one of only a handful of lakes in the country where an angler can catch trophy largemouth and smallmouth bass on the same day.
Every year soaring temperatures send professional bass fishing trails north for the summer swing. Cooler temperatures are hardly reflective of the red-hot action awaiting anglers who make the journey. As Bassmaster Elite Series anglers prepare for Cayuga Lake, all eyes will be on Central New York, with good cause. Upstate New York has long been a popular vacation destination. If July temperatures in the low 80’s aren’t enough to entice you, the fishing surely will. This season the state will play tournament host to three stops each from B.A.S.S. and FLW.
Although Cayuga is the official location this year’s Elite event, an hour down the road, Oneida Lake continues to turn heads. Just 20 minutes north of Syracuse, Oneida is centrally located to all things fishing in the region. Last August, Elite Series angler Randy Howell sacked 49 pounds, 2 ounces in the second stop of the Northern Open Series to take the win. During the fall, bass anglers routinely needed over 20 pounds to finish tournaments in the top five.
In addition to healthy populations of largemouth and smallmouth bass, roaming schools of hungry walleye make Oneida a lot of fun. The lake is wide-open to varying fishing styles. Roughly 21 miles long and 5 miles wide, with an average depth of 22 feet, the fishery boasts an expansive diversity of cover and forage.
At first glance the lake may appear to be little more than an indiscriminate fish bowl full of weeds. I assure you that is not the case. This lake is a perfect example of how big fish can stay shallow all summer long. Anglers targeting largemouth can flip docks to their heart’s content. I often found largemouth in less than a foot of water, relating to shade lines from docks and overhanging trees. Although it’s generally less visually apparent, the lake also contains a decent amount of wood cover for those willing to spend the time to look.
If it’s smallmouth you’re after, the lake has more shoals anyone could possibly fish in a single day. I always found shoal fish to come in shallow and deep varieties as well. Typically I would find more active fish willing to chase moving baits at the edges of the shoals on grass lines. After a first pass my strategy was to move toward the center of the shoal with a topwater and finally punch through the grass to access the rocks below.
Part of the ingredient for Oneida Lake’s continued success lies in its healthy populations of bait. Anglers may find successful patterns based on crawfish, shad and perch. However, the real buzz around the lake is about the invasion gobies. Anglers I spoke with both seem optimistic about the potential for great lakes sized smallmouth in the next few years.
In the spring, some of the best fishing on the lake can be found in the Oneida River. Crankbaits, such as the Bandit 300 series in a crawfish pattern, will cover water quickly in search of active fish. Additionally, soft plastic baits like YUM Tubes in green pumpkin color target bass not yet chasing fast-moving lures. Recently I’ve done particularly well with the new YUM Baby Christie Critter.
If you’re looking for gear, I fish my crankbaits on a 7’4” Envy Black cranking rod, paired with a Concept A 6.6 reel, fished on 10-pound fluorocarbon line. For soft plastics, finesse is the way to go when fishing clear shallow water. When using tubes, I employ a 7’2” medium light Muse Gold rod on 8-pound fluorocarbon. When flipping or skipping Texas rigged finesse baits like the Christie Critter, I’ll switch up to a 7’3” medium heavy Envy Black spinning rod. In this scenario I like a rod with more power, because I’m switching hooks from a thin-wire tube hook, to a 3/0 Gamakatsu finesse heavy cover flipping hook.
In late May and June the main lake and its fish begin to heat up. The main-lake smallmouth can be targeted much in the same way as their river counterparts as they move into shallower areas to spawn. As the water continues to warm I’ve found the bass will begin to split. Because of Oneida’s extensive vegetation, big largemouth can be found shallow all summer. The Booyah Pad Crasher frog has produced numerous largemouth bass in the three to five pound range. For smallmouth, look for fish relating to deep weed lines and hard bottoms. Square bill crankbaits on rocky points and flats will produce big bass all summer.
For frogs I’ll pair up the super affordable and always reliable combo of an 8.1 Inception reel and a 7’3” medium heavy Omen Black rod. If the water is exceptionally clear, I’ll back out and switch to a 7’6” rod of the same variety for the extra casting distance. I fish both setups on 65-pound braided line. As for square bills, I like the 7’1” Envy Black cranking rod, again paired with the 6.6 Concept A reel.
The final piece to the summer puzzle is the famed Oneida Lake “bird pattern.” Throughout the summer, schools of fish will push bait to the surface. Seagulls and terns will be on the prowl, watching for pods of bait. If you see flocks of birds dive-bombing the surface, hightail it to that area. Schools will move rapidly, so anticipation is critical. My favorite bait in this instance is a Booyah Boss Pop, in the bream pattern. I throw smaller topwater baits on a 7’1” medium Envy Black rod. This rod slingshots the bait long distances, while maintaining a great combination of sensitivity and power for consistent hookups.
In September fall patterns begin to take shape. Big hungry smallmouth will again come shallow chasing almost anything that looks like a fish. Swimbaits, spinnerbaits and jerkbaits are all on the menu.
As a bonus for those willing to brave the cold, Oneida is a lake for every season. Each winter the lake plays host to several ice fishing derbies. Big Bay in the lake’s northwest section is always a popular spot to start.
If you’re looking for a little local knowledge once you arrive, Bartel Road Bait and Tackle is the place to go. Owner and operator Robert Goffredo has spent nearly his entire life in the fishing tackle industry, and he’s also a tournament bass angler. His shop is within walking distance of the Days Inn, and a little over a mile from the ramp at Oneida Shores County Park. There is a $10 fee to launch at Oneida Shores, but the facilities are top notch and the nicest on the lake. For anglers bringing the next generation of fishing champions with them, the park is also host to a campground, beach and playground.
If you’re looking for exciting things to do nearby, or happen to be waiting out a rain shower, Destiny USA mall is a 2.4 million-square-foot shopping, dining, and entertainment hub. The Syracuse mall is host to all the usual retail-shopping vendors. In addition it offers indoor go-kart racing, a 19-screen Regal Movie theater with IMAX 3D, and much more. Also worth a visit is Sylvan Beach Amusement Park on the eastern shore of Oneida Lake. Kids will enjoy the boardwalk-style games and rides, while adults relax on the beach or one at of the nearby restaurants or pubs. One of the area’s most famous eateries is Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, just down the road in Syracuse. My advice is to go off menu and request a Memphis style burger, as the pulled pork is one of the better items on the menu.
As a note of caution, because of relatively shallow depths, the lake is also known for producing tightly packed 3-5 foot waves that can quickly put a damper on a good time. Always check the weather for storms and wind speeds before heading out, and be sure to have lifejackets and Coast Guard approved flotation devices onboard.
Oneida Lake is an exciting destination for the whole family. In addition to the local area, great fishing and adventure can be found in every direction. From two hours west on Lake Erie, in Buffalo, to Lake Champlain in the east, New York is a fantastic place for your next fishing retreat.