Each year since 2021, Kayak Bass Fishing has revisited a previous Kayak Bass Fishing National Championship in order to highlight the anglers, events and places that have made that tournament the signature event in the KBF event portfolio.  As time passes, memories fade, so there is historical value also in recording the testimony of participants and eyewitnesses who made kayak bass fishing into the international phenomenon it is today.

But time can also distill the memories and boil them to their essence. And when you read Mike Elsea’s account of his day three experience on lake Caddo below, you’ll taste the best batch that memory can offer.

2019 was a momentous season in the history of the kayak bass fishing tournament circuit. For the first time ever, our sport collaborated with the professional bass boat circuit as KBF made a deal to co-host tournaments with FLW. During the season, select KBF TRAIL events were paired alongside FLW tournaments; the opportunity culminated with the FLW-KBF Cup, held alongside the FLW Cup on Lake Ouachita in August of 2019, giving kayak anglers an unprecedented media exposure and their first taste of the big stage.

Five months earlier, in April of 2019, another big state was going up, as hundreds of competitors from across the country flocked to Louisiana Downs in Shreveport-Bossier City, LA, to compete in the fourth Kayak Bass Fishing National Championship. It was there that a kayak fisherman from Indiana named Mike Elsea went on to make history and a career for himself by shocking the favorites and taking home the championship trophy.

The 2019 Kayak Bass Fishing National Championship was the first held on a lake other than Kentucky Lake, and the southernmost latitude the event has ever been held. One motive for the move was to get away from the cold fronts that periodically swept over Kentucky Lake to complicate the fishing, but the main idea was to capitalize on the great Louisiana bass fisheries. Additionally, KBF introduced a new format: it would be a three-day long event, with a cut after day 2. On day three, only the top 100 would compete. A final twist: it would be a multi-lake event (with Caddo as the centerpiece).

What happened in 2019 was as dramatic as any previous tournament, but it was the protagonist who rose to the center of events who made it unique. Mike Elsea was not a known name in the kayak fishing community prior to the tournament. In fact, he qualified for the event on-line through the KBF  Challenge series; the national championship was his first ever in-person tournament.

2019 was a pivotal year, as a new wave of talent entered the sport. The standings showed new anglers like Rus Snyders and Cody Milton making their presence felt after day one, while established figures like Drew Gregory and Josh Stewart, as well as local favorites Matthew Scotch and Jamie Broad, also had strong showings in the early standings (in fact, Drew Gregory – a legend in the sport – made a spectacular run to challenge Elsea on days two and three).

Mike Elsea closed day one in a respectable spot, and also an auspicious one: he was in 13th place after day 1. Some anglers might have winced at the bad luck the number implied, but not Elsea. Over the next two days, he would beat kayak anglers who had more experience and who were more heavily favored to win on his way to a life-changing victory.

Elsea has gone on to become a pro’s pro since he lifted the KBF National Championship trophy in Bossier-City. He boasts considerable sponsors and a resumé heavy with victories and tournament checks made out to his name. As a member of Team USA kayak fishing, he has even represented his country in competition.

Previously, others had made their names at the Kayak Bass Fishing National Championship, but none have ever come as far as Mike Elsea, or defeated greater odds. He is living proof that a resourceful, smart angler with talent can make a career of kayak fishing.

We asked Mike Elsea, Chad Hoover and Drew Gregory for their memories of the 2019 tournament and that pivotal year in the history of our sport. Chad and Mike set the table with some appetizers, so as to provide context, and then we let Mike and Drew serve the main course with their stories of the event. All three offer up some desserts at the end, regarding the landmark event and year that was 2019.

Event Background

KBF:   Give us some background about the KBFNC’s move to Shreveport-Bossier-City in 2019. You previously mentioned it was important to you because of your Louisiana roots. What did you mean by that?

