There was a point during the first day of practice for the Clear Lake Bassmaster Elite Series when Steve Kennedy was convinced that California's largest natural body of water harbored no bass under 4 pounds. He started out throwing a swimbait, and it took him awhile to catch anything that didn't meet that standard.
He eventually discovered that 3s – and even 2s – did swim there, and he was forced to bring a couple in that class to the scales on day 1. But over the final 3 days, his average weigh-in fish went nearly 7 pounds.
The Alabamian caught 122-14 to set a new BASS total-weight record en route to his first Elite Series victory. He overtook 3-day leader Greg Gutierrez of California with a 32-10 stringer on the final day.
His total over the last 3 days was a preposterous 102-14. Had he skipped day 1 entirely, he still would have finished in 6th place in the greatest slugfest in tour-level tournament history.
Here's how he did it.
The first day of practice was overcast with intermittent rain, and Kennedy had no trouble getting quality bites on a swimbait – a lure he used for the first time at the season opener at Amistad. He went through the Narrows, which divides the upper and lower portions of the lake, and quickly caught five that he estimated would weigh about 23 pounds.
In hindsight, he thinks that stringer probably went 28 to 30 pounds. His initial guesses were based more on length than girth, and just about every Clear Lake bass would be deemed obese by the people who put together those body-mass index charts. Their weight-to-length ratio might be higher than anywhere in the world.
He continued to get bites that day, and bent down his hook at 11:30 so he wouldn't put anymore fish through the stress of being boated.
Wind that topped 30 mph at times showed up on the second practice day, so he stayed in the northern part of the lake near the launch at Lakeport and fished shallow tules and willows with a football-head jig.
"I caught 30 to 50 fish, but the general quality wasn't what I'd seen downlake," he said. "But with the conditions we had, I couldn't go downlake anyway."
The wind laid down for the final practice day, and he went south again and ran all new water. He didn't get a single bite on the 6-inch Basstrix swimbait that had been so productive 2 days before.
With similar conditions in the forecast, he determined that the jig would be his best bait for the first day of competition.
Days 1 and 2
> Day 1: 5, 20-00
> Day 2: 5, 29-13
Kennedy said the jig-in-vegetation pattern produced 60 or 70 bites on day 1, but the best five averaged just 4 pounds each. Again, he couldn't get bitten on the swimbait.
He admitted, in the wake of a 61st-place finish at the California Delta, that he began to think he might be in a slump.
"I was thinking that I'd better get something going or everybody was going to think last year (when he finished 2nd in the points) was a fluke," he said.
He caught another 20 pounds on the jig on day 2, then had a joyous reunion with his swimbait fish from the first practice day. He culled up to 29-13 and climbed 39 places to a tie for 12th with a 49-13 total.
Late in the day, he pulled up on a rocky point in the Narrows that dropped into 50 feet of water. It was flat on one side and steep on the other, and on the flat side he could see 15 fish that ranged from 5 to 10 pounds.
"I already had almost 30 pounds, so I didn't want to catch a 5- or 6-pounder – that wouldn't help me. I wanted one of the big ones."
He'd been buying swimbaits, both large and small, throughout the western swing, and he began experimenting with some of the bigger models on that pod of huge fish. He tried an Osprey in two different colors, and a couple of brutes bumped it, but wouldn't commit.
"I finally tied on the big Huddleston rainbow trout. I had a 9 swim up behind it and suck it down, but I missed her."
That was a bit of a downer, but the foundation was in place for a glorious day 3.
Steve Kennedy got help from BASS tournament director Trip Weldon (left) and emcee Keith Alan in holding up his tournament-best 40-07 limit on day 3.
Days 3 and 4
> Day 3: 5, 40-07
> Day 4: 32-10
> Total = 20, 122-14
Kennedy went straight to the rocky point to begin day 3, and those giants were still right where he'd left them the previous afternoon.
"I don't know whether they were there or not in practice, and obviously nobody else had found them," he said. "I imagine they were sitting there because of all the deep-water access it gave them."
He caught a 9-08 and an 8 on back-to-back casts. On his first seven heaves with the 5-ounce Huddleston, he boated seven fish that combined to weigh about 35 pounds.
"Once I had (five of those) in the boat, I went out looking for more big fish. I put the trolling motor on high and covered tons of new water."
He hit a few more points, then switched his focus to docks once the sun got high. He culled a 6-03 with a 6-06, and culled the 6-06 with another 8-pounder.
The 40-07 bag was easily the biggest of his career, and it cut the nearly 17-pound margin between him and 3-day leader Greg Gutierrez to just 1-10.
Naturally, he went back to the point in the Narrows to start day 4, but it had lost its magic. Between the boats that followed him, the helicopters circling overhead and the fact that he'd put a big whacking on the fish the previous day, it was all but barren. He caught a 3 1/2-pounder but, in accordance with California state regulations, had to release it because it was hooked outside the mouth.
He moved south to the next point and caught a 5-plus, but it was foul-hooked too. He didn't put a fish in his livewell until his fourth stop, which was another point.
He switched to a the jig for a while and caught a few 2 1/2- to 3-pounders that left him one fish shy of a limit. He arrived on a dock in the south end, where he'd seen three fish of 5 pounds or better the day before, at about 10:30.
He threw the Huddleston down the deep-water face of the dock and caught a 9-pounder on his first cast.
"That was my fifth fish, and it gave me the confidence to keep throwing (the swimbait) the rest of the day."
The next cast produced a bite that he said was considerably bigger than the 9. That fish pulled the split-ring off the hook that held it and was gone. He'd obtained larger split-rings from Bill Smith the night before and put them on most of his big swimbaits, but for some reason had neglected to make the switch on that one.
After another missed bite followed by a lull in the action, he moved to another spot where he'd found fish and caught some on the Basstrix that improved his bag. He then went back to the dock at 1:00 and caught a 5 and an 8 on his first two casts with the Huddleston.
"At that point I knew I'd broken the (4-day weight) record and I was pretty excited about that, but I didn't think I'd won. Then a couple minutes later, I hooked a 10-pounder."
But like his first fish of the day, that one was hooked on the outside of the head and had to be thrown back. With just a few minutes left to fish, he caught a 5-pounder to complete his 32 1/2-pound bag.
"What a roller-coaster that day was. I had the biggest fish I'd ever caught in my hands (the 10-pounder) and had to let it go, and I had one that was even bigger pull the split-ring off.
"But fortunately, I ended up with enough to win."
Winning Gear Notes
> Big swimbait gear: 7'11" heavy-action Kistler Helium 2 LTX rod, Shimano Curado casting reel, 30-pound P-Line Fluoroclear line, 8" Huddleston Deluxe swimbait (rainbow trout).
> Small swimbait gear: 7' heavy-action Kistler Helium 2 LTA rod, same reel, 15-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon, 6" Basstrix Paddle Tail swimbait (hitch).
> Jig gear: Same rod, reel and line as small swimbait, 3/4-ounce PJ's Finesse Baits football jig (green-pumpkin), Kinami Double-Tail grub trailer (green-pumpkin).
The Bottom Line
Main factor in his success – "Upsizing my baits."
Performance edge – "The Kistler LTX. Casting that big bait is a chore – it's like lobbing a tennis shoe out there."
> Of the $3,000 worth of swimbaits Kennedy purchased on his visit to the west, the bulk were the smaller Basstrix variety. "I've got bags of that you almost can't pick up. To me, they're the hot bait. Maybe they won't work back home, but they sure look a lot like a threadfin shad."
Much of the tackle referenced above is available at the BassFan Store. To browse the selection, click here.