By Todd Ceisner
In the months leading up to the FLW Tour season opener at Lake Toho, JT Kenney did everything he could to immerse himself in all things Kissimmee Chain.
He picked the brains of trusted friends who’ve had various experiences and offered up their insights on how and where Florida bass, especially the big ones, spawn when the typical warm weather is interrupted by constant cold fronts. He spent many days riding around the various lakes that make up the chain as well. He even caught the biggest bass of his life during a pre-practice trip to Lake Toho.
Doing his homework certainly paid off as he built a sizable lead through 3 days, then held off final-day surges from Scott Canterbury and Wesley Strader to come away victorious on Sunday. After winning in his Tour debut at Lake Okeechobee in 2002, Kenney had waited a long time to claim another Tour win.
“The big story when I first won was that I had like $38 in the bank,” he said. “I was 27 years old and didn’t have house payments and I wasn’t taking care of my mom like I am now. Being a pro angler everybody thinks it’s all great, but it’s just like any other small business. There is some money coming in, but there’s a lot of money going out, too.
“I did the best that I could do,” he added. “I hate to use the cliché, but I left everything out on the water this week. It obviously worked out really good for me, but it has been a long week.”
As cold front after cold front moved through central Florida this winter, Kenney knew it had to end at some point. The weather during weeks of the full moons in January and February was miserable by Florida standards, so he figured if the March full moon fell on some sort of warming trend, he could make hay on bass getting into their spawning rituals.
The plan came together as he pasted the field over the first 2 days by catching more than 52 pounds before having to scrap and scramble on the weekend to hold on.
Here’s how he did it.
Kenney was quick to credit fishing buddies Kyle Walters, Jim Folks and Elite Series pro Bobby Lane for allowing him to quiz them on how the Kissimmee Chain might set up this spring. He took that and applied what his hunches were and added that to his on-the-water preparation to formulate a pretty solid game plan.
“They’re all great friends of mine and they’ve all put in a lot of time on that place,” he said. “They’d tell me, ‘I saw this when conditions were like this or that.’ I just talked to them and soaked stuff in and combined it with my own experiences. They were all just pieces of the puzzles. I still had to put it all together and still, I almost messed it up.”
He’d also had the benefit of competing in the Bassmaster Southern Open at Toho in mid-January, but wound up 54th (Lane finished 2nd). By the time the official practice started the Sunday prior to the start of the tournament, he was already fairly certain what type of cover would be holding the better quality fish.
“I knew what they were spawning on and with a full moon set for the first day of the tournament in March, it didn’t take much to know they’d be moving on to beds,” he said.
He focused on isolated reeds and lily pads and literally explored every bay looking for favorable cover scenarios. He was dialed in and he was picking out individual reeds and pads.
“I went and found all the key ingredients on each little clump,” he said. “I knew 277 little one-cast spots to check and see if there fish where there, and a darn lot of them had fish on them.”
He figured 200 of his waypoints had all the facets he was looking for, while others had three components.
“I didn’t have a wasted cast in 3 days of official practice like I do at other events,” he noted. “I was going to specific spots and making casts with a weight, a hitchhiker and a black and blue Gambler Fat Ace. When practice started, I knew exactly where to throw.”
Knowing the conditions could possibly change or in the event of overcast skies, Kenney also had areas pinpointed where he could get bites with moving baits in Lake Toho.
“The place I caught them on a spinnerbait was a place I knew about,” he said. “It’s a typical fish-holding area with some scattered hydrilla. When it got overcast and windy, I knew I’d need a place where I could go throw a spinnerbait.
“I checked that area right before dark one of the days in practice to simulate low-light conditions and caught three or four fish there.”
> Day 1: 5, 29-14
> Day 2: 5, 22-09
> Day 3: 5, 14-05
> Day 4: 5, 9-04
> Total = 20, 76-00
Kenney couldn’t have scripted a better day to start the tournament and season. The mercury climbed into the 80s – “It was the hottest it’s been here since October. I knew it’d be perfect,” he said – and his system of color-coding waypoints (yellow meant big fish, red meant big-fish potential) produced nearly 30 pounds in the first 90 minutes of fishing.
While others targeted fish that were more bank-oriented or spawning closer to shore, Kenney knew with the water level dropping at a rapid rate, the safer play was to stay out away from the bank.
“I wasn’t fishing where everybody else was in a foot of water where the water dropped 18 inches in the last couple of weeks,” he said. “I don’t think big bass if Florida spawn in 18 inches of water anyway.”
Instead, he was casting the Fat Ace to spots sometimes as small as a cereal bowl where he figured a big fish would be.
“I caught some smaller ones, but several times I threw back at the same spot and I’d catch the big one.
“When I’d catch one, I’d erase that waypoint because I knew I was not going back there,” he added. “I’m sure there were more fish in those areas, but I was fishing for specific fish. It’s not like I’d go back and expect to catch another 6-pounder. I sure didn’t plan on catching 30 in one spot.”
He stuck with his connect-the-dots program on day 2 and came back with 22-09 to open a 12 1/2-pound cushion. He didn’t finish off his limit until late in the morning and made several upgrades in the afternoon, as the wind became more of a factor.
“What I was fishing around, when it’s moving around in the waves, they didn’t bite as well,” he said. “The wind started out of the north so I went to places that were good for a north wind. Then it switched to the east and I had to adapt. It ended up working out.”
He played the conditions on Saturday and opted to stay in Lake Toho and try to get a spinnerbait bite going. With the wind blowing out of the northeast again and overcast skies above, he was able to scratch together 14-05 to maintain his 12-pound cushion.
“I must’ve done two laps around the lake that day,” he said. “I knew with that cold front, it would mess up the other fish I was fishing for.”
He had high hopes of being able to return to Lake Kissimmee on the final day to comb areas with waypoints he hadn’t hit yet. The only drawback was that he didn’t know if those spots had been found by other competitors or if nature had run its course as far as the spawning cycle for those bass.
“They were gone,” he said.
He was still able to scramble around and catch a limit on the Fat Ace, but it was by far his smallest stringer of the week and just big enough to clinch an 11-ounce win over Canterbury.
Winning Gear Notes
> Worm gear: 7’6” heavy-action Halo Fishing Daylite Series casting rod, Bass Pro Shops Pro Qualifier casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 17-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Reins Tungsten slip sinker, 5/0 Lazer TroKar TK130 flipping hook, Gambler Fat Ace (black/blue flake).
> Spinnerbait gear: 7’3” Halo Fishing medium-heavy casting rod, Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Signature Edition casting reel (6.4:1 ratio), same line, 1/2-ounce Nichols Lures Pulsator spinnerbait (double willow/custom skirt).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "Having an understanding on what and how to catch big spawning females in Florida.”
> Performance edge – "My Power-Poles. You had to place your cast perfectly against those reeds, arrowheads or pads. It had to go right there so without being able to pole down and throw at those specific areas, there’s no way I could’ve won without those Power-Poles.”