Chad Hoover: The decision to move to Shreveport-Bossier City was for several reasons. One of the biggest was my desire to bring an event to Louisiana and have an impact on my home state. That alone wouldn’t be a reason enough for such a big event, but when you couple it with the opportunity to create a multi-lake fishery for the first time and to show off some fisheries that most people had never heard of that are ideal for kayak fishing. The other major reason for the move was to offer something that is more centrally located within the country and offer a broader appeal for the KBF National Championship at a time when the regional scenes hadn’t accomplished the level of organization that is currently available [in 2024].

KBF:   Did a multi-lake, three-day tournament with a cut after day 2 present any logistical challenges that you did not encounter at previous KBF events?

Chad Hoover: It didn’t really provide that many logistical problems for anything other than filming the TV episodes, but that wasn’t that bad either. The biggest issue that it created was working on permits and the administrative side of the tournament management.

KBF: Who did you think were the anglers with the best chance of winning heading into it?

Chad Hoover: No one had really heard of Mike Elsea in competitive kayak fishing since he qualified through the Challenge Series. My personal choices for winners leading into the event was pretty much a three-way tie between Drew Gregory, Kristine Fischer and Greg Blanchard.

KBF: How did you get into kayak fishing, and how did you qualify for the 2019 KBF National Championship?

Mike Elsea: Getting into kayak fishing was something I honestly never saw coming. I had a pretty successful career in the bass boat world, until a combination of “life happening” among some other things caused me to take a break in 2017. I sold my Ranger Z521, and was essentially left “high and dry” that year. During that time, a friend of mine had purchased a fishing kayak from Dick’s Sporting Goods and proceeded to send me random pictures of him catching fish (and having a blast doing it). I decided to give it a try, because, after all, fishing was my love, and I couldn’t stand being sidelined! I bought a sit-in kayak and immediately started having some fun with it, although it was a tad uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, I started doing some research on kayak fishing, and discovered that it was a much bigger sport than I’d imagined – they had tournaments and everything! That winter the Indy Boat, Sport, and Travel Show happened to have a couple kayak dealers there, one of which carried Native Watercraft. One look at the pedal drive system, and seeing how stable that Titan 10.5 was, I knew right then that was what I wanted if I was going to compete in kayak bass tournaments. The following season (2018) I began dabbling in the state challenges for Indiana, and just so happened to be the [KBF] Challenge Series points leader that year, and I qualified for the 2019 KBF National Championship.

KBF: What were you thinking as you drove from Indiana to Louisiana that year? When did you arrive and how did you approach the water?

Mike Elsea: I left for Louisiana a week before the tournament. The drive from Indiana to Louisiana was a nice drive, considering I spent the first 6 hours driving in the rain. However, as I was about to cross into Arkansas, the rain had stopped and the sky began to clear enough to give way to a beautiful sunset! The whole time, I honestly tried not think about the tournament too much. But I’d be lying if I didn’t have thoughts of actually winning the whole thing. I remember envisioning myself walking across the stage, and even giving a grand speech of some sort – which I also admit, is about the time I started tearing up in my truck – so I shook it off, and continued to try to keep my mind clear. I prayed a lot during the drive (and throughout the week) to accept God’s will, no matter the outcome.

After I’d gotten settled in my AirBnB (early the next morning), I headed for the lake. I already had my game plan in mind from months of research and map study. The first area I launched for practice, turned out to be where I fished on day 1 of the tournament. It’s still crazy to think that my first bass of practice (on a lake I’ve never seen) was a 20″, 5lber! Good vibes?? Perhaps!

Pre-Fishing

 KBF: Tell us something about your prep work for the 2019 KBFNC. How did you decide which lake to fish and what techniques you would adopt for the tournament?

