LA CROSSE, Wis. — When 43-year-old Steve Kennedy says he just had the most fun day of fishing in his life, that's quite a statement.
This is someone who has won more than $1 million on the B.A.S.S. circuit. The Auburn, Ala., angler will long remember his Friday in the Bassmaster Elite Series Mississippi River Rumble. Bass were jumping in his boat.
"I literally had them jumping in the boat today," Kennedy said. "A 2 1/2-pound smallmouth landed on the front deck."
Shooing that bass back into the water was the easy part. Kennedy has caught so many bass over the last two days that he is in pain. He experienced cramps in both arms and a pectoral muscle Thursday; Friday the skin was rubbed raw on his left hand from popping a Spro frog across the water surface, followed by a bass exploding on the lure.
"It's unbelievable how many fish I'm catching," Kennedy said. "I had 100 bites or more today on top."
Plenty of people have paid plenty of money to fly the world in search of a triple-digit-day of topwater largemouth bass bites.
Kennedy was smiling through his pain Friday. He is in 10th place in the Mississippi River Rumble with 28 pounds, 15 ounces. But there were several other anglers who experienced a different kind of pain, the kind you get when bass pay little attention to you.
Kyle Fox of Lakeland, Fla., had the most acute case, after plummeting from first place on Day One to 83rd on Friday. It was the most glaring example of how quickly fortunes can change on a river system, especially one like this area of the Mississippi, where current flows and water color are changing on a daily basis.
Todd Faircloth of Jasper, Texas, jumped from eighth place Thursday into the lead on Day Two with a five-bass daily limit that weighed 17-14, giving him a total of 32-14. But he didn't sound like someone who had definitely deciphered a winning pattern.
"I could very easily go out there and catch 12 pounds (Saturday)," Faircloth said. "I don't know what's going to transpire. I don't know."
Faircloth was hardly alone in that thought on a day when six anglers in the Top 20 Thursday fell so far Friday they didn't make the cut to Saturday's Top 49. In addition to Fox, Billy McCaghren of Mayflower, Ark., dropped from fourth to 71st. Casey Scanlon of Lenexa, Kan., fell from 13th to 69th; Brent Broderick of Oregonia, Ohio, slipped from 17th to 56th; and Brandon Palaniuk sank from 20th to 59th.
In a tournament where volatility on the leaderboard is the norm, there were an equal number of climbers: Boyd Duckett of Demopolis, Ala., from 84th to 33rd; Chris Lane of Guntersville, Ala, from 63rd to 14th; Michael Simonton of Fremont, Ohio, from 78th to 36th; and Mike McClelland of Bella Vista, Ark., from 55th to 15th.
But no one rocketed like Jamie Horton of Centerville, Ala., who had the heaviest bag of the tournament so far — 18-4 — which took him from from 39th place all the way into third, only 1-4 behind Faircloth. Terry Butcher, the model of consistency here, is in second place with days of 15-5 and 16-13 for his total of 32-2.
"In rivers, it changes every day," said Bill Lowen of Brookville, Ind., who is 17th with 27-15. "The water may be dropping, and it may be rising."
The water level depends on which pool of the Mississippi River anglers are fishing. Kennedy has found a section of rising water that has created tons of fun with a topwater frog.
"These fish are trying to get out of that current," he said. "They're moving back into some shallow grass flats. There's just acres and acres of this stuff. And it's just full of 2-, 2 1/4- and 2 1/2-pounders.
"There's just acres and acres of fish to the point where it hurts."
Kennedy got cramps in both arms Thursday after reeling in so many bass, each of which was seemingly accompanied by a big wad of aquatic vegetation. Then he got a cramp in a pectoral muscle "that I just couldn't get worked out," Kennedy said. "I was really in pain."
Friday it was the skin that wore thin between the thumb and forefinger on one hand "from pop, pop, popping that frog," Kennedy said.
But no amount of bass-induced pain could wipe the smile from his face.
"It was the most fun day of fishing I've ever had," he said.
The question in this tournament is: Who will still be smiling Saturday afternoon, when the field is cut to the Top 12 for Sunday's final?