Local fishing guide Ken Ellis wins EverStart Santee Cooper with almost 28 pounds
MANNING, S.C. – For five straight years Ken Ellis of Bowman, S.C., has been fishing in EverStart Series competition at his home waters of lakes Marion and Moultrie, and for the first four he was always a contender – but never the winner. He changed all that Saturday when he hauled in five big largemouths weighing a collective 27 pounds, 14 ounces and won the Pro Division by more than 7 pounds over last year's champion Ricky Shumpert.
For Ellis, who collected $15,000 and a new Ranger boat for first place, this week's win was sweet reward after five long years of solid tournament performances at Santee Cooper culminating in near misses. A 51-year-old former Navy officer who has lived and guided on Santee Cooper lakes for the last 12 years, he seemed to carry the burden of being the local favorite very heavily every time the EverStart Series came to town.
“It's tough when you're considered the local heavy. It's a lot of pressure,” an emotional Ellis said following today's weigh-in. “If you win, it's like you're supposed to. If you don't, it's like, why can't I beat these out-of-town guys?”
It's not like he hasn't beaten the bulk of the out-of-towners before today. He has one of the best records at Santee Cooper since the EverStart Series began in 1998; he just hadn't won it all. He has made every cut past the opening round, finishing second in 1998, fourth in 1999, seventh in 2000, 13th in 2001 and now first in 2002. The runner-up finish in 1998 still gnawed at Ellis even today because he lost by a mere 8 ounces to Roger Crafton of Boca Grande, Fla., who also competed in the finals this year and finished in 10th place.
At that 1998 tournament, Ellis set the then opening-round EverStart weight record with 43 pounds, 4 ounces. (Only two pros have since topped the mark: Rick Gunter of Holly Hill, Fla., with 43-15 at Lake Okeechobee in 2000 and William Smith of Moncks Corner, S.C., who smashed Gunter's record this week at Santee Cooper with 48-10.) Ellis also holds the single-day five-bass weight record at Santee Cooper lakes for a stringer he caught in a local tournament that weighed 40-4.
But all that is water under the bridge now. Tournament records and runner-up finishes are no longer a monkey on the back of Ellis, who is now simply – and deservedly – a tournament champion.
“This is just a big load off of my mind,” he said.
The pro winner caught his championship bass by focusing exclusively on cypress trees. He used a combination of Hawg Caller plastics – a straight worm, finesse worm and trick worm – on 6-pound test line with a 1-ounce hook and threw it into roughly 3 feet of water all day. His biggest fish, the first one he caught, weighed 8 pounds and he had another one around 7 pounds. He even lost one today that he estimated weighed 6 pounds. He sought out bass in a post-spawn pattern.
“The key was finding the good spawning areas with a few cypress trees nearby,” he said. “The fish were wanting to get off the beds and recover from the spawn. But they weren't really aggressive. I had to make eight to 10 casts to a tree to get a bite.”
While he said he probably fished a hundred trees throughout the tournament, Ellis caught all of his keepers today off of just four of them.
Shumpert second again
With the exception of Ken Ellis, no one has a more enviable track record at EverStart Santee Cooper than Ricky Shumpert. In 1999 the Lexington, S.C., pro began to display his mastery of this fishery with a 15th-place finish. Since then, he finished second in 2000 and first in 2001.
Shumpert continued that trend Saturday with a final-round five-bass performance weighing 20 pounds, 2 ounces to take his second runner-up finish, worth $10,000, in three years. And while he was happy with his effort, the 2001 champion was a little frustrated that he couldn't come through with the repeat win.
“It's always a disappointment when you come so close and don't win, especially here,” he said. “The three largest fish I had were the first three fish I caught.”
Shumpert's encouraging start to the day forced him to move around a lot and continue looking for big kicker fish with his plastic lures. He knew it would take a monster stringer to win.
“My goal was to go get that big fish and move on,” he said. “I went to a bunch of different little ponds and cuts that I've fished all my life. I have an advantage in that I know where (the bass) will be at before I get there.”
But for Shumpert, who prefers sight-fishing, today's weather put a damper on his efforts, especially later in the day. Cloud cover and a breeze made below-surface visibility a difficult proposition.
“With the overcast skies, I had to run around and find the fish,” he said. “If the sun would have come out and wind lied down, things would have gone differently. I probably could have had 28 or 29 pounds.”
The rest of the top five
Steve Kennedy turned in his best performance ever as a pro and took third place and collected $9,000 with five bass weighing 19 pounds, 15 ounces. While he is a standout on the Wal-Mart BFL with five victories to his name, the Hoover, Ala., native's previous best at the EverStart level was an 18-place finish as a co-angler.
“Every day when I woke up, I said I was just going fishing,” he said. “I fished a different spot each day.”
Fourth place went to Henry McFadden ($8,000) of Kingstree, S.C., with five bass weighing 18 pounds, 7 ounces and fifth place went to Vince Ingle ($7,500) of Maryville, Tenn., with five bass weighing 16-3.
Past winners report
The other two previous EverStart Santee Cooper champions besides Shumpert who fished Saturday finished in the bottom half of the final-round field. William Smith (2000 winner) caught four bass weighing 7 pounds, 15 ounces and finished eighth ($5,000). He also fell well short of the 100-pound four-day mark that initially looked reachable Saturday morning. Still, his four-day total of 78-4 topped all anglers.
“Yesterday, I had to go to isolated cypress trees to find the fish,” he said. “Unfortunately, that's what I wanted to do today.”
Roger Crafton's (1998 winner) 10th-place finish ($4,000) was motivated by a two-bass output that weighed 3 pounds even.
“It was a tough day,” said Crafton, who led day one. “I just couldn't get it going.”
The next EverStart Series tournament is a Central Division affair to be held at Kentucky Lake, Ky., May 1-4.
The next Eastern Division tournament is the fourth and final one of the season. It is scheduled for Guntersville Lake, Ala., June 5-8.