From waitlist to champion

J.T. Kenney shows off his trophy after capturing first place in the FLW Tour event on Lake Okeechobee.

J.T. Kenney parlays last-minute entry into FLW Tour title

CLEWISTON, Fla. - When J.T. Kenney arrived at Lake Okeechobee on the eve of the first FLW Tour event of the 2002 season, he was not 100 percent certain he would even be able to fish the event. However, at the last minute, the fishing gods prevailed and Kenney - who was second on the waiting list - was granted entry into the tournament. And as luck would have it, Kenney made the most of the opportunity.

Despite fishing in the first FLW Tour event of his career, Kenney managed to haul in an amazing 21 pounds, 13 ounces to capture the tournament title and a check for $110,000. Not surprisingly, the dramatic turn of events left Kenney virtually speechless by the time the final weigh-in had concluded.

"There are no words to describe how I feel right now," said Kenney, a native of Frostburgh, Md. "This is the first FLW event of my career and I didn't get off the waiting list until Tuesday night. It's just incredible."

However, once the tournament began, Kenney's confidence began to grow. After posting two excellent performances on the first two days of competition, Kenney used a 21-pound, 10-ounce catch to grab the top qualifying spot heading into the finals. Ironically, Kenney warned reporters not to expect a similar result on the final day of competition.

"I'm not sure I'll be able to bring in 21 pounds again, but I'm not changing a thing in the finals," said Kenney, immediately after Friday's weigh-in.

His concern proved to be ill-founded. Not only did he return to the same spot and use the same bait - a Gambler crawdad - he turned in an almost identical catch and finished in first place yet again.

"It went exactly like yesterday," he said. "I caught a bunch of small fish in the morning and then about 11 a.m., the big bite turned on. And once they started biting, man, it got ugly pretty quickly. I started catching one fish after another after another."

Although Kenney realized he had a huge sack of fish, he still wasn't sure if it would be enough to beat the highly competitive field on Lake Okeechobee.

"I knew that I would probably be in the top three," he said. "But to actually win first place, that's amazing."

After having a few more moments to ponder his accomplishment, Kenney finally found some words to describe his experience.

"It's just awesome," said Kenney, when reminded that he had just won $110,000 as an FLW Tour rookie. "Not bad for four days of work."

No, not bad at all.

Leuthner's "dream" ends with a second-place finish

Out of the 175 anglers who fished the FLW Tour event in the Pro Division, perhaps no one was more excited about their performance than Jimmi Leuthner of Vernon, Vt. Another angler making the first FLW appearance of his career, Leuthner was easily the most enthusiastic fishermen of the entire tournament. Having just quit his day job of more than 13 years in order to fish full-time, Leuthner appeared to absorb every second of the experience like a giant sponge.

"This is the biggest moment of my life," said Leuthner, smiling from ear to ear. "It's an incredible lake. And this tournament has just been an incredible confidence booster. Best of all, I can now afford to fish some more."

Although Leuthner's "dream" was to win the title, he said he knew the competition would be tough in the finals.

"I figured I had a chance," said Leuthner, after landing a total catch weighing 20 pounds, 4 ounces. "But I was really worried about (Kenney) and Gary Klein. I knew both of those guys were on fish. I was definitely nervous."

Despite being a rookie, Leuthner said he worked as hard as he could to give himself a legitimate shot at the title. Not only did he quit his job to dedicate his career full-time to fishing, but he also arrived in Lake Okeechobee more than a month prior to the tournament to practice. Clearly, it paid off.

"I worked really hard to get here. I definitely paid my dues," said Leuthner, who walked away with a check for $40,000. "When I fished the EverStart Series, I had to save as much money as I could. I slept in campgrounds in tents. I stayed through hurricanes and tornadoes. That's roughing it. But in the end, you get out of it what you put into it. I'm so happy, I'm just beside myself."

Yelas grabs third place

Although Jay Yelas had only fished a handful of FLW tournaments over the past several years, it felt like he belonged on the tour all along. On the strength of a 13-pound, 11-ounce stringer, Yelas managed a third-place finish and a check for $24,500.

"I've just had a great week," said Yelas. "I hadn't been to Lake Okeechobee in more than 10 years, so I didn't have a lot of expectations coming in. But I was super consistent and I was able to catch a lot of fish. It's a good way to start the year."

Yelas, a native of Tyler, Texas, said that although he has been a regular on the B.A.S.S. trail for several years, he will be fishing the entire season of the FLW Tour in 2002.

"Most definitely," he said. "I enjoy competitive fishing so I'm really looking forward to the rest of this year."

Gary Klein of Weatherford, Texas, finished in fourth place after landing a catch weighing 12 pounds, 2 ounces. Klein won $20,000 for his efforts.

Joe Don Setina, a native of Pittsburgh, Texas, used a 9-pound catch to grab $17,500 in prize money and take home fifth place.

"I think I just wore out my area yesterday," said the 21-year-old angler. "My hat's off to all the guys. They're all great fishermen."

Best of the rest

Rounding out the top 10 were Keith Green (sixth place) of Arkadelphia, Ark., with a catch of 8 pounds, 8 ounces; David Dudley (seventh) of Manteo, N.C., with a catch of 8 pounds; Jim Tutt (eighth) of Longview, Texas, with a catch of 7 pounds, 14 ounces; Sam Newby (ninth) of Pocola, Okla., with a catch of 6 pounds, 13 ounces; and Anthony Gagliardi (tenth) of Prosperity, S.C., with a catch of 6 pounds, 11 ounces.

FLW tournament action resumes Feb. 13-16 at Lake Wheeler in Rogersville, Ala.

Related links:

Quick Bites: FLW Okeechobee, Day 4
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