PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. – His week was the clichéd "emotional roller coaster," but Straight Talk pro J.T. Kenney considers that a price well paid, as his ride ended with not only an EverStart Series Northern Division victory on Lake Champlain, but a significant career milestone.
The Champlain win – Kenney's third top finish in FLW competition – pushed him past the prestigious mark of $1 million in career earnings – $1,060,828, to be exact. Making his home in Palm Bay, Fla. Kenney shared a reflective moment while holding his trophy and contemplating the enormity of his achievement.
"When I first started fishing, I never would have believed I would win a million dollars with a fishing rod in my hand," he said. "I was just a kid from Maryland who loved to go fishing when somebody said there's a tournament and we out to go fish it. Fifteen years later, here I am."
Now, for the roller coaster explanation, Kenney was the only pro to break 20 pounds more than once, but he had a toe-stubber in the middle. On day one, he weighed the event's second-heaviest catch (21-8), but stumbled a little on day two with a 14-pound, 14-ounce bag that dropped him to ninth. In the final round, he stormed back up the leaderboard and took back the lead with a bag that weighed 20-6 and finished with a tournament total of 56-12 and a 3-ounce margin of victory.
"Ninth to first – I would have never thought," Kenny chuckled once his win was official. "I thought maybe ninth to third or fourth, but not this."
Kenney earned his victory by running 70-plus miles each day to Ticonderoga in the lake's narrow southern end and working the fertile grass beds for largemouth bass. He readily admits that he enjoys the opportunity to visit northern lakes and tangle with the feisty smallmouth. However, he follows a simple rule, based on seasonal patterns – he'll target largemouth during June and July tournaments and consider smallies only during August or September events. Reason being that smallmouth spawn later than largemouth, so the earlier summer events find the brownies on the skinny side. Once the smallmouth have had time to recover from the spawn and pack on the weight, they have legitimate potential for winning late summer events.
This week's event turned up plenty of nice smallmouth, but Kenney knew that the big green fish would dominate the show, so he launched each day fully committed to turning right out of the takeoff basin and burning an hour and change getting to the prime largemouth habitat. (Largemouth also roam the shallow bays of Champlain's upper end, but Ticonderoga is considered Green Fish Central.)
Day one brought calm, cool conditions, but the afternoon would find the lake roiled by a strong north wind – all the product of a passing cold front. Kenney and all those who ran south lamented the bone-jarring ride home, but nearly flat conditions a day later offered a welcomed contrast. In the final round, a south wind gained strength throughout the day and threw more choppy water at the top-10 field – not as bad as day one, but still plenty of bumps.
Kenny said that the changing weather rendered some of his day-one hot spots lukewarm for the second day. He scratched out a decent limit that secured his final-round berth, regrouped and dialed in the necessary position changes for day three. Essentially, spots where the wind blew across a patch of grass was far more productive than those where the wind blasted the deep out edges where Kenney found most of his fish.
Kenney employed a blend of reaction and flipping tactics throughout three days of competition. In the final round, he caught two on a Gambler Big Easy swimbait (ghost shad), two more on a black/blue
Gambler Ugly Otter Texas-rigged with a 1 ½-ounce Reins tungsten weight and his fifth on a Koppers Live Target frog. Kenney geared up with Halo rods that he helped design. He used a 7-foot, 6-inch heavy action model for the swimbait and a 7-11 extra-heavy rod for flipping and frogging.
Wind-weary Labelle slips to second
Second-place pro Brian Labelle, of Hinesburg, Vt. had the biggest comeback of the final field. After placing 23rd on day one with 17-5, he sacked up the tournament's heaviest catch – 21-15 – and lifted himself to first place going into the final round. On day three, Labelle wrestled with the muddy aftermath of the recent winds, but he managed another 17-5 and ended with 56-9.
Fishing an 18-foot boat with a 150-hp engine, Labelle was not comfortable making the run to Ti, so he hunted largemouth in the shallows just south of Missisquoi Bay on the Vermont side of the lake's upper end. Conditions and an equipment issue disrupted his plans, but Labelle soldiered on and salvaged a strong finish.
"The wind was a killer and I had a real hard time getting to my second spot," he said. "I had a live well go down and I spent a little time trying to figure that out. I had a spare aerator so I installed that and it took up some time."
Labelle fished around milfoil and other grasses and caught his bass in 6-12 feet of water. His bait of choice was a 3/8-ounce green pumpkin jig with either a Zoom Speed Craw or a Missile Baits Twin Turbo trailer. The key to his catches was a low presentation.
"I had to keep the jig on the bottom – just like yesterday," Labelle said. "They did not want to take it on the fall."
Thompson finishes at third
Three weeks ago, Pennsylvania pro Joseph Thompson placed seventh in the FLW Tour Majors event on Lake Champlain, but he fared better this week by tallying a 55-15 and finishing third. On day one, Thompson placed seventh with 19-15, rose to second on day two with a 19-pound, 3-ounce bag and settled in the No. 3 spot today with a 16-13 catch.
Thompson caught his fish by throwing a swim jig around grass beds and flipping the vegetation with a Texas-rigged jig. Remaining active was the key, as he never dialed in a spot that produced more than a couple of fish.
"I moved around, I hustled and I fished a lot of spots," Thompson said. "The fish seemed to move every single day. You'd get them good one day and you'd go back the next day and they'd be gone. I burned a lot of gas."
Largemouth lift Lucarelli to fourth
New Hampshire pro Joe Lucarelli started the day in 10th place, so he had only one direction of potential change. He obviously embraced this truth and made a strong showing with a 19-pound limit that lifted him to fourth place with a tournament total of 55-3.
"I went down to Ti and did a couple of different things," Lucarelli said. "I threw a Strike King Rage Toad, I threw a Senko a little bit, I threw a swim jig and junk fished around a little bit. Today completely changed. The area I was fishing (days one and two) got blown out when the south wind muddied the water up a little bit and the fish didn't want to eat a topwater. So I picked up a chatterbait and got three really quick."
Greenblatt takes fifth
Florida pro Matt Greenblatt caught a combined weight of 55 pounds and took home the fifth-place prize. Fishing Ticonderoga, Greenblatt found that the topwater bite he had enjoyed during practiced vanished during the tournament, so he switched gears and caught most of his fish on a Bass Assault swim jig with a Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper for a trailer. The bait's enticing motion tempted fish that were holding in the grass, but Greenblatt said the key to triggering strikes was ripping baits through dense vegetation. Essential to this, was 60-pound Seaguar braided line, which allowed him to fish aggressively without worry of breaking off in the salad.
Best of the rest
Rounding out the top-10 pro leaders at the EverStart Series Lake Champlain event:
6th: Thomas Waltz, of Fairfax, Vt., 53-6
7th: Tom Belinda, of Holidaysburg, Penn., 53-1
8th: Dave Lefebre, of Erie, Penn., 52-7
9th: George Lambeth, of Thomasville, N.C., 49-9
10th: Glenn Babineau, of Mechanicville, N.Y., 41-8