Kevin Short spent the month of July mad at Ken Cook.
Well, not really.
You see, Short had plenty of things to be angry or at least severely aggrieved about in July, and his good friend, the 1991 Bassmaster Classic champion, wasn’t on the front lines of that battle. Short’s house had been obliterated by a tornado that struck Mayflower, Ark., in April while Short and the rest of his colleagues prepared for a tournament at Toledo Bend. He wasn’t hurt, his wife wasn’t hurt, his father wasn’t hurt, his father’s girlfriend wasn’t hurt, but the stuff – a virtual lifetime of stuff – was all but gone. All he had left was the memories and the hope of an insurance settlement.
Once he completed the BASSfest tournament at Lake Chickamauga in June, the Elites hit their normal summer break, a time for a bit of rest and relaxation, maybe catching up on bills or mowing the grass. In recent years, that time has been an opportunity for Short and his wife Kerry to travel to Escanaba, Mich., to put the serious smack down on some uneducated smallies. They usually go with Ken Cook and his wife Tammy.
“Obviously that got changed,” Short said. “One of my first thoughts was that we’re not going to get there.”
The Cooks went.
The Shorts stayed home.
Or rather the Shorts stayed where their home used to be and dealt with the business of cleaning up and starting the process of rebuilding their stuff. Whenever he had a short break to sit in the camper, sweat dripping down his face, Short would log onto social media and see the smiling face of his buddy Ken, arms straining under the weight of another fat smallmouth. Or two. Or if Tammy was in the picture, there might be four beautiful bronze fish on display, taunting Short from Escanaba and other points far north of Mayflower. If Ken and Tammy could’ve taught their golden retriever Moxy to grip one brown fish between her paws and clamp another between her teeth, the otherwise even-tempered Short might’ve had a breakdown, but Short survived it.
He and Kerry have endured terrible tragedies in their lives, first the loss of their daughter, Michelle, now the less meaningful but still painful loss of their home, and yet now he’s back to fishing the way he knows how, as evidenced by a fourth-place finish last week at the Delaware River. See photos of Kevin Short on the Delaware.
He was back on the water a few weeks after the tornado, at Dardanelle near home. Short’s not one just to go through the motions, but it was a grind and he finished 63rd. A month later, it was on to Chickamauga, and while time had passed, many issues were left unresolved. He finished a disappointing 70th at BASSfest.
“Chickamauga was not really a relief,” he said. “There was still so much to be done. But by the time we got to the Delaware, we’d gotten everything done that we could. There wasn’t anything else we could do. I’d only been in the boat one day in the last month so it was good to be back in the boat.”
Of course, not all is rosy now. Driving through Memphis on the way back from Chickamauga, with Kerry towing the boat and Kevin pulling their fifth wheel, she started to think about how close they truly were to disaster. “If somebody sideswipes the fifth wheel and takes it out, we’re screwed,” Kevin said. “We’d be truly homeless. So we made the decision to park that thing and went to Ideal RV in Mountain Home (Arkansas) and found a nice used truck camper. The owner told us ‘Get it, take it, use it as long as you need it. After a while if you don’t want to buy it, just bring it back.”
The insurance money came through and the Shorts’ construction was supposed to start before they left for Philadelphia, but another snafu arose, delaying the start. It turned out to be a blessing, though. It allowed Short to focus on the Delaware River, the type of stingy, prop-chewing, push-pole-demanding watery serpent that Short circles when he sees it on the calendar. “Dad was good,” he said. “And the fact that they weren’t able to start the house before we left was actually a relief. The contractor was not calling me.” It allowed him to clear his mind and do what he does best, grind on current-oriented bass in hard to get to places.
“In the four days of the tournament on the Delaware, all I was thinking about was getting another bite,” he said. He drove 70 miles roundtrip each day to hidden places that required a hand saw to get to the best water. There he flipped and pitched and while he didn’t challenge Mike Iaconelli for the win, one more pound and he would’ve been the runner-up. The saw was a part of his strategy, but the real tool that enabled him to succeed was Google Earth, where he located three small creeks with sharp bends and trees on the channel swings.
“I figured the best way to do reasonably well was to forget about the main river,” he said. “The creeks might not have as many fish, or as many big fish, but they’d be easier to catch. Two of the creeks looked pretty good and one I couldn’t get in. It had a barge sitting sideways, working on a bridge. I knew that if I could catch five a day, I would most likely be in the Top 12.”
And then a funny thing happened. Short allowed himself to get so mentally focused on what he was doing that he all but forgot that he was outside of Philadelphia, in New Jersey of all places, about as far away culturally from Mayflower, Ark., as you can get.
“It could have been a creek anywhere,” he stated. “it could’ve been the James, the Potomac, or even the Arkansas River at home. It wasn’t Jersey at all.”
For a man who currently had his only place to live parked on wheels a thousand miles away for fear of losing it, Kevin Short had found a home for the week. He continued to focus on that home, learning all of its intricacies and mining it for all it was worth. Meanwhile, Kerry got on the Internet and learned something surprising – Kevin had moved into the top 50 in the Angler of the Year standings. If he kept that position or improved upon it over the rest of the Delaware tournament and through Cayuga, he’d be going to Escanaba after all. He’d skipped Toledo Bend and had assumed that made it mathematically impossible to qualify for the 50-man field, but the numbers told a different story. After the Delaware ended, he’d moved up to 49th, not much breathing room to be sure, but inside the cut for the time being.
He may still get to go to Escanaba yet.
That trip would be special to Short not just because of what it would mean for his season, but also because it would keep his streak alive. Every year since 2008, when B.A.S.S. first announced that they’d be going to Bay de Noc in 2009, the Shorts have gone there. Well, there was one year they missed it, but they kept their average at once per year by going twice another time around.
“It’s a special place,” he said. “We don’t get to catch smallmouths like that at home. Up there, if you find them, you can catch them, and they get so much bigger.”
Of course, he’s a bit concerned about losing his special place to the masses. The fish are big and dumb, but they’re also vulnerable.
“Everybody is going to catch them up there, but I’m hoping that it’s remote enough to keep a lot of people away,” he said. “I’d hate to go up there in two or three years and have it be like Amistad or Falcon is now. It’s not going to take much to make it that way. A 4- or 5-pound smallmouth up there is so old, they fight like hell, but they’re relatively fragile.”
To finally get the shot at fishing Bay de Noc in competition that first tempted him six years ago, Short will have to maintain his place in the standings in New York. His plan is to take some of that bottled up anger – some of which may or may not have been worsened by seeing Ken Cook’s smiling face with two fists full of bronze – and channel it at Cayuga.
“I’m going to be pissed off,” Short said. “I’m going to try to catch every one I can. I’m going to try like hell to concentrate on getting the next bite.”
Somewhere, far away, Ken Cook is still smiling. Kevin Short is finally smiling, too. It’s the smallmouths who have every reason to be worried.