SYRACUSE, N.Y. — To look across the calm surface of Onondaga Lake, an observer would notice little to distinguish the 4.6-square mile fishery from any other in the region. Aquatic birds swimming in the shade, thick grass dancing the hula beneath a foot of water — little here betrays this lake's history as one of the most abused bodies of water on the planet.
Salt mining and chemical industries around the lake helped to build Syracuse into an industrial center by 1900, but they also disgorged heaps of waste, industrial byproducts and metals into the lake. To this day, mercury contaminates the surface water, and the Environmental Protection Agency lists pesticides, lead, cobalt and volatile organic compounds among the poisons in the lake's sediments. Onondaga is one of three lakes in the United States classified as a Superfund toxic waste site.
Swimming here has been forbidden since the 1940s, and public fishing here was banned from 1970 until 1986, when catch-and-release was again allowed. Because of mercury levels in their flesh, the fish in Onondaga remain under a "consumption advisory," the advice of which is, of course, not to consume them.
"You don't want to be biting your line today," said angler Jason Quinn. He and 11 other anglers begin the second stage of the Bassmaster Memorial presented by Evan Williams Bourbon on the lake Saturday, after emerging from the original pack of 51 Bassmaster Elite Series anglers who fished nearby Oneida Lake on tournament Days One and Two.
They're going to spend a day hammering the largemouth and smallmouth of Onondaga, hoping to make the six-angler cut for Day Four, when one angler will win $250,000.
The environmental condition of the lake was of secondary concern to them while fish were waiting to be caught.
"The Potomac River used to be one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country, and it's by far one of the best bass fisheries in the country and has been for the past 20 years," angler John Crews said. "So the history of this lake means nothing. The bass are only six, eight, 10 years old maybe. All this shallow grass? That filters out all the bad stuff pretty quick."
Indeed, the lake has proven itself capable of producing 18- and 20-pound five-fish bags in local bass tournaments. Even if you wouldn't want to eat them, the fish themselves seem healthy enough to grow to size.
"It's perfectly safe to touch the fish, handle it," said Chris Horton, BASS' national conservation director. "Those larger fish are certainly the most dangerous to eat because they accumulate mercury so much over time. Bigger fish hold more mercury in their tissues. But from a catch-and-release standpoint, there's no reason why anybody can't come out here, catch a fish and release it just for their angling enjoyment."
At the previous Elite Series event, on Lake Erie, Jeff Kriet's Day One co-angler, a native of the Syracuse area, told him to hope he made it to fish Onondaga.
"He said, 'Boy, y'all are going to a heck of a lake,'" Kriet said before blast-off. "He said they catch 20-pound bags of largemouth here. He said, 'It's our best little secret.'"
Kriet and other anglers at the dock were eyeing the abundant grass, and trees overhanging the shore. "It's going to be a frog, flipping deal," Kriet said.
One clue on how anglers expected to catch largemouth came when Skeet Reese and Steve Kennedy, with the first choice of spots among the six lake sections that the anglers will fish, chose the No. 5 hole, at the northwest corner, where the Seneca River flows out of the lake. Immediately following, Murray and Peter Thliveros chose the No. 2 hole, at the opposite end — where a sewage treatment plant discharges Syracuse's waste water.
Quinn said most of the fish on the lake's body would be caught either out of the vegetation along the banks or at the sharp drop-off points. The prospect of sewage in the water, he said, was a veritable bonus.
"It makes [the fishing] better," he said. "It's got a lot more nutrients in the water, so the fish grow a lot bigger. It's just like fertilizer for everything."
Like most of the anglers remaining in the field, John Murray said he knew virtually nothing about the lake other than a cursory version of its history.
"I asked guys about it, and they said there was sewage, and that it was polluted and all that," Murray said. "I like that. That means people don't eat the fish, and they probably don't get a lot of pressure. One of my favorite places to fish is the Vegas Wash on Lake Mead, where the sewage comes in. It's good fishing. It starts the food chain."
After centuries of dumping in the lake, cleanups are under way. Onondaga County is the middle of a half-billion-dollar project to reroute its sewage away from the lake by 2012. And in October, Honeywell, which took over the old Allied Chemical company that trashed much of the water, agreed to spend some $451 million to dredge 2.65 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment and seal 579 acres of the lake's bottom with concrete and other materials.
Murray's happy to be able to fish the lake while it's still known as something of a toxic hole.
"If a lake gets that reputation," Murray said, "people don't eat the fish, so you should have a lot more fish. Anywhere I go, I tell people bass are full of mercury, and you die instantly if you eat them. 'You can't eat those. They'll kill you. They're like blowfish,' is what I say."
Editor's note: Check in each day for live video of the weigh-in and the realtime leaderboard at 6 p.m. ET. There will be a special Hooked Up tournament updates Sunday at 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and noon ET. The Hooked Up show begins at 5 p.m. Sunday and leads into the live final weigh-in.
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