Make no mistake about it, FLW Tour pro JT Kenney did not become a professional bass fisherman for fame and fortune. He did not become a professional bass fisherman to have a flashy jacked-up truck with 22s and a boat trailer with custom rims. He did not become a professional bass fisherman to be the grinning host of a fishing show.
JT Kenney became a professional bass fisherman because it’s a job – a way to make a living – not much different from a career in agriculture or perhaps aquaculture.
Much like a farmer who harvests crops from the fields then separates the wheat from the chaff and brings product to market to get paid, Kenney says his job is very similar.
“I’m a fish harvester, an employee of the water,” Kenney suggests. “I catch fish, separate the big ones from the little ones and bring them to the scales to get paid.”
Kenney, who lives in Palm Bay, Fla., fundamentally sees professional bass fishing as being much more about casting and reeling for sustenance instead of wheeling and dealing for recognition.
“Here’s the bottom line,” Kenney says candidly. “I really like harvesting and consuming wild game and fish. Fishing is more than just catching to me. I like to hunt fish. I like to catch fish. I like to clean fish. And I really like to cook fish. The whole process is gratifying to me.”
Obviously the keeping and cleaning of freshwater bass became passé years ago with the advent of catch and release in tournament fishing. Plus, the taste of black bass is not all that desirable when compared to white fish from the ocean, so Kenney’s true fish harvesting is often done with snapper, grouper, mahi-mahi, cobia, redfish or snook.
“I live about 6 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and I pretty much live off that pond,” Kenney says with a grin. “I call it God’s Grocery Store and it’s my favorite place to shop. At my house we eat fish and game at least five nights a week.”
So what does harvesting saltwater fish have to do with tournament bass fishing?
The way Kenney views it, catching and weighing in bass at catch-and-release tournaments is just another form of “harvesting,” except you get paid by the weight and then the quarry is set free.
“If you do your job well and bring in a good harvest, you get paid,” Kenney says. “If you don’t, you go home empty handed.”
And for Kenney, going away empty-handed means not being able to pay bills.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like my job and I’m thankful for my job,” Kenney says. “But to me it’s a job. Fishing is how I pay bills and put food on the table. I go out on the water to cast and reel for 9 to 12 hours a day no matter the conditions or how bad the fishing is.”
Kenney’s point is well made. The vast majority of his work as a professional angler is tedious and unheralded, like so many repetitious activities can be when they become a wage-earning obligation.
“I’m not complaining,” Kenney adds. “I just think a lot of people look at what we do as professional anglers and think it’s a 12-month vacation or some kind of rock concert and I can assure you it’s not. It’s a job.”
And when it comes to his job, Kenney has done a pretty darn good job. He recently broke the million-dollar mark in winnings and in the last five seasons of competition he has cashed a check in nearly 70 percent of the events he has fished.
Some of those checks have come from the EverStart Series where Kenney has been a mainstay since 2002 when he began fishing FLW events.
Last year Kenney fished 10 FLW Tour events and two divisions of the EverStart Series – the Southeast and the Northeast – 19 tournaments in all.
Some questioned Kenney’s logic about fishing so many events in a season, but Kenney always returns to the same reasoning: “It’s my job.”
“I pay my bills with tournament winnings,” Kenney says. “I have to fish tournaments to get paid. And I’ve paid a lot of bills with EverStart winnings over the years.”
Indeed he has. In 2011 he was the EVS Southeast Division Angler of the Year and he won the EverStart Series Northern Division event on Lake Champlain in 2012.
In terms of FLW Tour competition, 2012 also marked Kenney’s strongest season yet, posting 8th in the points. In fact, 2012 ended up being quite a season for Kenney. Out of his 19 events he cashed 15 checks totaling $194,248.00.
To put that in Kenney’s terms, he “harvested” a grand total of 624 pounds of bass in 2012, bringing the value of his bounty to $311.39 per pound. Not too bad for a fish harvester from Florida.
“Bass may be worth more but grouper still taste better,” Kenney quips.
Early in his career, Kenney considered himself a bank beater, earning a lot of his loot from shallow water with a flipping stick. But these days, Kenney has taken his fishing to a much deeper level thanks to the incredible innovations in side scanning and down imaging.
“I owe a lot of my success the last couple of years to Lowrance and the Structure Scan innovations,” Kenney says. “It has gotten me off the bank and out into deeper water where untapped schools of bass live. Instead of dreading fishing deep, I actually look forward to it now, especially cranking.”
The deep game has rekindled Kenney, like getting a new office with a change of scenery. On lakes like Eufaula, Rayburn and Kentucky Lake he now turns his back to the bank to find offshore fish and it has helped him become a more consistent check casher.
“Instead of staring at the bank, now I stare at a bottom machine,” Kenney laughs. “When you fish the bank, you don’t really know if you are around fish. But when you can see them on your screen, you know for a fact there are fish down there and it makes a tremendous difference mentally. Now I’m almost annoyed when I have to go fish the bank, not knowing whether something lives there or not. That graph has become like a wubby – it’s so comforting to see arches on your screen.”
And for the fish harvester from Florida, those arches are dollar signs.