Few bass fans took note of Ohioan Whitney Stephens before he ran away with the first 2019 Bassmaster Eastern Open on Florida’s Harris Chain of Lakes. Stephens boated 57 pounds, 8 ounces of largemouth in the event, which was shortened to two days due to hazardous weather. His weight was nearly 12 pounds heavier than second place.
Stephens is one of the best under-the-radar anglers competing in Bassmaster Open tournaments. The Harris Chain notches his second Open win. His first victory came in 2015 at a Northern Open on Lake Erie out of Sandusky, Ohio.
That win earned Stephens a birth to the 2016 Bassmaster Classic at Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees. If he fishes the remainder of the Eastern Opens this year, he will be heading for his second Classic.
Of the 27 Bassmaster Opens Stephens has fished, he has cashed a check 14 times. In 2012 he finished high enough in the Angler of the Year point standings to receive an invitation to join the Elite Series. He elected not to accept.
“I wasn’t quite ready yet with my fishing and my finances,” Stephens said.
At age 36 Stephens is young enough to enjoy a long professional fishing career if he chooses to chase that dream and finds success. For now, he owns and operates a chain of three Crystal Klean Car Washes with his father, Ken, and brother Chris. The businesses are located in the southern Ohio cities of Chillicothe, Circleville and Waverly.
“My dad is a fisherman,” Stephens said. “He had me fishing when I was old enough to walk. We would take family vacations to the Bass Islands on Lake Erie every summer. Those are some of my best memories.”
Those early vacations to the Bass Islands were all about walleye fishing, but the emphasis eventually turned to smallmouth bass. Although Stephens’ father was in a bass club, he didn’t become serious about tournament fishing until Stephens was in junior high school.
A turning point for Stephens was an annual Easter-season fishing trip his father took to one of several Southern lakes with members of his bass club.
“Every year I’d beg my dad to go with them, and I was told I wasn’t old enough,” Stephens said. “I asked to go again when I was 12 and my dad finally said yes. That trip to Watts Bar is what really got me started in bass fishing.”
The Watts Bar trek afforded Stephens his first opportunity to fish from an all-out bass boat rather than his family’s fish-and-ski. While casting an electric blue Rat-L-Trap with the only rod he owned, a spinning outfit with a battered Shimano reel spooled with neon green line, Stephens hooked and landed the biggest bass of the trip. The largemouth weighed 6-12 and won the group’s big bass pot.
The following year, the fish-and-ski was upgraded to a 21-foot Triton bass boat, and Stephens and his father began fishing Tuesday evening tournaments at lakes near their Waverly home in southern Ohio. Those lakes included 337-acre Lake White, on which Stephens lives today.
After graduating from Waverly High School, Stephens joined the River Valley Bass Club in Portsmouth, Ohio. He competed in club tournaments throughout his college years at Shawnee State, also in Portsmouth. He graduated with electromechanic engineering and business management degrees.
“I scheduled my college classes from Monday through Thursday in the spring so I could have Friday off to practice for tournaments on the weekend,” Stephens said.
The weekend events took place in southern Ohio, northern Kentucky and on the Ohio River. The diversity of bass habitats in these waters forced Stephens to learn everything from cranking deep water to flipping shallow cover. He claimed that fishing trips with his father also taught him to be versatile.
“Early on my dad really focused on me learning to catch bass on the bank and off,” Stephens said. “We would take trips to places like Guntersville, to Kentucky Lake to fish ledges in June and to South Texas were we’d catch bass flipping bushes. I learned to fish the way I needed to catch bass instead of getting stuck on a certain way of fishing.”
After graduating from college, Stephens did well fishing lower level FLW tournaments and other circuits near home. He often finished in the top 10 in the final AOY standings. In 2009 he won a two-day BFL Super Tournament on the Ohio River out of Tanners Creek, Ind.
“Elite Series pro Bill Lowen finished second in that tournament,” Stephens said. “We became friends.”
That same year Stephens competed in all three Bassmaster Northern Opens. He finished 24th in the first event, which was on Chesapeake Bay. Despite a respectable showing, it was a frustrating experience for him.
“The barnacles there kicked my butt,” Stephens said. “I kept breaking bass off on dock poles and laydowns. I’ll never forget it.”
Stephens claims he also got his butt kicked at the 2018 Bassmaster Eastern Open on the Kissimmee Chain, which was his first experience fishing in Florida. In that event the butt kicking came courtesy of the lily pads that helped several bass wrench free of his flipping hook.
“I finished in 88th place,” Stephens said. “That tournament cost me going to the championship.”
With his strong start this season at the Harris Chain, Stephens is well on his way to qualifying for the 2020 Elite Series. If that happens he might turn down the opportunity for the second time should he fail to land sponsors who will help with expenses.
He and his wife, Samantha, a Registered Nurse at the VA, are expecting a baby boy in April.
“With a kid on the way I don’t know what the future holds,” Stephens said. “Part of me deep down wants to go for it.”
Although Stephens doesn’t presently have any cash sponsors, he does get support from Skeeter Boats, Yamaha Marine, Wieda’s Marine, Kistler Rods, Rapala and Power-Pole.