Kennedy’s lesson: To thine own self be true

If you want to learn about how Steve Kennedy fishes, first you need to watch him eat seafood.

I learned that last year at a popular Maryland crabhouse when the Elites visited the Potomac River. My wife and I joined a large group of anglers and media folks for dinner there the night before practice started. Kennedy, taking on a “when in Rome” attitude, ordered a big pile of hard shell crabs and then proceeded to pick them apart.

S-L-O-W-L-Y … T-H-O-R-O-U-G-H-L-Y

Each carapace was precisely bisected, each leg was gingerly pulled off, and he mined every last bit of meat from each hidden nook and cranny. It was fun to watch as we ate our appetizers, a bit funny as we finished our main courses and noticeable as we all paid our bills and he finished up on…crab number three.

As the restaurant emptied out and Kennedy kept picking, his daughter Sophia implored, politely but firmly, “Can’t we just get a to-go bag?” 

By the time I left and drove the 50 miles home, Steve’s wife Julia had just posted to social media a picture of Kennedy in an otherwise empty restaurant, a newly-crowned member of the “clean plate club,” with his kids celebrating the final demise of his crab pile. He could not be hurried. He had a system, and he stuck to it.

In a sport where lots of the characters blend into a seamless mass, there are a few whose personalities stand out – Mike Iaconelli, Gerald Swindle and Skeet Reese immediately come to mind – but none, with the possible exception of Aaron Martens, melds his personality into his fishing style as cleanly as Kennedy. He cannot be rushed, he cannot and will not deviate from what he knows works for him. 

It’s easy to characterize yourself as a “flipper” or an “offshore specialist” or a “junk fisherman,” but typically those labels reflect what you want to be more than what you are. Are you a junk fisherman because you excel at making things happen or is it just because you’re not good at finding a pattern?

In a sport where “start early and stay late” is the universal practice mantra, Kennedy sometimes sets banker’s hours. In a sport where it’s common to get a new arsenal of reels at the beginning of each season, the engineer in Kennedy won’t allow him to put his decades old green Curados out to pasture. Until this year, in a sport where every pro seems to get a new boat every year, he always had an older, slower model. But rather than seeing all of that as a disadvantage, Kennedy was savvy enough to tailor those facts to the way he wanted to fish.

That’s not easy to do. The hardest thing about our sport is finding out precisely what allows you to make your angling personality into the best possible version of yourself. As an example, I offer up the 2011 Bassmaster Classic. I was stationed in a media boat in Catouatche watching eventual winner Kevin VanDam and runner up Aaron Martens put on a show. But on the edges sat the third and fourth place finishers, Derek Remitz and Brandon Palaniuk.

When Remitz hooked a fish, you could barely tell he had one on. His body stayed still, he reeled slowly, just enough to keep tension on the fish, without a grin or a grimace to betray his emotions, before bending down and gently hoisting it in. When Palaniuk hooked up, on the other hand, he would run from one end of the boat to the other, drop to his knees, thrust his crankbait rod into the water and lunge to retrieve the fish. I’m almost certain that if Remitz had mimicked Palaniuk’s style, or vice versa, they wouldn’t have made it to the top five. It’s not about finding the right style – it’s about finding your right style – and that’s what Kennedy does best.

If you’ve watched the video of him landing big fish at Conroe (Editor’s note: Watch the video here) or during his recent Dardanelle win, you know that he has more fun fishing than anyone else on tour, but if you’ve ever spent five minutes talking to him, you also know that he cares more deeply about every aspect of the sport – save, perhaps, sponsorship – than just about anyone else.

Earlier this year I interviewed him for a B.A.S.S. Times article about hollow belly swimbaits. I thought it went well. I wrote the article and forgot about it. He did not. A few days later I got a lengthy text from him that started off: “I have to say that the premise of your article seems a little odd to me.” Four hours later, I got another text with a screenshot bolstering his case. I don’t care that he can be gently confrontational. In fact, that’s what makes him interesting – the idea that his head is spinning around not with ways to bolster his image, but rather with ways to gain a competitive advantage based on an honest assessment of his own talents and abilities.

Certainly he knows that occasionally fans and competitors are amused by him, and that more often than that they’re confounded by his decisions. His greatest strength is that not only does he avoid the dock talk, but also that he doesn’t even care to find out where the dock is located.