The toughest man in bass fishing

Vernon Kemp qualifies as the toughest man in tournament bass fishing. Consider these credentials as the 47-year-old Florida native prepares for competition in this week’s Bassmaster Eastern Open at Oneida Lake:

9 fractured vertebrae
1 cracked sternum
2 broken ribs
2 cracked hips
1 broken bone in his foot
1 fracture in his left eye socket

If you’re keeping count, that’s a total of 16 crumbling bones, from head to toe.

“I’ve never been in a car wreck,” laughed Kemp.

No, Vernon Kemp’s body IS a car wreck. But he can’t keep his mind off bass fishing. If anyone needs proof of mind-over-matter or passion over pain, here stands Kemp. He’s shrinking physically – Kemp once stood 6-foot-1, and he’s now 5-foot-10. But he’s inspiring exponentially.

“Just to be there and compete is a phenomenal thing to me. I don’t know how he’s doing it,” said Bill Williams, who lives in Tavares, Fla., and has become close friends with Kemp since Williams retired there.

The question really isn’t whether or not Kemp is the toughest man in bass fishing. He has answered that. The question is, how long can he continue to do it?

“Just to be there and compete is a phenomenal thing to me,” Williams said. “I don’t know how he’s doing it.”

It appeared Kemp might be done in late July at the James River Open, when he limped across the weigh-in stage with a 24th-place limit weighing 12 pounds, 14 ounces on Day 1, then zeroed on Day 2 and finished 119th. It wasn’t that Kemp didn’t catch a keeper the second day. Plenty of other anglers zeroed over the first two days of that tournament. It was in a private conversation afterwards, when Kemp described the physical trauma plaguing his every move that you thought, “This guy’s going to be fortunate to make the drive back to Florida.”

But here he is at Oneida Lake, ready to compete in the fourth and final Bassmaster Eastern Open of the season.

Kemp and his wife, Sherry, and their 13-year-old daughter, Shelby, live in Umatilla, Fla., a town of about 2,500, conveniently located between the St. Johns River and the Harris Chain of Lakes. Kemp, who works in a print shop, has long been known as a local “stick” in bass tournaments on those waters. That’s where his friend, Bill Williams, has partnered with Kemp in recent years and seen how accomplished an angler he is.

“Down here, he’s a hammer,” Williams said. “He’s tough to beat on these local lakes.”

Kemp’s all-time best is a 12-pound, 10-ounce largemouth bass caught in a local tournament three years ago. He said it topped the 12-6 he caught in another local tournament 15 years ago.

Kemp was contacted by a local construction company owner three years ago about sponsoring him on the Bassmaster Opens trail. Kemp’s Opens record includes bests of 38th on the Harris Chain in 2017, 30th at North Carolina’s Lake Norman in 2018 and 14th at the Harris Chain this year. He has treasured all the experiences of the step-up in competition.

“This is my passion,” Kemp said. “It’s what I love to do. Preparing for these tournaments is totally different from a local jackpot. These guys are all ruthless. It’s not only the best local anglers, but every aspiring stick, plus some pros that have already made it.”

This week Kemp will be the only pro angler sitting in a pedestal chair on the front deck of his boat. Standing all day, like he normally would, is not an option.

“These guys are looking at me like I’m on crack,” laughed Kemp.

Yes, remarkably, Kemp continues to find humor in his predicament.

After the James River tournament in July, Kemp’s local doctors sent him to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., to further understand what was happening to his body. He spent a week there, being examined by a team of doctors. Kemp said his lead physician told him it was the worst case of osteoporosis she’d ever seen.

“When I told them I was going to New York to fish in a bass tournament,” Kemp recalled, “they said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

Williams is trying to understand that too. He’s worried about his friend, while at the same time marveling at his spirit.

“His body won’t let him do this,” Williams said. “But he’s doing it anyway. The determination he has is remarkable.”

Kemp does have a realistic view of his future. That’s why he’s even more resolute about competing this week.

“You can’t change it,” Kemp said. “You’ve got to have faith that the Lord has put you here for a reason. I’m pretty much done (fishing bass tournaments). Now they’re wanting me to sit on the couch and collect a check. I don’t like it one damn bit.

“I have to be willing to accept that, and I’m not right now.”

Bass fishing passion is still speaking louder than pain for Vernon Kemp.

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