Five years, five stories…..in 2016, over 200 KBF anglers took a chance when they attended the first ever Kayak Bass Fishing National Championship presented by Torqeedo on Kentucky Lake. KBF commemorated that event in 2021. The feedback to the article was so good that we decided to make it an annual tradition – just like KBF anglers who return to the National Championship every season. But this year is different, because we will all return to Kentucky Lake in 2022, the place where it started.
Before we get to the five stories from 2017, a bit of context….
Three events occupied the KBF tournament schedule from March 31st-April 1st, 2017. The first was a KBF OPEN, and the second was a Yak Attack KBF “Young Guns” event to bring youth anglers into the sport. The KBF OPEN was held on separate days in 2016, but in 2017 it was held concurrently with the KBF National Championship presented by Torqeedo. A lesson about double-dipping in concurrent events: Rick Rowland, the angler who placed third at Nationals, won the Open and $10,000 in 2017.
But all eyes were on the main event: the KBF National Championship. Expanding from the first National Championship, the 1st place payout had grown to $40,000 and the competitors increased from 230 anglers in 2016 to 362 in 2017. The sport of kayak fishing had become popular over the course of 2016, fueled by social media, CPR fishing, online tournament management, and a boom in local clubs that were forming all over the country. Kayak fishing was quickly gaining a higher profile in the fishing industry and beyond.
What could it mean for the top anglers and the eventual champion?
To answer those questions, anglers first had to figure out the bite on Kentucky Lake. Conditions varied throughout the week. Where a cold front had interrupted a warming trend in 2016, the 2017 event was characterized by windy conditions, temperatures that ranged from below average to mild. Increased tournament pressure, better technology for big water fishing and more experienced anglers all contributed to the event’s magnitude and difficulty. And there was one more change:
Five years, five stories…..and five fish per day. The KBF National Championship format expanded in 2017, setting the standard for today’s events. In 2016, the championship round was determined by an angler’s best five fish (2/3) over two days. In 2017, the championship was determined by the best 5 fish an angler submitted each day, for a total of 10 fish.
Only 3.25” separated 1st place from 5th place in 2017. Every fish mattered. To commemorate the event, we caught up with the top five anglers in the final standings to let them tell the tale of the 2017 KBF National Championship. It is the story of fierce competitors figuring out a big lake, a boat angler adjusting to a kayak tournament event (and moving up 50 places in the standings), a story of lost fish and found fish, a jump of more than 50 spots in the standings on Day 2 and a loving husband who gave the event everything he had after a difficult year for his wife’s health. These are five of the hundreds of stories that unfolded on Kentucky Lake in 2017, and they tell them below in their own words.
It begins with the eventual champion, Ohio’s Kurt Smits.
Kurt: Driving down to KY lake for the 2017 KBF National Championship was a blessing for me not long before my wife was cured of breast cancer, this was the first trip after a very long year we had and I was looking forward to thinking about fishing and nothing else. Passing the time going over my strategy, my plan was to concentrate on coves with creeks that would be good staging areas for pre-spawning and spawning bass. Seems like a straight forward plan until you realize how big the lake is and how many coves and the size of them, made me a little nervous.
Having total confidence in my Hobie Pro Angler 14 which was rigged and ready to hit the water and start this journey. I can remember hitting the ramp at Moore’s landing and thinking how lucky I was to have a peddle kayak on a KY lake, everything’s just so big and having the efficiency of pedals was going to be huge in covering water.
Jedediah: I looked at the map through Google Earth quite a bit. I had a paper map of the lake as well. My rig at the time was a paddle driven Wilderness Systems ATAK 140.
Cory: I traveled there about one week out. I don’t remember where I stayed that year, it may have been with Rick [Rowland], John [Ladd] and Shelly [Efird].
Gene: I was extremely excited to get to the KBF National Championship as it was my first and I had only been fishing kayak tournaments for about a year. Coming from the bass boat world I was anxious to see how my new Old Town PDL would hold up fishing a multi-day event. We (Mark Pendergraf, another Texan) and I arrived mid-week and had a day and a half to pre-fish. I had never been on or much less seen the lake until the evening we arrived. I used Google Earth, old lake maps and past fishing reports to try to identify areas that were like what we fish here in Texas. I identified Lake Barkley as more like what we had been fishing at home, so we started our pre-fishing on there.
