By Todd Ceisner
When all the dust settled last fall following the migration of anglers from one circuit to another in the wake of the formation of the Bass Pro Tour, there was a sense that Steve Kennedy, who declined an invitation from Major League Fishing, would be one of the main beneficiaries.
A mainstay on the Bassmaster Elite Series since the circuit launched in 2006, Kennedy is one of 13 anglers with at least three Elite Series victories in his career and with many of his contemporaries opting to switch to the BPT, including the 12 other three-time winners, it seemed as though he’d be well suited for B.A.S.S.’s revamped Elite Series. A smaller field. A schedule packed with venues he’d been to previously. Everything seemed to line up in Kennedy’s favor.
Then life happened. And fishing took a backseat.
Right around the time he was weighing the BPT invite last fall, Kennedy’s father-in-law suffered a major heart attack. He never fully recovered and passed away in January. While caring for her ailing father, Kennedy’s wife, Julia, fell ill on Thanksgiving and ultimately had to have her gall bladder removed.
Suddenly, the time during the offseason that Kennedy would typically have devoted to maintenance on his boat, tackle and the family motorhome, which serves as their living space during the season, was being spent on more pressing matters. Then in early March, a tornado packing 170-mph winds struck Lee County, Ala., where the Kennedys reside, causing 23 deaths and leaving a path of destruction.
Kennedy says he fished twice in the five months between the end of the 2018 season and the start of the 2019 campaign. Things just weren’t the same as they’d been.
“We had a trip to the Florida Keys planned over Thanksgiving,” he said. “The regular maintenance didn’t get done because our minds were elsewhere. Tackle prep didn’t get done the way it normally would. It was not just one thing.”
Once the 2019 season got under way, things didn’t go Kennedy’s way either. He’s yet to log a top-30 finish and he’s just made one day-3 cut through six events, which has him 67th (out of 75) in the Angler of the Year points. A berth in next year’s Bassmaster Classic is likely out of reach, but with three events left, he’s not waving the white flag.
“I feel like I’ve had opportunities to do better than I’ve been doing,” he said. “I just didn’t execute. That starts to get in your head. Maybe you can’t make a cast you’re used to making. There is definitely momentum in this sport and I’m struggling right now. I’m refocusing on fishing and getting this going in the right direction.”
Aside from the trying offseason, Kennedy said it’s taken him some time to adjust to the new-look Elite Series field. Gone are most of the familiar faces he’s competed against for years. He knew most of their tendencies and preferences and now he’s trying to get a read on the newcomers.
“It feels like I’m fishing against a different group of guys,” he said. “With the older guys, I knew where (Tommy) Biffle would be and (Kevin) VanDam would be out there cranking. Aaron (Martens) would be out there with a dropshot. I’ve been more of a swimbait and jig guy, but with some of the guys coming over, we’re in the same space and I don’t know them well enough to know who will be where when. With the smaller field, I think we were all expecting to have more room and I’m certain some guys are getting it, but it seems like on most of my stuff, I have had company this year.”
Kennedy has been on the water for 13 competition days this season and only once has he recorded a limit in excess of 15 pounds, an unthinkable stat for someone who once held the B.A.S.S. four-day tournament weight record.
“Just the missed opportunities,” he said when asked what the most difficult aspect of the season has been. “That’s the most frustrating part of it. I’ve read some articles where guys talk about how excited they are to be fishing versus less people. … It’s a different group of guys and I’m trying to feel them out. That’s part of it.”
His struggles haven’t been due to a lack of being around fish. At Lake Lanier, he lost what he thinks would’ve been a personal-best spotted bass.
“I’d caught a 3-pounder five casts before that and I’d forgot to tighten my drag back down so when I set the hook the rod goes back behind my head,” he recalled. “I was around enough fish to do much better in that one.”
At Lake Hartwell, he would’ve challenged for the day-1 lead had he landed every fish he hooked.
“With everybody that left, people were expecting me to dominate these guys,” he added. “That’s not how this works. If I catch what bites, I can beat anybody, but if I miss bites, I’ll be in the middle of the pack. Going back 15 years of doing this, I almost expect to have one bad year whether it’s way I fish or the way weather breaks. It’s just how it goes.”
‘Stuff I Want To Try’
Kennedy is one of nine active Elite Series anglers who was among the field when the circuit made its debut in 2006. He has experience at virtually every venue on this year’s schedule, including the remaining three stops (St. Lawrence River, Cayuga Lake and Fort Gibson Lake).
He’s most enthusiastic about heading back to the St. Lawrence, where he’ll try to refine a technique that raised some of the biggest smallmouth he’s ever seen last year. After what will amount to an eight-week break between tournaments, he’ll have had time to get things in order. Kennedy attended ICAST earlier this month and came away with some different baits and colors to try.
This will be the fifth Elite Series event at the St. Lawrence since 2013, when he finished seventh.
“It’s hard to prep when you’re 1,000 miles away, but I have some stuff I want to try, stuff I’m excited to try,” he said. “It may or may not work, but I felt like I was really close, but maybe didn’t have the right color. I raised some big fish, but couldn’t catch them (last year). I’m trying to fix my issues. I have some fun stuff (to try).”
After the St. Lawrence (Aug. 15-18), the scene will shift immediately to Cayuga Lake, one of New York’s Finger Lakes, where Kennedy has missed the cut in two previous tournaments. His only experience at Fort Gibson came in 2010 when B.A.S.S. moved a tournament there from the Arkansas River due to flooding.
“Cayuga scares me from the standpoint that it fishes small,” he said. “There is so much water down the middle that is so deep that basically we get the two ends.”