September 3, 2014 by Mike Reeves
Editor’s Note: The writer's opinions and observations expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views, policies or positions of FLW. Watch this iON Highlight Reel from Steve Kennedy's magical day.
Many miles up the Saluda River arm of Lake Murray, where the channel narrows and the shorelines are lined with thickets of shady willow trees, Steve Kennedy nearly made history on the final day of the 2014 Forrest Wood Cup. I was one of the fortunate souls who witnessed the flurry of heart-stopping topwater explosions that had Kennedy and his spectator gallery believing he had just won a half-million dollars. Here’s how it all went down:
As a photographer and on-the-water reporter for FLW, I was assigned to keep tabs on Michael Wooley for the first half of the day. At around 11 a.m., Wooley pulled the plug on an offshore spot that had produced only one 3-pounder. Before we parted company, I took care of another of my morning chores, which was to collect the iON camera mounted on his boat’s console and return it to the FLW production staff’s trailer back at Dreher Island State Park.
While I cooled off in the production trailer for a few short minutes, FLW Managing Editor Curt Niedermier informed me that Steve Kennedy’s observer, JR Wright, had reported that Kennedy already had four fish in the box, and that two of them were in the 5-pound class. I called JR to get the skinny, then hopped into my boat with camera in hand.
Through three days of competition at the Forrest Wood Cup, nobody had paid much attention to Steve Kennedy. He had slipped into the final-day cut in 10th position by a mere ounce, and was nearly 9 pounds behind day-three leader Brent Ehrler when he launched Sunday. By all accounts, his chances of winning the tournament were slim to none.
But in practice, Kennedy had discovered a developing scenario up the Saluda. Recent heavy rains had pushed muddy water into the river, and it was mixing with the clear water as it tumbled toward the main lake. The mud had driven big largemouths into the many cuts and pockets along the riverbank where the water remained clear.
Simultaneously, a massive mayfly hatch had gotten underway, and Kennedy observed bass up to 5 pounds in size slurping flies from beneath the overhanging willow bushes that created shady nooks in the pockets. He figured out he could trigger those fish to strike a frog if he skipped it under the willows and was positive the winning fish were there. The question was whether or not he could entice five quality bites each day. He got his answer on day four.
As we made our way up the Saluda to find the Alabama pro, the landscape began to transform. Overhanging willows and logjams replaced the shoreline docks and cypress trees that were common on the main lake. There were only two spectator boats with Kennedy when we arrived. As I adjusted the focus on my camera lens, he waved us closer and gave us the rundown of his morning. By the sound of his voice, it was obvious that he was on something special. I confirmed the reports that he had two 5-pound-class bass in the box, both of which crushed a watermelon Zoom Horny Toad. He also had one close to 2 pounds and another around 1 1/2.
Kennedy knew he had put himself back in the hunt for the Cup, but he also realized he would have to upgrade at least three more times, and one of them had to be a giant.
Two things struck me as I observed him fishing. First, there was the accuracy of his casts. He was skipping his bait through a jumbled mess of trunks and branches, rarely missing his target. After the toad hit its mark, Kennedy would shake it like a jig to draw attention, and then burn it back on top at a rapid pace.
My second observation was the speed with which he fished. He ran his trolling motor at full bore, only taking his foot off the pedal to work out of a snag or to take a bite of his sandwich. Our 80-pound-thrust trolling motor struggled to keep pace.
Shortly after our arrival, Kennedy flicked the toad under a willow and a 2-pound fish inhaled it, rounding out the limit. Within 10 minutes of that catch, an FLW video crew had found us and dropped a cameraman off in Kennedy’s boat. It’s amazing how quickly information travels this day and age.
That’s about the time the magic started. Kennedy told us he was going to fish his way back to the spot where he had caught his first 5-pounder in hopes that it had reloaded. He approached the entrance to a shallow-water slough just off the main river. Willow trees draped both sides of the the slough’s mouth, and the upriver side was completely shaded. Kennedy flung the toad far beneath the willows, and the water suddenly erupted. He’d hooked a dandy, and the battle was on.
