By Todd Ceisner
The love affair started with a 118th-place finish.
JT Kenney, still mostly a newcomer to the ledge-fishing craze on the Tennessee River at the time, figured he was pretty dialed in for the Kentucky Lake FLW Tour event in June 2009. He'd found about a dozen schools of bass offshore in practice and was counting on being able to fish at least a couple of them each day of the event.
"We launched by the dam and I ran down all the way to below Paris," Kenney recalled recently. "Tom Mann Jr. and I were sitting on a spot and he caught like 21 pounds that day. He had the juice of the spot, but I had like 10 or 12 other schools between there and the dam, so I ran back up toward the dam.
"I didn't realize, because I was just learning about ledge fishing, everything I was looking at was the really obvious stuff. I ran from Paris all the way back to the launch site and never got on a spot because there were boats sitting on all of them. That just flabbergasted me. I was like, 'I just can't believe these guys found all of this stuff.' I ended up running 50 miles and had 10 giant schools of fish located and never got to fish one of them."
He caught a 12-pound limit on day 1, but came in with three fish for 6 pounds on day 2 and wound up 118th. It was a tough lesson to learn, but it fueled his interest in developing his skills as an offshore angler, skills that he'll look to put to use over the final two events of this year's FLW Tour schedule as he seeks to climb back into contention for a Forrest Wood Cup berth.
"It was a very valuable learning experience," he said. "Even when you've been doing this as long as I have there are some lessons to be learned and you have to allow yourself to learn those lessons."
Aside from a 117th-place finish at Lake Guntersville in the fall of 2011, Kenney has posted Top-40 results in eight of his last nine Tour events held on the Tennessee River. Now, he's to the point where he'll idle for hours on end studying his electronics without making a cast in hopes of learning how bass position on structure in certain current conditions.
That recent track record has him thinking he has a good shot at making up the 44 points and 16 positions that separate him from a Forrest Wood Cup berth. He's currently 51st in points through four tournaments. Last year, he went from 56th to 31st in points over the final two events thanks to strong showings at Grand Lake and Lake Chickamauga.
'A Lost Frontier'
Kenney grew up in Maryland fishing the Potomac River and small inland lakes. Ledge fishing was a foreign concept to him then and once he relocated to Florida, where he guided on Lake Okeechobee. Known earlier in his career as a shallow-water specialist, he knew he needed to expand his repertoire in order to become a more complete angler.
"This offshore thing was just so taboo, at least for me," he said. "When I started fishing the B.A.S.S. Opens (in the early 2000s), the group of guys I ran with was a bunch of bank-beaters. When somebody else would be in the lead, we'd all say, 'Oh, he must've caught 'em off brush piles out deep,' just because we didn't know. It was like a lost frontier."
When he realized his earnings potential was being impacted once the fish moved offshore after spawning, he made a concerted effort to learn and study when and how fish set up on structure away from the bank, particularly on lakes along the Tennessee River.
"I don't have another job or anything else that I do, so when the money quit coming in when the fish went offshore, that made home life very difficult," he said. "Part of it was out of necessity, but when I started catching fish out there, it was almost like breathing new life into my fishing. It wasn't the same old mundane, go down the bank and try to figure out if they're on moving baits or soft baits. It was almost like a whole new office, a whole new job."
Kenney needs a rally over the last two tournaments to qualify for his ninth career Forrest Wood Cup.
The work he's put into it has shown up on his tournament ledger in recent seasons. In nine FLW Tour events held on the Tennessee River since his 118th at Kentucky Lake, his average result is 31.5. That fear he had when he saw a TVA impoundment on the schedule has been replaced by anticipation and excitement.
"The really interesting thing is you're not going down the bank fishing for one fish at a time," he said. "I've found places on the Tennessee River where you can catch them for an hour every single cast just as fast as you can get it back out there. Out there, you're fishing for schools of fish, which to me is exciting.
"I started having some success and with this being my only job, out of necessity I made myself go out there and start trying to learn the stuff," he added. "Once I started catching them out there, it was fun. It was almost like re-learning bass fishing again. It's like it's fun again instead of just a job."
Needs a Big Finish
Kenney came into the year looking to build on the momentum he had from the end of 2013 when he made four straight 20-cuts, including two Top-10 finishes. So far, though, his best showing was a 39th at Okeechobee.
"I was really excited about this year," he said. "Ever since I won at Okeechobee (in 2002), I haven't had any real bad finishes, but I haven't done well there. You have to catch big ones every day to win. It's so easy to try to win and screw up. Sixteen or 17 pounds (per day) isn't good enough. There is a mess of places where you can go screw around and catch that, but you're not going to get anywhere so you go try to catch 30. Then when you wind up with 12, people say, 'How can you go fish Okeechobee and only catch 12 pounds?' If you're trying to catch 30 and don't give up at 10 o'clock to look for 3-pounders, that's how."
He pulled a check at Lake Hartwell, despite finishing 73rd.
"I just never got on anything in practice or the tournament," he added. "I've had decent success there before. This time it didn't work out."
At Sam Rayburn Reservoir, he managed a 52nd-place result and then took 107th two weeks later at Beaver Lake.
"I really hate that place," Kenney said of Beaver. "I do not like that place. I don't know what it is and I know it's bad, but I have a bad attitude about it when I get there. I know that's wrong, but it's not been a good place for me, even though it's been getting better."
He thinks a pair of top-30 finishes at the final two events should move him up the necessary places in the standings to qualify for his ninth Cup. He thinks the bass will be in prime ledge-fishing mode once the Tour hits Pickwick Lake next week.
"I can't believe they wouldn't be," he said. "I also believe there are always schools of winning fish out on the ledges of the Tennessee River. I hope they are a little bit behind so there are just enough fish up on the bank to keep some of the guys who might not necessarily like to ledge fish running around up there.
"Pickwick will be crowded in some places, but I'll idle all practice hoping to find one or two places that hopefully won't have quite as many people on it."
> Kenney and Chad Grigsby are the subjects of season 2 of FLW's Circuit Breaker web-based reality series. Kenney admits he didn't watch much of season 1 that featured Casey Martin, but he's enjoyed the experience so far this year. "I told FLW and production crew right off the bat that I'm not doing anything different than I would do normally," he said. "It's been pretty cool and the production crew is pretty cool. I don't do anything different except for put a lapel mic on at takeoff. There will be times, though, where I'll tell them I'm going to sit down and re-rig like 16 rods and it'll probably take me an hour and a half and I'm probably not going to say anything real witty or funny."