OKEECHOBEE, Fla. The lake he once guided on wasn't as kind to tournament leader J.T. Kenney Saturday as it had been earlier in the week, but the Maryland pro still boated enough Lake Okeechobee bass to run away with the $50,000 top prize in the $300,000 Florida CITGO Bassmaster Southern Open presented by Busch Beer.
"This is awesome," the 29-year-old angler said of his first BASS victory. "I've won national tournaments before, but this is terrific. Okeechobee was good to me this week."
After posting a pair of 20-pound-plus five-bass limits, Kenney struggled to catch 15 pounds, 4 ounces Saturday. But on a day when fishing was slow throughout the 730-square-mile lake, that proved to be the fourth best catch overall and paved the way to an 8-pound, 12-ounce victory with a three-day total of 61-12.
North Carolina pro Chris Baumgardner finished second with 53 pounds, followed by Mark Shepard of Florida with 49-13 and Tennessee's David Walker with 47-14. The Missouri father and son team of Denny (46-15) and Chad (47-11) finished sixth and fifth, respectively.
In the end, it was Kenney's ability to locate and land bragging-sized largemouths that sealed his victory. He took the big-bass award the first two days of the tournament with trophies weighing 8-9 and 9-11; and his Saturday catch included a 6-pound-plus bass that prompted him to exclaim, "The ballgame's over, boys!" once it was safely in his boat at about 9:12 a.m.
Kenney's success came on a 3-inch Gambler Crickett plastic crawfish fished in thick beds of hydrilla in 5 feet of water in the King's Bar area of the lake. On Friday, Kenney claimed he was targeting floating mats of hyacinths, but it turned out to be a ploy to mislead the competition.
Baumgardner, a 42-year-old past BASS winner, finished second on the strength of a Zoom Speed Worm worked briskly along the top of shallow hydrilla in the Moonshine Bay area. "I'm ecstatic about second," he said. "I wasn't really on much in practice. But sometimes that's when you do well in a tournament. And that's what happened to me."
Shepard, a 38-year-old part-time Lake Okeechobee guide, was thrilled about finishing third in just his second BASS appearance. "This is great," he said. "I never expected to do this good in this tournament, and it has me fired up for (Lake) Eufaula (site of the next and last Southern Open Nov. 6-8)."
In the amateur division, Florida's Nathan Bloom earned the top prize (a fully rigged boat valued at $24,000) with a three-day total of 32-12. Vincent Renew of South Carolina was second with 27-5, followed by Kentucky's Les Underwood (26-13).
Georgia's Duke McCardle took Saturday's big-bass honors with a 7-12 largemouth.
The second of three Southern Openss, the Lake Okeechobee event awarded valuable points toward the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer and the inaugural CITGO Open Championship in December.
BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. In 2004, BASS will introduce the all-new Bassmaster Elite 50 Series, a four-event, no-entry-fee circuit featuring a $1.6 million prize purse for the world's best anglers. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail presented by Busch Beer is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass-fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.