If you’ve ever met Steve Kennedy, you know that he’s a really laid back kind of guy. He fought this bass in the same relaxed fashion, carrying on a conversation with the spectator gallery and at one point even turning his head away from battle to momentarily give us a fist-pump.
The moment the 3-pounder was in the net, however, his demeanor changed, and Kennedy became outwardly emotional.
“I can’t believe that spot reloaded already,” he shouted. “There’s something special about it that keeps bringing them back. One more and I think I can win this thing.”
By now Kennedy had picked up a throng of spectator boats – many of them heard about the action by following FLW’s on-the-water Twitter feed – and the crowd was going nuts. With roughly an hour remaining before he was due back for check-in, he approached another willow point at the mouth of a pocket. Almost like an instant replay, he skipped the toad to a shade pocket on the upriver side, and – BOOM – a giant head busted through the surface and demolished the toad.
Kennedy played the fish out to exhaustion, praying out loud that it would stay hooked. As he worked the fish into the net he let out a deafening “YES,” grabbed the 5-pounder by the bottom lip and held it at arm’s length for the camera and gallery to see.
“That might be a $500,000 fish, y’all,” he hollered.
It was 97 degrees that afternoon, but I had chills.
Over the next 15 minutes, Kennedy caught several fish in the 2-pound range, none of which culled. At around 2:50 p.m. he made a long skip-cast to a shade pocket, with the toad disappearing from sight beneath the foliage. I remember thinking to myself at the time that there had to be a fish in that spot – it just looked so perfect.
As the toad gurgled its way to the edge of the shade line, a sudden flash appeared and a 3-pounder slurped it down. The fish culled the remaining 2-pounder from his bag, and by all accounts, Kennedy had at least 20 pounds – nearly 3 pounds heavier than any other bag to be weighed in during the Cup. Had he just accomplished the impossible?
“If I get beat today … it’s been a miracle day. A miracle day. I haven’t put a fish in the boat all week the size of what I’m catching today,” he said to me as he turned to the bank for another cast.
With only 30 minutes left before check-in time, the crowd of spectators assumed he would play it safe and head back to the ramp. After all, no one in his right mind would risk a late penalty with 20 pounds in the livewell on the final day of the Cup. But Kennedy knew he needed exactly 23 minutes to get from the river to the ramp, and there was still time to fish.
“I smell blood in the water,” he shouted as he put his boat on pad and made one last run upriver to a particular willow tree where he had seen a 5-pounder earlier in the morning. After several presentations with the toad it was clear that his magic, as well as his fishing time, had been exhausted.
He made the long and winding run down the river toward check-in at 65 mph, arriving to check-in with two minutes to spare.
The buzz in the pressroom at Colonial Life Arena, and in the hallway where the anglers awaited to be called on stage, was that Kennedy had it won. His own estimation was that he had 24 pounds, but others who were with him all day said 22.
Finally it was time for the scale to settle the question. As Kennedy removed each bass and placed it into the weigh tub, the entire arena went silent with anticipation. The fish splashed around in the tub, and some of the water was lost, requiring the tournament director to re-zero the scale. As his weight was called – 20 pounds, 2 ounces – a collective gasp, followed by a roar of cheers ensued. It was an incredible bag, heavy enough to momentarily take the lead and hold off the next four anglers.
Unfortunately, Kennedy’s four-day weight of 50 pounds, 7 ounces couldn’t hold up. South Carolinian Casey Ashley was the first to overtake the lead. He actually tied Kennedy but surpassed him by tiebreaker because Ashley was higher in the standings the previous day. Kennedy was shocked. The arena crowd was shocked. I shared in his disappointment.
Of course, everyone knows the rest of the story by now. Scott Canterbury beat Ashley’s mark, then Anthony Gagliardi snatched it away by an ounce. Neither Bryan Thrift nor Brent Ehrler could beat Gagliardi, and the hometown kid wound up Forrest Wood Cup champion. Kennedy finished fifth.
Later that night, after the confetti had stopped falling and the last autographs had been signed on stage, I ran into Kennedy in a back hallway. He was standing around, telling his story to some reporters. We looked at each other, speechless, and I gave him a hug. Then I thanked him for allowing me to bear witness to one of the greatest near-comebacks of all time in tournament fishing.