Rick: Learning of the 2017 KBF National Championship was going back to Kentucky Lake I wasted no time and reserved a cabin at Paris Landing State Park. Past experience of fishing northern and southern parts of Kentucky Lake made Paris Landing the ideal mid-lake location. Saturday March 25th was here; after weeks of prepping I had the truck loaded and the trailer in tow caring a Native Watercraft Slayer Propel 13. One stop to make and it was to pick up Shelly Efird. If you’ve ever hung out with Shelly then you know with his comical one-liners that traveling with him is never a dull moment. While on our 9 hour trip we discussed strategy and with Kentucky Lake you always have to figure in the weather conditions too. In 2016 Kentucky Lake National Championship was brutal with cold temps and strong winds which killed our fishing and ability to get to the areas we caught them pre-fishing. The 2017 Championship date was 10 days later than 2016 but we devised a strategy for any weather pattern that we could face, starting by picking areas that would be protected from a north prevailing cold front winds. For the 2017 Championship the weather was looking fantastic – a warm front with highs near 80 and no rain in the forecast.
Jedediah: Bear Wenzel and I covered a lot of the lake, driving hundreds of miles throughout the week, checking accesses, fishing, running over armadillos, breaking our trailer and sleeping in a camper overloaded with dudes, batteries charging and fishing equipment. I had never been to Kentucky Lake at that point, but our trip was off to an awesome start and we were having fun! We started at the top of the lake and caught fish, but there was a ton of pressure in that area. We bounced around, searching for bays and points where fish were moving out of the main river and moving up to spawn. I had a day where I paddled 6-7 miles and got chased off an island by a pissed off goose while I was trying to use a nearby tree as a restroom. BUT, I found two big fish – a 6.2 lb largemouth and a 5.3 lb smallmouth. Ultimately, this is where I decided to launch my attack on Day 1 and my plan was to kick some [ed: Jedediah got salty here when recalling the plan]…..
Kurt: Having 3.5 days to figure the fish out on a lake that is as big as KY lake you just have to pick some areas and break them down. The lake is just too big to figure it all out. I was lucky enough to figure out several patterns but they just weren’t the size fish I thought you would need, being a little bummed at not finding some of the legendary big girls of KY Lake. Luckily I stayed in a house with some friends and we would talk about fishing every night. On the night before pre-fishing ends my good buddy Dan Bell mentions he found some good ones on stake beds and that is one thing I didn’t look at.
On the last day we can pre-fish before the big show starts I ran 4 different bays that had stake beds and not finding much until I rolled down a lonely county road that just disappeared into the lake, I hit the last cove hungry and ready to get dinner but 4 casts and three fish over 18 that told me everything I needed to know. The deal was sealed, I didn’t think I would see another soul on tournament day being this place was far of the beaten path.
Gene: The day and a half of pre-fishing I was mainly looking for dirty water, laydowns and breaks in the back water. I found a place that was off the main water and it had an old stock tank in the back of it with a couple of downed trees for cover. I was able to find a few good fish that first afternoon of pre-fishing and I felt like it would replenish day after day. So, we left and spent the whole next day on Kentucky Lake searching and trying to find a different pattern all the time knowing we were going back to our original spot.
Cory: There was a place I fished the year before (2016) and on the last day of practice I found another area similar to it. There were fish stacked on it. So I tried the new area and found some big fish. I was throwing a Rat-L-Trap and landed over 90” in 20 minutes. I took the hooks off and threw it around to be sure there were more fish, and I had 19” Smallies and big Largemouth Bass throwing the lure.
Rick: We started pre-fishing on Sunday morning 5 days before the Championship so we headed south from Paris Landing. Shelly and I went back to a familiar spot to test the waters and get an idea on what stage the fish were in. I think the water temps were mid 50’s so we knew to start at the mouth of spawning coves and work toward shallow water. It wasn’t long before Shelly hooked into an 18″, then I landed one and found the fish staging from 8 to 15 foot deep. After a good day 1 practice I broke out the map to look for areas that were similar and planned the next 4 days. Days 2 and 3 of practice we headed to a new locations just off main lake leading back into spawning cove. To be honest I can’t remember much about those locations, they lacked cover, and we didn’t feel they would hold the quality fish. On to day 4, made an hour plus drive down to New Johnsonville. The weather had been perfect so far with bright sun, day time highs reaching 80, water temps climbing closer to 60 degrees the time was now for the fish to bite and that day they did. Started shallow fishing flats in 4 to 5 depth with not much luck but once I moved out into 8 to 12 foot range the Garmin screen lit up. The bass were still staging on semi steep banks using anything for cover, docks, trees and rocky points. Lures that day were Carolina rigs, crank baits, spinner baits and jigs. If your lure made contact with any sort of cover during the retrieve you got bit. When I say bit I mean you had a Kentucky Lake bruiser on the end of the line and you two were playing tug of war.