Drew Gregory: Honestly I stayed away from Caddo during pre-fishing because all the “dock talk” was about Caddo and I wanted to find something that was all my own so I could fish it the way I wanted to at the pace I wanted. I caught an 8lber in practice on Bisteneau so I felt good about that lake. However, on the last day of pre-fishing I decided to at least spend a half day on Caddo to see what the hype was all about. I caught just a few fish but missed a couple that appeared to be decent size. Even though I caught a bigger fish on Bisteneau I had more bites in a short time on Caddo so I went with my gut and decided to fish day 1 on Caddo knowing I can also choose the other lake on day 2 if Caddo didn’t work out.

Due to some decent rainfall in the area in the weeks leading up to the event, I was able to find an area with cypress trees where it got very “tight” which increased the water flow and therefore it had slightly “noticeable” current in it. Being a river angler at heart I was at home when I at least saw some moving water.

Day One

 KBF: How did day one go? What did you learn, and did it help you heading into day 2?

Mike Elsea:  Day 1 was a very, VERY nerve-wracking day (my goal was to catch 100″ per day)! After getting some bites there in practice, and after seeing the quality that the area had the potential of producing, I was really excited, but very nervous. The area had the specific type of targets I was looking for, but not a whole lot of them. However, the area was still big enough that it would take most of the day to fish it thoroughly, which meant that I had to commit, because loading up and moving to another spot wasn’t an option. Furthermore, there were 5 other competitors that launched from that ramp, so I was really nervous about us being on top of each other.

Launch time: I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw all but one of the other competitors head out into the opposite direction, thus leaving the area all to myself and one other guy! (And he basically started beating the bank right from the ramp, so I basically had the area to myself!) About 15 minutes into the event I hooked up with, and landed, my first bass…a 20″er!! One bite down, four to go… I moved on the next “target”, and hooked up again! I landed a 19.5″ for fish number two! Or so I thought…I had the fish on the board, went to take the picture, and just like that it flopped my board and back into the lake! I was sick…I knew right then that that fish was going to haunt me, and cost me…a lot! I had no choice but to shake it off and keep my head down, which I did, but deep down, that fish haunted me the whole time. I think I ended day 1 with around 92″, and was sitting in 10th place. I learned a few things from that day. 1: always use absurd amount of caution when photographing a fish on the board! 2. Often times, it took multiple casts at those specific targets before generating a bite, and 3. I had to completely change areas for day two, because I felt I had exhausted that area altogether; meaning I was not confident that those targets would “reload”.

KBF: You were in 35th place after day one. What happened during the day, and what changed that allowed you to surge and challenge for the top spot on day two?

Drew Gregory: My fish were mostly set up on the back side of the trees just like a river fish would be set up on the back side of a boulder or log. On day 1, since I really had much time in this area during practice I kinda had to learn more about my area and how or where the bigger fish were staging. All the cypress trees look alike to the untrained eye, but once you fish enough of it and start to get bit you realize not all cypress trees are created equal. On day one I slung my Project Z chatterbait around enough to figure out the subtle pattern within a pattern.

The only thing that changed on day two was the fact that I now knew what to look for and what areas to avoid since I was able to really explore on day one. I targeted the higher percentage trees and found that the right “cluster” or “bigger” trees is where they were likely to be. There is no doubt they happened to be on these types of trees because they provide the most and biggest “knees” on which to spawn. I just happened to lay into a few bigger ones and it helped me get up to 95.50 inches that day and move me up from 35th place into I believe 11th place after day two. Actually, I know for a fact I was 11th because I’ll never forget they called the top 10 after Day two on stage to highlight those anglers and let everyone know they would all receive a KBF camera man on day three. I kind of used it as fuel to my fire and motivation for me on day three, given I missed the top ten, and a camera man, by one spot.

Day Two

KBF: Tell us about Day Two.

Mike Elsea on Lake Caddo in 2019.

