Kenyon Hill's win last week at the Clarks Hill Bassmaster Elite Series marked his first victory since a Bassmaster Tour event at the Alabama River in 2003, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the 21-year veteran.
Hill's father is in the final stages of a bout with Esophageal cancer, and according to Hill "his days are numbered." The Oklahoma pro gave credit to his father for supporting him "emotionally and financially" in the early years of his career as a professional bass fisherman.
"To win this event, at this time, with dad in his condition - it's pretty special," Hill said. "Dad doesn't have too much longer. I sent the trophy home with a buddy of mine and it's going to sit on my dad's mantle so he can share in this win a little bit.
"Given the situation, this is probably the best victory I've had on the tour."
This was his third time this season to make the Top 12 cut, and with this win he moves up into 6th place in the Angler of the Year (AOY) race.
"I don't put any thought into all that," he said about the AOY race. "I just fish for the day. I don't worry about points or who's going to win what. People were asking me all through the event, 'Are you thinking about winning?' No, I wasn't thinking about winning.
"I was thinking about having fun, enjoying my day on the water and fishing as smart as I could."
Based on his prior experience from the last 3 years when the Elite Series has visited this reservoir, Hill expected two major patterns to play out as he began his first day of practice.
"There was a new moon coming, so I knew there would be a few fish coming up to spawn," he said. "And of course I knew there was going to be that post-spawn (blueback) herring thing out on those points.
"The decision you had to make was to spend time looking for decent-sized bedding fish or just put your head down and hit every point in the lake until you found (the blueback herring) schooling."
The few spawners he spotted weren't worth the effort, so off to the points he went. About how he was able to find his winning run of points on a lake that's got literally thousands of them to fish, he said: "You put in early and take off late.
"There's really no magic secret to it," he added. "It's just old-fashioned elbow grease. I'd fish one point, then hit the next one, and the next one, and the next one. I think every point in this lake has fish on it. It was just a matter of finding the ones that had a little bit of schooling activity."
> Day 1: 5, 17-00
> Day 2: 5, 14-13
> Day 3: 5, 18-01
> Day 4: 5, 18-02
> Total = 20, 68-00
Hill's strategy to begin the tournament was simple: Hit the run of productive points he found practice to secure his limit, then run some new water every day in an effort to expand his pattern around the lake.
"I knew a lot of guys would be doing that point deal so I knew I couldn't just rely on a few areas," he said. "Day 1 was just a good day. I caught fish just about everywhere I went.
"I caught some on a (Cotton Cordell) Pencil Popper, but my better fish came on the Carolina-rig."
He began day 2 in 5th place, 5 pounds behind Denny Brauer's 22-pound sack. He settled in to his point run and caught "a train load of fish" on day 2, but the quality eluded him.
"I really can't tell you what happened on day 2," he said. "That's just how this lake fishes. You can go out one day and catch 18 pounds and then you go out the next day and do the exact same thing and you only get 14."
Despite weighing a bag that was 2 pounds lighter than the one he brought to the scales on day 1, Hill jumped three spots in the standings and pulled within a pound of the new leader, Edwin Evers.
Hill caught all his fish alternating between the Pencil Popper and the Carolina-rig the first 2 days, but he added a third weapon into his arsenal for day 3.
"Peter T (Thliveros) had been getting some good bites on a Sebile swimbait," he said. "He had two and he gave me one."
With a limit already in his livewell, Hill visited one of his productive points where he'd been able to coax fish into eating the Pencil Popper, but "they were just swatting at it" and he couldn't get a solid take.
"I threw that swimbait out there and I culled my first fish," he said. "Then I started mixing in that swimbait and my Carolina-rig. You could tell they'd kind of get used to one so I'd switch to the other and catch one."
As noted, he made an effort to add new water to his pattern every day. He'd boated a solid limit of fish before noon on day 3, and decided to do some scouting to see if he could make an upgrade.
"I had a point that I had looked at a couple times and I finally decided to stop on it," he said. "I pull up there and sure enough they're on it. I sat there and just slowly culled up to my 18-pound sack.
"That was when I figured I had a really legitimate shot at winning the tournament," he noted. "I looked at my co-angler and I said, 'This is the kind of point I can win this tournament on.'"
The Top 12 competitors left the launch on day 4 under bluebird skies and calm conditions, and most had already predicted their bite would fizzle without wind and clouds, but Hill wasn't concerned.
Hill called the Carolina-rig his "safety net" and said the limits he caught with it allowed him to throw other baits in search of bigger bites.
"My bread and butter was that Carolina-rig, and I knew I could catch them on that pretty much no matter what the weather was," he said. "That Carolina-rig really was my safety net. I'd get my limits on that and then that's what allowed me to throw those other baits - the Pencil Popper and that swimbait - for bigger bites."
Most of the Top 12 anglers reported catching their fish under the low-light conditions early that morning, and then struggled once the sun got high and the water slicked off. But Hill was persistent and managed his two best fish of the day after 10 a.m.
"I just kept hopping point to point and I came back to one of my points about 10 o'clock," he said. "I threw up there with that swimbait caught a 5-pounder. Then I made a cast to the same spot and got one that weighed 7-01.
"I couldn't believe I landed both of those fish," he added. "They were both just barely hooked on the back treble. They were just nipping at the bait."
After spending days 2 and 3 in the shadow of fellow Okie Evers, Hill stole the spotlight and the victory on the final day with his 18-02 limit. His bag dwarfed all the others weighed in on day 4 by 5 1/2 pounds, and he earned big bass honors with his 7-01 swimbait kicker.
Winning Gear Notes
> Carolina-rig gear: 7'6" medium-heavy American Rodsmiths Mag Strike rod, Abu Garcia Revo STX-HS casting reel (7:1 ratio), 20-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon main line, 3' of 12-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon leader, 3/4-ounce Tru-Tungsten Denny Brauer Flippin' weight (black), Tru-Tungsten Peter T Force bead, 3/0 Eagle Claw worm hook, Zoom Ol' Monster worm (watermelon-red).
> Swimbait gear: same rod, Abu Garcia Revo STX casting reel (6.3:1 ratio), 12-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon line, Sebile Magic Swimmer jointed swimbait (Tennessee shad).
> He changed the hooks on the Sebile to size 2 Gamakatsu trebles. "It comes with 4s on it, but I wanted something a little bigger because the fish just seemed to be bigger than what I'd usually try to handle with a size 4 hook. I'm glad I made the change because I just barely hooked my two biggest fish on the last day."
> Topwater gear: 7' medium-heavy American Rodsmiths Mag Strike rod, same reel as his Carolina-rig, 30-pound Spiderwire Ultracast braided line, Cotton Cordell Pencil Popper (chrome).
> He also made a hook change on the Pencil Popper. "I used big 3/0 Gamakatsu trebles on that one. It comes with saltwater hooks on it, and I wanted something a little thinner that would penetrate better."
> About his choice to use braided line on his topwater rig, he said: "You had to make really long casts with that popper and a lot of times you'd get bit way out at the end of your cast. Having that braid really helped me to get solid hooksets when they hit it far out."
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success -– "It was two things. The first was that I found something in the Carolina-rig that I knew I could always get a limit on and that gave me a lot of confidence. The second is that I just fished for the day. You couldn't sit back and bank on what you did the day before and expect it to work again."
> Performance edge – "I think it was the line. It's a good, strong and very sensitive line. It's also very consistent. Every time I respool I know exactly what I'm getting into, and that's really important for me."
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