I have never felt or battled with fish as strong as the ones in Kentucky lake; I guess they get it from living in the current most of the year. After a couple of hours of marking way points Shelly and I ventured across to the other side of the cove and we caught a few more but with other kayakers moving around in the area we didn’t want to give away too much info by pulling up fish. On to our final practice day 5 and we chose to go back to our day 1 practice spot. On day 4 we talked about how both spots were identical to one another, the water temps had to increase from when we fished on day 1 so hopefully more and better quality had move in getting ready to spawn. The short answer was yes, Shelly and I went straight to the same spot where my depth finder marked fish on every brush pile. Shelly made the first cast while I watched from about 10 feet away- lifting his rode I saw his line jump and with the hook set here’s a 20 incher tail dancing across the water. At this point after only 10 minutes on the water I was done fishing. Spent the next 2 hours locating any related bass cover from mid cove back while watching other anglers fish around the area. It was around 11am when we made the decision to load up the kayak and start prepping our gear right there at the boat ramp parking lot. While tying on lures and bouncing ideas back and forth a big question kept popping up: where are we going to start on tournament day?
The National Championship
Day 1 (March 31, 2017)
Kurt: The drive to my launch was down winding, twisting, lonely roads and not seeing another car the whole time. The wind was blowing and I knew it was blowing into the cove I wanted to fish, the excitement grew with every mile closer I got. Turning the last corner I see two vehicles!!!! I totally was not expecting that but these guys were great. Waiting for the launch we talked about where we were going to fish and stayed out of each other’s way. Took a minute to figure out that the bigger fish were not right on the stake beds but 3 or 4 feet behind them, almost using them as a current break from the wind blowing in. As the day wore on not having service I left way early to drive back and use the WIFI at check in, ending up in 2nd opened my eyes up that I just may be able to pull this off.
Rick: Day 1 of the National Championship and Open Tournament was here, and our day 4 New Johnsonville spot is where we picked to start out. The quality of fish seem to be better there. Rolling up to the ramp had us second guessing our decision. There were kayakers everywhere. By the time we unloaded I had counted 23 yaks. Then a gear check: identifier, measuring board, phone, snacks and water all checked off before launch time. Here we go: got to the area I wanted as other anglers worked their way toward other spots. It wasn’t long in the countdown to lines in so I peddled my Slayer Propel into position while looking at my Garmin’s away points. My first cast was slow rolling a spinner bait across a rocky point for about 20 minutes with no luck. I switch to a jig and moved closer in concentrating my cast along a steep stair stepping drop off. There was a thump, setting the hook I know it was a good one and at 6:50 I scored my first bass, a 20.50″ bass. For the next hour I pulled fish off that one spot also losing one that broke my line and another when I set the hook my rod slipped from my wet hands as I saw my fishing line going straight under my kayak. Grabbing the rod and reeling down I felt the hook pull out.
Now you remember when I mentioned being protected from the northern winds, well it was the case that morning because a front was pushing in and by 11:00 with 20mph winds with white caps. Luckily I had racked up 95.25 inches because I never got another bite fishing the area and meeting up with Shelly I learned he had 84.75 inches. Now what would be my day 2 plan? After fishing hard and seeing all the other anglers there I decided to abandon the New Johnsonville spot. Planned to head back up the lake to the final practice day area. The weather conditions were going to be post-frontal so I felt the bass would be hanging tight on cover. Back at the cabin trying to prepare for the next day all I could think about was “what if someone had already caught those fish on day one?” and would be back in there in the morning. All night long that question ran through my mind but that was my only option.
Gene: Day 1 I started down a bank heading to the back of the creek with the deep pond and I managed a small quick limit by 10:30am. As I made my way to the deep bank with the laydowns, I managed to upgrade several times, but I still had two 14” fish in my limit. I decided to tie on a small square bill and bang it around the timber and on the second cast I caught a 22” but as I was trying to measure her, she jumped the board and was gone. I really let it get to me for a few minutes, but I knew I had an hour left to fish for the day, so I kept throwing the square bill and managed to upgrade one of the 14” bass with a 19.50”. This put me at 84.50 inches and 56th out of the 362 for day one. I knew I was on to something with the square bill, so I was headed right back to the same spot the next day.