Mike Elsea: For day two (and three) I utilized more of the “main lake”, and basically covered a lot of water. I remember there were a ton of people that launched out of that ramp, but it seemed that most of them quickly disappeared into the darkness at launch time. The best way I can describe my day, is that I had a general “radius” in mind that I wanted to cover. Within that radius, there were a lot more “targets” that closely resembled the same stuff I caught my fish off of the day before. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to cover all of them, so I just kept moving and fished as many as I could, and capitalized on every bite I got! I never lost a fish that day, which is huge in any tournament. I had a heck of a day with 98.25″, and climbed my way up to second place, just one inch back!

Day Three

KBF: Tell us about day three. You gave yourself a chance, and followed a fourth place finish on day two with another fourth place finish on the last day.

Drew Gregory:  I’d need that chip on my shoulder for motivation on a very tough day three. It was tough for multiple reasons. One was a weather change, two was a few more anglers had found my area and it was getting pretty beat up by what I’d pulled out of there on days one and two. I struggled mightily to get five fish, and didn’t even have five until the final hour. Even then I didn’t have a “great” bag at all. I believe I still had a 14 inch fish on my stringer and only about 85 inches within the last few minutes of the tournament. The wind was whipping and I made a long run Hail Mary back to the area I’d fished the most and just tried to hit anything new or different I could find with the same chatterbait I’d used all event.

In hindsight I should have slowed down, but I’m notorious for speeding up when the fishing gets tough instead of the conventional “slowing down.” Either way, I guess it worked for me because I hooked up with my biggest fish of the day, a 19.25 incher, and submitted it with just 3 minutes left in the tournament! Who knows how many places that 6 inches jumped me overall, but I know one thing for sure I was very close to not finishing with the 2nd place finish that I did!

KBF: It is day three, and you are in contention. What are you thinking as you begin fishing, and as you finish the day?

Mike Elsea: The moments before launch time on day three are kind of a blur. I had so many thoughts/emotions running through my mind, that (as crazy as it sounds) the “result” was an unpressured, “just go fishing ” kind of attitude. I know that sounds weird, but that’s the best way I can describe it. The biggest issue I had with myself was deciding where to start, but I ended up starting in the same area as I did on day two.

I started off with a bang – my first fish came within 5 minutes after lines-in, and it was a 20″ beauty! I couldn’t believe it! I remember saying out loud, “I’m leading this thing!” (whether I actually was or not, I don’t know…). Not too much longer after that, I boated fish #2, but it was smaller (like 16″ or so). But then, it was like someone turned OFF the switch–I didn’t get another bite for the next 4 hours! By this time, I was starting to lose my cool a little…I was fishing too fast, and I knew it, but couldn’t make myself slow down. I had pedaled darn near halfway across the lake, and I just couldn’t buy a bite! I finally caught another bass – a 16-incher – which then turned into a little flurry of them. I filled my limit, but four of them were 16-16.5 inchers, and at this point, I felt that I’d “dropped the ball” on this one (side note: I never once looked at the leader board).

It was at this time, that a weather system moved through. Rain and wind… to this day, I have never witnessed wind pick up as “fast” as it did that day. Yes the wind blew hard, and yes I’ve been out in very windy conditions before, but the wind that day seemed to have went from calm to 30 mph in a matter of seconds! My kayak was getting pushed past trees so fast, it was almost impossible to fish. I put on a heavier weight, and pointed the bow directly into the wind while pedaling constantly to slow myself down. I had to throw my bait past a tree a good distance, then pedal and steer accordingly to drag the lure around the tree as tight as I could…in fact, tight enough to intentionally get hung up on the base of the tree. Once I got hung up, a fish would either pick it up and swim off with it, or I’d pop it loose, and get bit that way. The last hour of the tournament was something you’d read about in a fairy tale…or better yet, it was ALL God!

