Capt. Joe Fonzi of Gasport is pumped. He just finished in second place in the FLW Northern Division Costa Series Bass Tournament the end of July. He was fishing out of Clayton, NY in the Thousand Islands, competing against 177 other boats. His pay day was nearly $18,000 for finishing runner-up. It’s a big deal for sure. However, there’s a part of him that’s extremely disappointed. He knows deep down that he had this one, but it slipped through his fingers.
“I feel a little bit like Susan Lucci of All My Children,” says Fonzi, who operates his Thumbs Up Charters out of Lake Erie from spring to fall. It took a pile of Emmy nominations before she finally won the top prize and Fonzi hopes it won’t take that long for him. “I’ve finished this contest in the Top 10 four times so far. Three of those times has been second place.”
Fonzi likes fishing the Eastern Basin of Lake Ontario, even though the tournament was based out of the St. Lawrence River. “It’s very similar to where and how I fish on Lake Erie. It’s not my first rodeo up there and I’ve found some areas that will hold fish pretty consistently. However, things can change in a heartbeat when strong winds start blowing … or stop blowing.”
He arrived the Sunday before (July 23) to do a little pre-fishing. That didn’t work out very well because storms blew through the area until Monday night. He was going no matter what the next day. His first spot, his first cast he hit a 6-pound, 8 ounce smallmouth in the main lake. Could it be an omen? The fish were on his numbers, but he knew he needed several secondary spots in case the fish moved.
Wednesday he was still running recon. He stopped at his best spot, though, to check and he immediately found the fish were gone. “These fish were adapting to structure and a strong wind could move them off or on. Hopefully they would be close.”
Day one was rough conditions on the lake with 3 to 4 foot waves. He had to run 37 miles across an open lake. “I stopped on my spot and the fish were back!” By 11 a.m. he had a limit catch and 22 pounds, 8 ounces of smallmouth. “You have to remember that this is a marathon race, not a sprint. I was happy with my catch and left early to head back to the final weigh-in so it didn’t harm the fish. If a bass dies before the weigh-in, a 4 ounce penalty is tacked on to any dead fish.” He was careful…and he ended up in third place after the first day.
Day two was similar conditions and he ended up with a nearly identical bag of 22 pound, 9 ounces. Combined with day one, he was sitting in first place overall. “I was drop shotting out of my Ranger boat with a 3-inch green pumpkin Jackall Crosstail, a Gulp 3-inch smelt imitation and a watermelon candy Yamamoto Shad Shaped Worm. I was using a 3/8-ounce drop shot weight and 10 pound test fluorocarbon line to take my fish. My Lowrance Electronics was also key, interfacing with my Minn Kota Ulterra trolling motor. I could find my spots and the motor helped to keep me on them, even in the rough conditions.”
With the weather forecasters predicting another tough day on the water for the final day, lake fishermen didn’t know if the tournament officials were closing it off for the final day. As luck would have it, the weather gurus got it wrong again. Lake Ontario was fair game and Fonzi headed out into the lake to his spots. He was a little late getting out because he could only run 53 mph with his boat. Others could motor faster. “The weather folks missed it all three days,” reflected Fonzi. “I wanted to see a little more wind that third day because the wind pushes fish on some of the ledges that I fish. The fish just weren’t there in the numbers that I had hoped.”
It was a shorter day because of the final weigh-in. As he started to put his final bag together, he hit a couple 5 pounders using the same baits that have been working for him all tournament. He hit a 4-1/2-pound bass and a 4 pounder. His one fish that he wanted to cull was a 3-pound smallmouth. He needed to replace that one with a bigger bass. It wasn’t meant to be.
At the final weigh-in, Fonzi was the man to beat. He brought 20-pounds, 10-ounces to the scales for a total of 65-pounds, 11-ounces. One thing he wasn’t planning on was Matt Becker of Finleyville, Pa. bringing a huge 25-pound, 2-ounce bag of bass to the Clayton stage to overtake Fonzi and grab first place away with a three day
total of 66-pounds, 4-ounces – beating Joe by 9 ounces. That 3-pound bass was Fonzi’s Achilles heel. Becker, from the Pittsburgh area, also fishes Lake Erie on a regular basis so their techniques were very similar. They knew how to maintain bottom contact in strong wind and current.
The difference between first place and second place as far as prize money was significant, especially for Fonzi. Becker earned $44,400 for his first-ever win. However, he left a $50,000 Ranger Boat voucher on the table because he didn’t fish out of a Ranger. Fonzi fishes out of a Ranger Fisherman.
Next up on the competition calendar for Fonzi is the Renegade Bass 1000 Islands Open contest August 10-12 out of Rockport, Ontario. It’s essentially the same general area he just competed in. He will be fishing with a teammate, Larry Mazur from Lancaster. Last year, in this same contest, they finished in … second place.