Fishing New York's Lake Oneida for the First Time

Lake Oneida

Fishing New York's Lake Oneida for the First Time.  How Two Canadian Bassmasters Figured It Out!
On June 12, 2010 my regular tournament partner Gerry Heels and I left for Lake Oneida, near Syracuse NY for a much anticipated bass fishing trip.

Usually when we travel six hours to go fishing- it's for a bass tournament - but this time it was strictly to get a head start on bass season. New York's early catch and release bass season served as a perfect primer for our tournament season here in Ontario. It was an incredible trip and we landed a pile of bass. Both smallmouth and largemouth were caught and released in spades despite having little or no information about where to fish or how to catch them. Here's how we did it.

No pre-conceived notions about where to fish:

For us, not knowing 'spots to fish' on this new lake was the challenge we were looking for - and received once we arrived at this huge lake. At 21 miles long and five miles wide, Oneida is the largest lake entirely within New York State. It's relatively shallow,(deepest spot is 55 feet) and supports a diverse warmwater fish community. Oneida is very popular among anglers and major tournament s like the Bassmaster Elite Series regard Oneida as a premier tournament destination.

Bassmaster Elite Series and Lake Oneida

In fact it was the 2008 Elite Series Oneida event - which produced incredible sacks of big bass for the pros, that inspired Gerry and I to try Oneida in the first place. In that tournament Dean Rojas won with a four day total weight of 65 pounds, 2 ounces (five bass per day limit). He caught most of them on his Signature Series Spro Frogs and focussed mainly on largemouth. Many of the pros however target the more predominant smallmouth population so we were ready to mix and match.

Lake Oneida

Spots like this on Oneida are tailor made for fake frogs and although they produced plenty of blow-ups with frogs - none were landed by Wil or Gerry.

Godfrey Point

The first day out we put the bass boat in at a Godfrey Point Boat Launch. What a great facility with a double concrete launch and ample parking at no cost. Our first stop was a shoal adjacent to what we figured was a big spawning flat. This wasn't the typical rocky shoal you might see on Lake Simcoe but more of a hump that was beginning to fill in nicely with patches of coontail and cabbage - prime aquatic plants. It yielded some nice smallmouth bass ... for Gerry that is. His black and white Rapala X Rap was out producing my baits big time ... well at least for bass.
From that shoal I caught a big pumpkinseed sunfish, a rock bass, a drum (sheepshead), and a chain pickerel before I finally tangled with a smallmouth. The chain pickerel - (not walleye like we have here in most of Ontario) are the nemesis of most Lake Oneida anglers ... and before that day was over we couldn't stand them either. They don't grow much bigger than a couple pounds, are long and skinny like a small pike, yet have an oversized head with the same sharp teeth. They were a pain!

Before that day was done I also tangled with several largemouth, a brown bullhead catfish and a big channel catfish. Before the day was done Gerry had kicked my butt with bass but I lied and said I actually was going for the most species. My count ended at seven for the day. Unfortunately one of them wasn't walleye (what some Canadians still incorrectly refer to as pickerel) which we were hoping to catch for dinner.

Lake Oneida Catfish

Lake Oneida Boat Launch

An excellent launch (above) coupled with an impressive array of educational messaging below courtesy of New York Dep't of Environmental Conservation (DEC is equivalent of our MNR).

Lake Oneida

From left to right above: Cylinder for collecting used fishing line which will be recycled. Small sign about need for anglers to release any sturgeon caught. Larger sign about importance of weeds - or aquatic vegetation to the warm water fish community on Oneida Lake. Below that a sign with a new NY law making use of PFD's mandatory between Nov 1st and May 1st when boats less than 21 feet are underway. To the right- the large sign refers to general fishing regulations, potential lake hazards (summer and winter) and shows a map of Lake Oneida. Finally below that, a sign letting anglers know about the sturgeon that have been tagged in Lake Oneida and asking anglers to report any they catch to the DEC.

The big cat, I actually saw resting on bottom in two feet of water next to a steal drum and when I tossed over the Trigger X plastic stick worm the fish meandered over and inhaled it before swimming off. I set the hook and the battle ensued with run after long powerful run before I finally brought her alongside the boat. This fish appeared completely blind - with both eyes covered over , yet it was still as fat as a football and weighed in at 15 pounds on the Normark Boka-grip digital scale.

Oneida Catfish

The photo above of Wil's big cat and all others were taken with Olympus Stylus 850 SW waterproof digital cameras. Anglers love them because they're simple to use, waterproof and shockproof.

Pumpkinseed sunfish

Lake Oneida is a diverse multi-species fishery. Pumpkinseed sunfish like the one Wil caught (left) are common. So too are largemouth and smallmouth bass, grass pickerel, freshwater drum (sheephead). There are some northern pike, sturgeon and tiger musky. Black crappie, bluegill sunfish, white perch, white bass, bullhead, channel catfish, and carp are also found in good numbers. The lake is best known for its yellow perch and walleye fishery. In fact, Oneida is the main source of egg collection for New York State's walleye stocking program. We stayed near the DEC Oneida Fish Hatchery in Constantia adjacent to the shores of Lake Oneida. Over 300 million walleye eggs are collected every year from Oneida. The resulting walleye fry and fingerlings are stocked throughout New York State. Oneida Lake itself is stocked with around 150 million walleye fry annually. In an effort to re-establish a self sustaining sturgeon population, lake sturgeon have been periodically stocked into Oneida Lake since 1995.