I had worked my way out in what felt like the very middle of the lake. There wasn’t a soul around for “miles” it seemed. There was a line of trees out by themselves that I saw in practice, but never fished…(I just had that feeling, so I didn’t even bother getting close to them in practice). Well, it just so happened that I was in sight of them, so I pedaled as hard as could to get there. I didn’t get a bite until the last tree in line…then wham! a 21.75″! My emotions immediately poured out of me. I was praising the Lord at the top of my lungs as the tears ran down my face (I probably looked like a lunatic out there, so it’s a good thing no one was around!). By the time I got a good picture taken, the wind had blown me a good 100 yards away from that tree. I looked up and saw that I was approaching another large tree all by itself. After releasing the bass, I quickly got re-rigged and made a pitch towards that next tree….thump! A 19.5″! Are you kidding me!?? That same “magic” happened on 3 out of the next 4 trees I fished as time was running out. I ended up culling all 4 of those 16″ bass in that last magical, “unforgettable-for-the-rest-of-my-life” hour of the national championship, for a total of 98.5″!

KBF: Tell us about the awards ceremony…

Mike Elsea: The awards ceremony was really neat! I didn’t know what to expect, so when I walked in and saw all the vendors, and the room full of people from all over the country, it just added to the suspense and excitement of what was to come. Between that epic last hour of competition and my phone blowing up with text messages, I had a pretty good feeling I had done well, but didn’t know just how well! Mr. Chad Hoover began the ceremony, and started calling names from like 50th place or something, and working up. He reached the top 25, and my name hadn’t been called yet; my nerves were starting to dance. Then the top 15….then the top 10! I still hadn’t been called up, so now I was really getting excited! The top 5…4th, 3rd…oh my goodness!! Now I was beyond nervous! It was all I could do to keep my composure when he called Drew Gregory and myself up to the stage at the same time! When he announced me as the 2019 KBF National Champion, I lost it…I simply couldn’t hold back the tears of joy any longer. Oh, and that “grand speech” I once envisioned giving…Ha! You can throw that right out the window! Winning a championship was a dream come true, and I honestly can’t put into words exactly how I felt. It was a moment I’ll never forget!

from L-R: Joe Haubenreich, Mike Elsea, Chad Hoover at Louisiana Downs, 2019.

Looking Back

 KBF: 2019 was a turning point in our sport. When KBF joined with FLW for the season to host events, it was the first time a kayak fishing trail shared the national stage with a professional boat series, and it was also the year when the Hobie B.O.S. began to attract national attention. You also had a great year in 2019, finishing second at nationals, in the top ten at the FLW-KBF Cup, and you would win the Angler of the Year title the following year in Hobie B.O.S. In retrospect, what are your memories of 2019 as a tournament angler?

Drew Gregory: 2019 was a big year for me as a tournament angler because it was really the year that made me realize I should focus more on tournament fishing. The KBF National Championship was the one single event I can point back to that changed my mindset on how to proceed in my kayak fishing career moving forward. At that event, John from Yak Attack really confirmed this when he told me how much they as sponsors would love to see me focus more on the big national tournament scene, given the success I’d had in the few national events I’d fished. I had cashed checks in the previous 2 National Championships….. Now that I had around 6 national events under my belt and had great results I agreed with John that this was a wise career shift towards the competitive scene.

COVID hit myself and family hard with a lot of life changes that caused us to move from NC to OH, so 2020 was a tough year as far as number of events I could fish. However, to start the year, before COVID, I placed 2nd to Jody Queen in the KBF Pro Circuit. That was the only event I fished until I finally came back to the scene for the final 3 regular season BOS events. It really was “like riding a bike,” as it came back to me quickly. I placed 4th at the BOS on the Susquehanna River. I then fished the next BOS on Dardanelle and won that event; knowing you need 3 events for AOY consideration I decided I should fish the last one on the Coosa River as well to give me 3. I got 4th there and was in 3rd place behind Jody & Rus heading into the TOC.

Somehow I pulled out a 7th place in that event and Jody and Rus both had one day where they didn’t limit (which never happens!), which is how I ended up winning the 2020 BOS AOY.  From that point, the run I’ve been on has exceeded all my expectations and it really all started with the 2019 KBF National Championship! The $23,000 I won there is still the biggest single check I’ve cashed in any kayak event and I’ll always be grateful for KBF putting on events like this which allow anglers to have life changing experiences!