Jedediah: On day 1 I made it to my spot with some time to spare. I had rods ready, lures smeared with smelly jelly, and punk rock lyrics stewing in my head in my head as I waited for go time. I had the line of what direction I wanted to work a point that was my main focus. I stayed well off of it. It was one of the only spots that I had found that had some structure in the water, due to the lake being so low. I picked my way to a lay down tree that hung off the point. I caught fish tight to it and I caught them 20-30 feet off the end of it. I threw finesse swim jigs primarily, along with some square bills and chatterbaits. Throughout the day, I covered maybe 120 yards of shoreline, always coming back to that secondary point and the cove that lay behind it. The day went well, I lost a couple fish that I had to mentally overcome, but I ended up landing in 18th at the conclusion of the first day of competition.
Cory: I got to my spot on Day 1 and put my Power-Pole down and waited. Then I saw two lights coming my way from the direction of another ramp. One guy pulled up, and then another. They had me boxed in, and one of them caught a good fish right at lines in. The fish I caught the day before were there, but I wasn’t catching them. I switched to plastics, and they started biting. I talked with the two other guys and we made a pact to back off and fish the area, but not leave. We didn’t want to pressure the fish too much. It was a small area, but at the end of the day we all had good limits.
Day 2 (April 1, 2017)
Gene: Day 2 came and we were on the water early with first cast at 6:30am. I started on the same bank as the day before and on my third cast I caught an 18.50” and finished a limit by 10am before I ever got to the deeper water with laydowns. I only threw the square bill all day and probably caught 15 or 20 fish, but I once again was sitting in the low 80” s. When I came up on the laydowns, I started working them out further than the day before and caught a few little ones and I saw a fish running bait fish up on the bank at the trunk of the laydown so I ran back down the 50 yards stretch of bank throwing the square bill as close to the bank and trunk as I could. I couldn’t believe it when I caught a 22” and a 19.75” on back-to-back cast. At that time, I knew I would spend the last two hours of the National Championship fishing up and down that bank of 50 yards. I went on to catch a 21.50”, 19.00” and an 18.50” to finish the day. As Day 2 ended I had caught the largest limit of the National Championship with 100.75”. It propelled me from 56th to a 4th place finish at my first National Championship.
Rick: Pulling up to the boat ramp on Day 2, Shelly and I saw we were the only ones there but it was still early. Getting ready we could hear vehicles pulling in. I got into the water doing my check list and waiting for launch time. I counted 5 other anglers which gave me some relief. It was go time, and I peddled out to my way points with time to spare. I cruised over some brush piles and my Garmin reflected arches so the fish are here. Now it’s time to see what they will bite, throwing a Texas rigged worm and a jig as my go to baits. At 6:40 I was able to hook-up with a 18.25 bass which settled my nerves starting out. Still marking more fish on my screen with no bites I moved to another brush pile about 20 yards down and immediately hooked up to a 17.50 at 7:10. The light bulb popped on, I have 15 fish holding away spots so I should stay on the move and not waste time on fish not ready to bite. My strategy was set for the rest of the day.
The cool part was Shelly had the same plan, we could see each other catching fish and in passing would ask how big was that last one. As the morning moved on the bite got better as there were new fish moving into the area getting ready for the spawn. At early afternoon while fishing another brush pile where I saw some good arches on the depth finder Shelly came over. We talked about how neither of us had good cell service and that we would need to leave early to make sure our fish got uploaded before the shut off time. Also we talked about our fish catches and what we needed to cull. Mine was a 15 incher with my biggest being an 18.25 so I was looking for the big bite. Shelly gave me a pep talk then asked if I fished this one spot that on my down scan imaging looked to be a refrigerator with brush and tires setting in 10ft of water. I said no and thinking it was a good idea I headed toward the spot. Still today Shelly tells me the story as he saw me heading away he casted in the brush pile I was just fishing and of course he set the hook on a 18.50. The whole time he was fighting and taking photos of the fish he was hoping I wouldn’t turn around! Glad I didn’t see that transpire too because I was able to concentrate and pull up a 20.50 inch bass giving me a 91.75 Day 2 total (Shelly ended up with 90.25).
Jedediah: A full pot of coffee in my system and I was ready to rock. I started at the tree on the point and it paid off. I hit a big smallmouth and a 7.3lb largemouth early. It was on. I worked non-stop through the day. I was on fish, but I also lost some good fish, which later I found out would cost me the win. While the wind picked up, my bite did as well. I positioned the boat on the shoreline, up in the rocks. The fish were taking the lure as I drug it up the hill and into the shallows. Jarring hits by a 5, a 6 …. Big fish were on the board, and man, was it exciting!!! I wasn’t sure where I was in the standings, but I thought “maybe I have a shot.” The weigh-in took a long while. When everything unfolded, I was stoked to finish as runner up and I was really excited for Kurt! He’s an awesome dude and I was happy for him!