Freshwater drum (sheepshead) like this above are common throughout Lake Oneida. They were caught on mid lake shoals while fishing for smallmouth and also in shallow water while searching for largemouth.

Oneida Pike

Oneida Pike

Chain Pickerel like the ones above are caught regularly on Lake Oneida. They are members of the pike family, whereas walleye (Ontario's most popular gamefish) are members of the perch family. Chain pickerel were caught virtually everywhere there was weedgrowth and we did not find a lure they did not like. Seldom eaten, these small bony fish resemble a small pike and are generally disdained by most Oneida anglers.

Fishing Oneida Smallmouth and Largemouth - how and where we did it

During the course of the trip we would alternate between smallmouth and largemouth areas. Fortunately we figured out the patterns for each relatively early. The smallmouth pattern was much further along than we would have anticipated for this early in the season. But, then again, like their cousins in Ontario, these Yankee bass were much further along in their seasonal movements because of a warm spring and low water conditions. The spawn appeared to be long finished (no bass on nests to be found) and they were relating to offshore shoals with good weedgrowth. These post spawn smallies would attack Rapala X Raps with a vengeance and particularly enjoyed the minnow- or black and white models.

Of course there isn't a smallmouth bass anywhere that can resist a tube jig and when things slowed down mid day, green tubes and the stick baits worked wonders. Most fish were not over ten feet deep yet and were right next to the healthiest and thickest weedgrowth on the shoals. Later in the evening and early mornings Storm Chug Bugs provided great topwater action overtop these shoals.

Oneida Largemouth, Trigger X Flutter Worms and Shallow Water:

Without question the majority of largemouth came from very shallow water. Docks were the number one form of structure by far and the new 5” Trigger X Flutter Worms were incredibly productive. We rigged some wacky style and others Texposed- depending on the amount of cover or weedgrowth nearby. Some fish came from various pieces of structure and even from thick slop but the majority of largemouth bass were dock oriented.

Oneida Lake Bass

Largemouth like this and the one below were found extremely shallow and Trigger X Flutter Worms in black/blue flake colors were most productive. Smallies liked the watermelon red flake color better.

Oneida Lake Bass

The largemouth we caught during the trip weren't the five and six pounders we hoped for but the numbers of decent sized fish like the one Gerry holds here made up for it.

It was interesting that many of the docks that we might not give a second look to back home were some of the very best ones on Oneida. Typically, we look for docks with deep water adjacent or leading into the dock ... but here that didn't seem necessary as shallow flats next to the docks in one or two feet of water still produced.

Five key factors that set productive docks apart from non-productive:

1. One key element was weedgrowth and slop nearby. Even if the slop (floating masses of chopped up weed) was along shore - just having that there was an indication that the docks in front would produce. Likewise, if patches of coontail, Lilly pads or other weeds grew close by- they may not have produced many largemouth themselves but all helped make the dock pattern more fruitful

2. Another factor that made a line of docks yield more bass ... was just that- having a line of docks instead of just a couple isolated ones.

3. Yet another key element was an irregular shoreline behind the docks. If the shore was a straight edge - the docks in front weren't nearly as good. Some shores had small cuts - loaded with slop that produced the occasional bass - but the docks in front almost always coughed up a nice largie.

4. The presence of 'junk' around the docks made them better ... whether it was old tires, barrels, wood or even rocks - it all helped make the primary home of the docks more attractive to the bass

5. Finally the addition of boats alongside the skinny aluminum docks made all the difference in the world. Without them, the docks would appear boring to the bass - or at least that's what they told us!

Oneida Lake Bass

Smallmouth love jerkbaits and although several varieties and colors were tried, the Rapala X Rap in the black top and silver sides was the premier bait for our Oneida trip.

Our home away from home on Oneida was a trailer owned by a friend of Gerry's - Mickey Fortunato. Just like Gerry is the Youth director for the Ontario Bass Federation Nation's Junior Bassmaster Program - Mickey holds the same title for the state of New York. He devotes endless hours to getting New York's Youth hooked on fishing and the great outdoors.

Our basic routine each day was a thing of beauty. Get up shortly after dawn, sit by the lake to have a cup of coffee and a quick breakfast, drive over to Godfrey Point Boat Launch to put in and then fish solid until 5pm. We'd then boot in to camp, tie the boat up to the dock, have chops or steak on the BBQ for dinner and then head back out for the evening bite till dark. We'd come back, re-rig tackle and have an American beer or two before we'd hit the sack anxious to do it all again the next day.

Oneida Lake Bass

On the final day of our trip we had a fine time largemouth fishing - no real big bass, just plenty of them. When Gerry suggested we spend the last couple of hours fishing for smallmouth though I was more than ready. We searched for conditions that would simulate our off-shore shoal pattern. Navionics produces a detailed map of Oneida Lake and it was our main guide for the entire trip. Gerry's new Lowrance HDS8 unit displayed a shoal on the way back to the launch that had all the ingredients for success. A hard bottom coupled with patches of new aquatic plants. “This is surrounded by deep water - 15-20 feet and comes up to 10 all around the outside edge ... and should be loaded with smallmouth” he predicted.

Lake Oneida

We drove over around the shoal and sure enough - it was. Here on Oneida the outlines of these shoals are clearly identified with several buoys so anglers and boaters can clearly identify how they're laid out. At shoals like this last one we fished above, the Yankee smallmouth continued to smash our Rapala X Raps with a vengeance until it was time to head home.

Lake Oneida Map
Lake Oneida Map

Wil Wegman