Seventeen-year-old Jelani "JJ" Hennessey is on the fast track to the Elite Series. He was successful in the 2008 Opens as a co-angler (he finished 16th in the Central Division and 20th in the Southern), and will fish as a pro in 2009. The Bowling Green, Va., high school senior already has a full plate with school work, but that won't stop him from fishing all nine events in the three Opens divisions.
"I can't wait to get on the water. I want to fish as many events as I can so I can get better," Hennessey said. "Every spare minute I have I'm out on the water, usually Lake Anna or the Potomac."
While he admits it's challenging, Hennessey says the support of his mother and teachers make it a little easier.
"I get my homework before I leave, and my mom drives while I do work until she's too tired, then I take over. Once I get off the water, it's back to studying."
Hennessey is in the process of applying to colleges, but has yet to hear back from any. It shouldn't be long, though; he has maintained honor roll status despite his rigorous schedule. He plans on majoring in biology and wants to work toward becoming a neurosurgeon — quite a departure from the rod and reel.
Hennessey won't see any professional competition as a minor. His birthday is January 29, the first day of the first Southern Open on the Harris Chain of Lakes in Florida. Every body of water JJ will encounter is new to him, but he doesn't consider that a hurdle, simply another learning opportunity.
"While I've never fished at the Harris Chain, I feel very confident because I know Florida lakes have lots of grass, and so does the Potomac," Hennessey said. "I think the Harris Chain will fish a lot like the water I'm used to. I bet if the weather is good, it'll take 19 pounds a day to win, if not, maybe 15."
Since he has been involved in bass fishing, Hennessey has enjoyed watching Rick Clunn's unique style, and has learned a lot from the Elite pro.
"He is an amazing person. The thing I like about him is his focus and concentration on the water," Hennessey said. "He's also extremely versatile."
Closer to his age is Kyle Fox, a Lakeland, Fla., angler who is fishing the Harris Chain Open, too. Hennessey has encountered Fox at several tournaments.
"Kyle's a great person, and a great angler. I've fished with him before. I would like to see him do well."
Being on the road and the water so often leaves little time for much else. When he's not fishing, JJ can be found at the bowling lanes with his friends. The amount of travel he does takes its toll on Hennessey's social life, but he has become accustomed to it.
"There's definitely things back home I miss out on, like pep rallies," he said. "I missed a lot of them last year and a few already this year."
However, he is so set on becoming a professional angler that the missed events aren't that missed. When asked if being away from home and missing social events to pursue a fishing career is worth the sacrifice, JJ doesn't miss a beat when he says, "Definitely!"