Cory: I started in the same area where I fished the day before. On the first cast, I had a 20” class fish bite the lure. I set the hook hard and horsed it in, and it came off. And then another big one a few casts later did the same thing. Those tow lost fish cost me the tournament. I upgraded all day because the area was stacked. I just got too excited early in the morning.
Kurt: Day 2 starts with zero sleep and a cold front moves in and changes the wind direction 180 degrees to blow out of my cove. The whole drive down was spent thinking about adjustments that I will need to make and sure enough within 5 casts I knew I needed to do something different. I started to head out to some ledges that looked good on the main lake and on my way I went over a secondary ledge and found them stacked up like wood, only having three fish, this was a happy moment. They were finicky but I was able to get my limit, not as good as the day before but it was a decent limit. It was a long wait to find out the results and when it happened I was a little numb from no sleep but when Chad Hoover handed me the 2017 National Champion trophy it hit. [When I told my wife I had won] she honestly didn’t believe me at first and thought I was joking but when she saw the trophy she was all smiles.
Jedediah: As for the career, I think it solidified my place with Wilderness Systems. I was theirs, and they were mine. The club that I fished with, MAKBF – Mid Atlantic Kayak Bass Fishing, offered up a ton of support. It was fantastic to see the guys hangs in there with me, into the middle of the night, to see where I ended up. These guys are family, and I believe I represented them well in the national championship. The finish gave me confidence, that I can hold my own with some of the top anglers in the country. I had a ton of fun and I’m still so very thankful to everyone involved with the event and my friends and family, for the opportunity at competing in the tournament. One day, I’ll get back to it!
Gene: Looking back at the 2017 KBF National Championship and finishing with a Top 5 it allowed me to gain a few sponsors at the time and realize that I really loved the sport of Kayak Tournaments. I fished hard for the next few years and qualified for the 2018 and 2019 National Championships and I’m still searching for that magic day on the water like Day 2 of the 2017 KBF National Championship.
Cory: I think about the 2017 KBF National Championship a lot. I was in a bad mood. I had the winning bites. I wasn’t the only one – one of the other guys who fished near me lost a 10 pounder. I think I have finished in the top 20 at every KBF National Championship, and that was my highest finish. I’ve had some really good finishes at Kentucky Lake. I’ve been fortunate there and I can’t wait to get back.
Rick: Leaving that weekend with 3rd in the National Championship along with the Open win and being on a national stage was a tremendous experience. It renewed my confidence and led me on a path to conquer another goal, making the KBF Ten and joining a list with other dedicated anglers who win in the sport of kayak bass fishing.
Kurt: Looking back this was one of those times in your life that changed or gave you direction. After selling my business the year before I was in need of a direction. Some things are almost like gifts and I am very blessed to have this win happen. Having made so many friends and meeting so many great people along this path, I would not change it for the world. The confidence I gained from competing and succeeding against the country’s best kayak anglers can’t be put into words, you just feel more grounded in what you are throwing and how you are fishing. I am completely blessed and humbled by it every day.
These are five of the stories that over 400 competitors, organizers, hosts and industry reps could tell about that famous event five years ago. The list of KBF National Championship stories has grown every year as thousands of anglers have competed in the Kayak Bass Fishing National Championship, building friendships, careers and fortunes in competition on the sport’s biggest stage along the way. Become a KBF member and a part of history, here.
The final event standings of the 2017 KBF National Championship can be viewed here: https://tourneyx.com/leaderboard/standings/2017-kbf-national-championship
The final event standings of the 2017 KBF Open at KY Lake can be viewed here
The KBF National Championship will return to Kentucky Lake in October, 2022. To learn more about Paris-Henry County, TN, click here
Kurt Smits (Ohio), the 2017 KBF National Champion, has gone on to a successful career as a kayak fishing competitor. He is on the Hobie Fishing Team and is sponsored by Picasso Lures, Fishing On Line, MTechLithium.com, St Croix, Ketch, Yak Attack and Maui Jim.
Chad Hoover is the founder of Kayak Bass Fishing.
For videos and articles about past KBF National Championships, click here.
For a “Look Back” at the 2016 KBFNC: https://www.kayakbassfishing.com/the-first-big-stage-a-look-back-at-the-2016-kayak-bass-fishing-national-championship/
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