Opens profile: Kenney stays steady

After the first two Bassmaster Northern Opens of 2017, Florida’s JT Kenney is second in the AOY standings. By finishing sixth at Oneida and 14th at the James River, Kenney demonstrated his ability to catch bass under widely varying conditions.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone given that Kenney has been a full-time professional tournament angler for the past 16 years. He plies his trade mainly in FLW events where he has amassed $1.5 million in winnings. However, he has also pocketed nearly $140,000 fishing Bassmaster tournaments.

Kenney lives in Palm Bay, Fla., but grew up in Maryland. One of his first fishing memories is when his father, Bill, took him to a pond on an abandoned golf course. Kenney was 6 years old.

“I hooked a 13-inch bass on a worm and landed it by backing up,” Kenney said. “I never used the reel. I was hooked for life.”

Kenney’s father, “a jack of all trades,” rarely fished. He took the young Kenney fishing often, but was content to kick back in the shade and let his son have at it. Kenney was soon riding a bike to local ponds and streams to pursue his passion from the bank.

At age 10 Kenney stepped off the shoreline and began fishing from a canoe. He was 17 when he bought his first bass boat, a 15-foot Cajun sporting a 50 hp outboard. He earned money for the boat by running a paper route, cutting grass, cleaning a friend’s body shop and doing whatever odd jobs he could dig up.

Kenney launched his Cajun at every opportunity on local Maryland lakes. Two of his most productive tactics were skipping a jig and a soft plastic French fry worm under boat docks. He employed baitcasting tackle with the jig and spinning tackle with the French fry.

“I fished the French fry kind of like we fish a Senko now,” Kenney said. “The best thing I found out by accident is that a jig skips better on heavy monofilament line.”

When Kenney pulled his boat out of the water at dark, he often ran into local anglers who would ask him how he did. Back then, Kenney stated the size of his bass in inches instead of pounds, as in, “I caught an 18-incher, a 17-incher and two 15-inchers.”

Kenney usually did better than the other anglers, who began to question his honesty. One of them told Kenney that if he was catching so many bass, he should enter a tournament.

“I knew there were professional tournaments from watching TV,” Kenney said. “I didn’t know there were smaller local tournaments.”

Kenney took up the challenge and entered a tournament the following weekend at Deep Creek Lake. When the smoke cleared after the shootout, the tournament director handed Kenney a $1,600 check for winning the event. Suddenly, tournament bass fishing was Kenney’s career choice.

After graduating from Cumberland, Maryland’s Alleghany High School in 1992 Kenny worked in a body shop. He also bought and fixed wrecked cars that he sold for extra cash.

“I worked like hell all winter so I could get money to fish tournaments all summer,” Kenney said.

Besides local tournaments and tournament trails, Kenney began fishing Red Man events. In 1997 he moved to Florida and became a bass guide out of Roland Martin’s Marina on Lake Okeechobee. Kenney did not learn techniques that would help him win tournaments while guiding because his clients fished mainly with golden shiners from an anchored boat.

It was after dropping his clients off at 3 p.m. that Kenney advanced his tournament fishing skills. Rather than ducking into air conditioning and hoisting a cold one with some of the other guides, Kenney would head back out onto Okeechobee and attack its bass with lures.

Kenney also fished tournaments while guiding, including his first Bassmaster event, the 1999 New York Invitational on the St. Lawrence River. A young superstar named Kevin VanDam won the tournament. Kenney finished near the bottom of the field.

“What really launched my career was winning the first FLW tournament I ever fished,” Kenney said. “It was on Okeechobee and paid $110,000. That’s what put me on the map.”

In 2003 Kenney quit guiding and has earned his living as a professional tournament angler ever since.

Over the ensuing years, Kenney has seen many new lures and techniques get hot and then go cold.

“I make fun of anglers who give bass the ability to think rationally, but I do truly believe they get conditioned to lures and techniques,” Kenney said. “Something comes out and it’s the hottest thing going. Two years later you can’t catch a bass on it.”

One of the keys to being a successful tournament bass angler, Kenney stressed, is to be on the cutting edge of new developments so you can take full advantage of the hot phase. Once the bass get conditioned to a lure or technique, Kenney regards it as situational, as he does with all lures.

As an example, Kenney points to the Senko. When it first came out, bass were suckers for it anytime and anyplace, particularly in the shallows.

“Now you can throw a Senko in the fall until you’re blue in the face and not get bit,” Kenney said. “But it still catches them good in the spring. After a hot phase everything gets very situational.”

Another interesting phenomenon is how professional anglers get pigeonholed regarding the techniques they use to catch bass. Kenney won a few major tournaments by punching heavy Texas rigged baits through grass mats with a flippin’ rod and braided line. When media folks interview Kenney, they invariably ask for details about punching grass. And, whenever Kenney does a seminar, he is asked to dwell on this subject.

However, Kenney claims that he is just as comfortable fishing 6-pound test on spinning tackle as with a flippin’ rod and 65-pound braid. If Kenney were not a versatile angler, he never would have lasted as long has he has fishing professionally.

“Looking back over the years, I believe I’ve caught 50 percent or more of my bass in tournaments on shallow and medium running crankbaits,” Kenney said. “But no one ever writes about me fishing crankbaits.”

Now that Kenney is in second place in the Bassmaster Northern Open AOY standings, you might think he is excited about the prospect of qualifying for the Elite Series. Due to potential conflicts in tournament schedules, it is likely he would have to choose between the Elites and the FLW Tour.

Making the switch is a risky proposition. Several of the top FLW pros have joined the Elites. Some have fared well; others have not. At this point in his career, Kenney prefers to stick with FLW where he is well established. In fact, he will not be fishing the final Northern Open of 2017 at Douglas Lake.

“I like the B.A.S.S. organization, and qualifying for the Classic would be very lucrative for someone who knows how to market himself,” Kenney said.

In the meantime, Kenney will continue to fish several Bassmaster Open tournaments each year as he has been doing. And, he doesn’t close the door to the possibility that he may consider becoming an Elite Series pro “if the right situation arises.”

Kenney’s two title sponsors are Palm Bay Tourism and the Holland Grill Company. His other sponsors include Ranger Boats, Halo Rods, Ardent Reels, Nichols Lures, Gambler Lures, Lowrance Electronics, TH Marine, Sunline, Eagle Claw, Trokar, Bayou Ice Boxes and Rosner Chevy.