By Todd Ceisner
In what Steve Kennedy has called a year of missed opportunities, he certainly made the most of his chances at the Old Hickory PAA Series. While he would’ve liked a better hook-up ratio on his coveted go-to bait, he converted enough opportunities to come out with the victory.
After weighing almost identical 17-plus pound bags on days 1 and 2, he carried nearly a 7-pound advantage into the final day when he caught a 9.86-pound stringer to win by 2 1/2 pounds. His 44.27-pound total outdistanced runner-up Gary Yamamoto, who closed with 41.81. Day-1 leader Dean Rojas settled for 3rd with 41.27.
“I’m sitting here trying to figure out if we need to build a bigger house so we have a place to put all of these trophies,” Kennedy chuckled. “They’re starting to pile up. It’s a good thing.
“I wasn’t expecting to win. The whole season I’ve only missed one check, but the whole season it’s just been missed opportunities. I’ve been on the fish to do really well in every (tournament). My whole season’s been frustrating so to get a win here feels pretty good.”
After winning the Neely Henry Lake PAA last August, Kennedy now has two PAA titles in as many years. Here’s how he did it.
Kennedy arrived at Old Hickory fresh off a 39th-place finish at the Douglas Lake Bassmaster Elite Series in eastern Tennessee. He put in 2 days of practice and immediately dialed in a swimbait pattern.
“Everything is fishing about a month later than it usually does,” he said. “It’s just been a weird year. I went into this one knowing they were done (spawning) and I needed to get off shore, even though it’s May and they should be up there spawning.”
He found an active school of fish the first day of practice that thumped his swimbait at every opportunity.
“You couldn’t move it without getting a hit,” he said.
He found a couple additional areas nearby that also produced bites. He checked the areas the following morning, but the bites were less frequent despite the fish still being there.
“They were going nuts when I found them and it’s usually too good to be true when that happens and it turned out to be,” he noted. “After I found that, I went looking for something better than what I had there. I went into a couple of other creeks and I could catch a few here and there, but I didn’t find anything like I’d found in that one creek.
“I felt good about the tournament -- not great, but good.”
> Day 1: 5, 17.27
> Day 2: 5, 17.14
> Day 3: 5, 9.86
> Total = 15, 44.27
Under blue-bird skies on day 1, Kennedy went to his deep spot right away and got a few bumps on the swimbait, but couldn’t get any hook-ups. With nearly a 10-hour day on the water – the field blasted off at 6:30 a.m. and didn’t check in until 4:15 p.m. – he was able to work the area over pretty well.
He boxed one keeper on a football jig and another on a medium-diving crankbait. However, he realized there wasn’t enough quality to last for 3 days.
“I tried to figure it out because I’m giving it up by being there so if I’d have left, somebody would move in and check them,” he said.
He made a move upriver and threw a swimjig in some shallow grass. Then, he moved to a spot he fished during the 2002 Old Hickory FLW Tour event, which was held in May of that year. He recalled seeing some decent-sized fish spawning in the area. The big ones weren’t there this time, but he did manage one keeper.
“I was just trying to figure what was going on,” he said. “I had so many patterns, but none of them felt that great. I was trying to get a solid limit and then go throw the big swimbait in the afternoon for upgrades.”
It took him until noon to get a limit in the boat. He found some areas upriver similar to what he found in practice and the first stretch he went through with his swimbait, he stuck three fish over 3 pounds, including a 4-pounder. He added another 3-pounder in the afternoon.
“I thought the potential was there to be leading, but I knew I’d be in good shape with what I had,” he said.
He launched on day 2 trailing leader Rojas by less than a quarter-pound and he committed to checking on some good-sized smallmouths he’d found in practice on the lower end of the lake before heading back upriver to throw his swimbait.
“I figured I was done messing around with all the other stuff,” he said. “I was going for it.”
A 6-inch swimbait was the key bait for Kennedy at Old Hickory.
When he couldn’t coax a smallmouth to bite amid a furious shad spawn, he ran upriver to his deeper stuff and ran across another shad spawn.
“That’s why those fish were there,” he said. “It was hard for me to catch one. There was too much bait. It took me all day again (to get my weight).”
He fished way upriver most of the day and then caught a couple 3-pounders off the same stretch that kicked out his better fish on day 1.
“In 15 minutes flat, I caught three 3- to 4-pound-class fish,” he said. “At that point, I had 17 pounds, but it was after 3 o’clock by then and I knew on the final day we had to check in at 3 so I knew that was going to be an issue.”
The shad spawn wasn’t as intense on the morning of day 3 as overcast skies and light rain moved in. He came down one stretch and got six bites, but couldn’t hook up with the swimbait. He went through it again and caught a couple on the jig.
He moved to a bluff wall and noticed the water had come up about 6 inches since the previous day and had submerged a grass patch that he’d seen before. He also said the water temperature was 68 degrees, an 8- to 10-degree drop from day 2.
“I wound up catching a keeper off of that grass patch,” he said. “It seemed like my fish had moved up shallower. It was much tougher. I caught five keepers all day when I had been catching eight or 10. I got the bites and should’ve had 15 to 17 pounds, but usually I need more than five bites to get five in the boat on that swimbait.”
He caught two in the 3-pound range and weighed two spots on the final day to close out the win.
“It was a painful and hard day," he said. "If you count the fish bumping the bait, I had 60 or 70 bites. It was incredible, but there were a bunch of 10- to 13-inchers. I tried to key on the bigger bites.”
The high sky and moderate breezes on days 1 and 2 weren’t ideal conditions for throwing the swimbait, but it worked to Kennedy’s advantage in the end.
“It seemed like the sun put them back into shady spots, whether it was an overhanging tree or a rock ledge,” he said. “It put them in position where I could target them pretty well.”
The key to his presentation was being able to skip it underneath those targets.
“The guys who see what I’m doing with it are just totally amazed,” he said. “I need to figure out a better way to hook those fish. My hook-up percentage is extremely poor, but it raises some big fish.
“I got to the point, and I can’t tell you how I did it, where I could skip it and make it curve right. I could shape the cast in the middle of the skip. I have no idea how I did it, but I could do it pretty consistently. I was impressed. What I was actually doing, though, I don’t know.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Swimbait gear: 7’6” heavy-action Kistler casting rod, Shimano Curado casting reel, 17-pound unnamed fluorocarbon line, 6” unnamed swimbait, unnamed treble hook.
> The swimbait he threw is no longer in production and his supply has dwindled to single digits, prompting him to consider replicating it himself. “My softbait glue hardened up on me so I was worried they wouldn’t make it through the week,” he said. “I know three different guys who have knocked it off already and none of them are right that I like. I might have to make them myself. At some point, I need to improve it so I can improve the hook-up ratio and I need to do it quick because these guys are catching on.”
> Football jig gear: 7’ heavy-action Kistler casting rod, Shimano Chronarch 50MG casting reel, 15-pound unnamed fluorocarbon line, 3/4-ounce Frank Divis Special football jig (brown/purple), Kinami double-tail grub trailer (green-pumpkin).
> He also caught a couple decent fish flipping wood with a white swimjig in areas where shad were spawning.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Having the ability to skip that bait back under where it needed to be. That was the key. I had a smallmouth take the bait while it was skipping across the water. I caught several just before it settled into the water.”
> Performance edge – “Nothing in particular. It all adds up.”
> For the final Old Hickory standings, click here.
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