Taking home the winner’s trophy and paycheck is the goal of competing in a bass tournament, right? The answer is yes in most cases, but with one glowing exception. The Toyota Bonus Bucks Owners Tournament.
The annual event — this year was the ninth — is more family reunion than fierce competition for bragging rights to a shiny trophy and the cash that comes with winning it. Two-angler teams come from all over — this year 33 states — and they return year after year for the same purpose. That is reuniting with old friends, making new acquaintances, and enjoying the camaraderie of a friendly competition.
Meet Kris Bonnegent of Jackson, Mo., and Ken Holder of South Bend, Ind. The team fished the second event in 2012 and only missed last year due to family commitments. These lifelong friends embody the fraternity of Toyota owners that are loyal to the brand through its ongoing commitment to bass fishing. Stories like theirs are what truly set this tournament apart from all the others.
Bonnegent, 50, and Holder, 49, are high school buddies. They attended Bolton High School in Alexandria, La., from 1985 through 1989. They became friends through a common interest in fishing, and the bond has grown tighter ever since.
“We are like brothers and could make a movie of all the good and bad we’ve been through in our lives,” said Bonnegent. “Fishing has always held us together, through divorces, accidents, you name it.”
In high school, Holder was invited to Bonnegent’s family fish camp near their hometown. The bayou was filled with game fish, largemouth included. His classmate had never been bass fishing. Holder encouraged him to give it a try. They went shopping, returned with a bag of plastic worms and went fishing. And a lifelong bond began.
“We caught a dozen bass and I was hooked,” said Bonnegent. “And it’s never let up since then.”
During high school and following graduation, fishing trips were most every day.
“I’d get off work and would always have a boat hooked to the truck,” said Bonnegent. “We had so much water around us that we just fished through a rotation of lakes, and went fishing just about every day.”
The reality of becoming grown men and stepping into careers came sooner than later. The two classmates moved away from Louisiana. Bonnegent attended college in Missouri and settled there, while Holder moved to Virginia.
Miles apart, it was bass fishing vacations back home to Bonnegent’s fish camp on Toledo Bend Lake that kept their friendship going.
“It gave us an excuse to get together, take a vacation,” said Holder. “We always kept in touch over the miles and time, but going fishing took us back to our youth about what really mattered most.”
Vacations eventually included competing in team tournaments, first on Toledo Bend and then elsewhere in the region. Mutual Toyota owners, it was that connection that led them to the owner event. In fact, it was Holder’s 2011 Toyota Tundra that allowed them to enter the owner tournament the next year. They were hooked after the first event, agreeing it would be their annual reunion.
“We stopped fishing the other tournaments and only fish the owners’ event,” said Holder.
“It was like a family atmosphere with all the camaraderie, and that made it a perfect fit for us,” added Bonnegent.
Holder currently owns a 2019 Sequoia that he purchased after riding in Bonnegent’s 2017 model. Also in his garage is a 2019 Highlander and 2012 Corolla, which will be driven later this year by his teenage son.
What stands out the most is the team’s boat, a 1983 Ranger 370V, an appropriate token that is the common thread woven through this longtime fishing brotherhood. Bonnegent acquired the boat 23 years ago, and like their kinship, the boat is a symbol of their bond.
“It’s probably just as much a part of us as our connection to fishing after all this time,” said Bonnegent
The old boat, like these two lifelong buddies, has more stories to tell than space allows, not unlike the many other friends and family members that make this tournament indeed more family reunion than competition.