UPCOMING EVENT: TOYOTA SERIES - 2020 - Lake Cumberland

The Grinder

The Grinder
JT Kenney

So you want to be a professional bass fisherman, huh? Then you should probably talk to JT Kenney … or maybe you shouldn’t.

Kenney is a lot of things. Funny? For sure. Determined? If you only knew. Colorful? The man has a YouTube video of him shirtless and wearing no pants describing how an untanned body can help attract fish (viewer discretion advised for anyone not wanting to see the large pasty-white body of an angler in boxer shorts). But maybe more than anything, he’s brash. That’s not meant in a bad way. The man simply says what he means, means what he says and doesn’t sugarcoat pretty much anything.

If he’s having a bad day on the water, he’ll tell you exactly that, most likely in short sentences with a few four-letter words thrown in. If he’s tearing ’em up, he’ll tell you that, too, down to the smallest detail of his pattern, whether he’s using his sponsors’ products or not.

So when you talk to Kenney about what it’s like being a professional angler, he’ll tell you exactly what it’s like, and he’ll do so from the point of view of a guy who has scraped and grinded his way to survive through two decades in the sport.

He’ll tell you about the years spent sleeping in his truck, hunkering down behind convenience or grocery stores with outdoor vending machines.

“Those were how I’d charge up my boat batteries. I’d find a Coke machine, unplug it and plug in my charger,” he says.

He won’t shy away from reminiscing about fishing tournaments and knowing that if he didn’t cash a check, he’d head back to Palm Bay, Fla., to find his electricity had been turned off.

JT Kenney

“This is a rich man’s sport, and I grew up in a trailer,” says Kenney. “I’m not like most guys who own their own companies or have trust funds. I’ve had to earn everything.”

He has no qualms about sharing how tough it can be to find sponsors, or as he calls them, “advertising partners.” He’s finally to the point where he can actually turn down opportunities if they don’t make business sense, but he admits that wasn’t the case even just five years ago.

“People often think, ‘Oh, you’re a professional fisherman. You’ve won tournaments. Sponsors are going to flock to you.’ Heck no. You have to work for them,” he says. “I’ve learned to work my butt off for anyone who’s willing to pay me and allow me to keep fishing, and I’ve had to adapt a lot to do it.”

Social media might be where Kenney has adapted most. Even he can’t believe the impact a three-minute video on YouTube can have, but he’s embraced it, posting around 75 videos to his YouTube page in the last year alone.

“I’ve really figured out how to increase exposure for myself and my sponsors using social,” says Kenney. “I’ve learned how you have to do these things now. Plus, it’s a foot in the door for so many things. Heck, one of my new sponsors, NuThreadz, reached out to me after reading an article on social media about me being one of the worst dressed anglers. They called me up and said they wanted to change that. Can’t argue with that.”

He’ll also tell how those things above can be harder to manage than actually catching fish. Kenney made a name for himself when he won his first FLW Tour event in 2002 on Lake Okeechobee, but that obviously didn’t instantly put his life as a professional angler on cruise control. He didn’t make his first Forrest Wood Cup until 2005, and didn’t start to consistently make it until 2007. Even then, he missed the Cup in 2014 and 2015, as those off-the-water factors got the better of him. Yet, he bounced back in 2016 with a top-20 finish in the Angler of the Year standings, in large part because for the first time in his career, he’d found stability.

“I’m finally to the point in my career where I’m making some money in this sport,” Kenney says. “I’ve made it, and I’m proud to say that.”

Having “made it” is a much bigger deal for a grinder like Kenney than most would think. Not having to worry about if he’s going to get evicted or which store he’s sleeping behind at a tournament has allowed him to make better decisions on the water. It’s what has him back in the AOY conversation for the 2017 season.

“I can now go for it a little more often or fish off hunches,” he explains. “I can be going down the lake, and if something looks right, I can wheel in and check it out. I couldn’t do that before. Everything was a business decision based on what would get me a check.”

While Kenney doesn’t always make being a professional bass fisherman sound glamorous, believe me, he’ll also tell you there is nothing he’d rather be doing. There is no other option for him.

“I’ve never done anything else, and I don’t want to do anything else. I always knew that I would do whatever it took to make it in this sport, and I’ve done that. There’s nothing better than that. Nothing.”

JT Kenney

Tags: jt-kenney  flw-tour  sean-ostruszka  angler-features 

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