KBF: What was your reaction to Mike Elsea’s win?

Chad Hoover: I thought it was impressive that he did it in such dominant fashion in a stacked field. I also thought it was great for the sport considering that he qualified through the KBF State Challenge Series.

KBF:    Kayak Bass Fishing brought the sport to even greater prominence in 2019 by partnering with FLW for a series of events. In retrospect, did the 2019 KBF NC facilitate the success of those events in some way?

Chad Hoover: I think it helped considering how much attention the event got in the media. We had already been in discussions with FLW for several years, but  the success of that event in the area (ARK-LA-TEX) where they were to hold the next two FLW Cups (Hot Springs, AR) definitely helped with getting the deal finalized.

KBF: You have had an amazing pro career since you won the KBFNC in 2019, with sponsors and even a spot on the USA Kayak Fishing team. Tell us about its highs and lows. What advice would you give an angler who is new to the sport?

Mike Elsea: Since winning the 2019 National Championship, my career in professional fishing has been on a whole new level. I’ve been blessed with some amazing sponsors, who have made it possible to pursue my dream. Having said that, it is by far the hardest way to make a living that I’ve ever embarked upon. (Not sure that’s how you say that, so help me out there Henry) However, I wouldn’t have it any other way! With most things in life, there are highs and lows, and competitive fishing is no different, so it’s a good thing I love what I do! To those thinking about getting into kayak fishing, my biggest piece of advice is to just do it! (not trying to sound like a Nike commercial) but just get involved! Try different kayaks to see what fits you the best, and just get out on the water! Don’t worry about having all the best stuff at once, or what everyone else is doing…just get out there and have fun–ya never know what it might lead to!

PostScript

Previous Kayak Bass Fishing National Championships had unique story lines, and the 2019 event was no different. In 2016, the first major national event held everyone’s attention, as Matt Ball emerged victor. The 2017 event is famous for its dramatic finish and a late night of judging. The 2018 tournament is known for its big payday and the debut of what would become an industry icon: the Ketch Products Inc. measuring board. In 2019, a bass fisherman from Indiana shocked the kayak fishing community. To this day, Elsea remains the only angler from the Midwest to win the KBF National Championship.

To review the previous articles in this series, visit the KBF national Championships page on our website.

To register for the 2024 KBF National Championship in Alabama, click here.

Additional Resources

Complete standings of the 2019 KBF National Championship: https://tourneyx.com/leaderboard/standings/2019-kbf-national-championship#scores

About the Anglers

Drew Gregory is sponsored by Crescent Kayaks, GoPro, Realtree Fishing, Z-MAN, 13 Fishing, Toyota, Sunline, AFTCO, SMITH Optics, Power-Pole, Pelican Cases, Bending Branches Paddles, Stohlquist PFDs, Torqeedo, X2 Batteries, Yak Attack, Boonedox, Ketch Products, Innovative Sportsman.

Mike Elsea is sponsored by Rogue Gear Co., One Objective, Bizz Baits, YakAttack, Fitzgerald Fishing, Dakota Lithium, Fishing Online, Titan Tungsten, Native Watercraft, Power Pole, BFH, ShredFin Apparel.

To see a preview of the Kayak Bass Fishing episode on lake Caddo with Mike Elsea, visit https://www.facebook.com/KayakBassFishing/posts/pfbid0B1Y8kpSSmeJ586tYWy4b7ahwobivt3ChAzcrd8bQQdUE6ZmN46ux2b3mFADGUdfDl

For additional video highlights from the 2019 KBF National Championship, visit https://www.facebook.com/KayakBassFishing/videos/2885110434894281/

First Published March 8, 2024. The author of this article was not assisted in any way by AI or machine learning in the composition of it.

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