Five years, five stories…..Exactly five years ago, over 200 KBF anglers took a chance. We descended on Paris, Tennessee for the first Kayak Bass Fishing National Championship presented by Torqeedo. To commemorate the event, I gathered five stories from five anglers who were in Paris that week.
Before we get to their stories, allow me to set the stage….
There were three events on the schedule that week: a KBF Big Bass Brawl to benefit Heroes on the Water (March 17-20, a KBF Open (March 18) and the KBF National Championship (March 19-20). A trolling motor company was sponsoring a kayak fishing event, the city of Paris had rolled out the red carpet for us and the first place prize for the National Championship was $25,000, guaranteed.
Here is another guarantee – no one who had been kayak fishing prior that time ever imagined reading any of those words before 2016.
Take a look around at our sport today: major networks broadcast commercials of kayak anglers , major outdoors magazines put our photos on covers and write feature articles about us and sponsors recognize and reward our value. There are not one but three national kayak trails dedicated to bass fishing. Tournament payouts grow more lucrative every season, too, and even local clubs regularly pay out thousands of dollars in prizes at every event. It’s easy to think things have always been this way, but all of it – the success, the drama, the community – started on the stage at the Paris County Fairgrounds five years ago.
I was there too, and I wrote the first feature article for a magazine about being there, and another for the old Kayak Bass Fishing Magazine. I also won my first big check at the KBF Open that week, and most importantly I met friends that I have to this day. But I spent the week mostly fishing alone or with my dog. I was only one actor in a big ensemble, and I always wanted to hear more from others about their experience
One of those actors is a former FLW pro. Today, we talk about pros in kayak fishing, and we enjoy when the pros on the boater side fish with us. But we had a pro competing with us from the start. His name is John Ladd, a retired champ from the old FLW circuit of the 1990’s, and I owe my trip to Paris to Mr. Ladd.
In 2015 I caught wind that my local KBF Partner Club, Carolina Kayak Anglers, would send the top 10 anglers in the AOY standings to Paris, TN for the event. So I buckled down and started to grind out points. I finished in 11th place on the last day of competition, but I got lucky: John Ladd had already qualified and his spot rolled down to me. I remember turning to Bob Dainton at the CKA awards ceremony and asking “So, is this National Championship for real?”
It got real, and fast. After spending the winter looking at maps and reading about Kentucky Lake, as well as navigating the KBF sign up, I arrived at the hotel at Paris Landing on Kentucky lake on Sunday, March 14th. It was a windy day, and my dog and I had endured a long trip through several nasty storms. It was an omen of days to come: it would be cold and windy at the start of the week, dramatically warmer at the end of the week, and then a cold front with rain and sleet will blow in for the weekend’s National Championship. In a single week, the weather went from autumn to late spring to winter. The competitors had no choice but to endure it all. We all learned that week that if we were going to build a national sport, we were going to do so without Mother Nature’s help.
We were on our own. And if you think about it, that’s how it has always been in kayak fishing, and it still is to some degree. Each one of us rehearsed on a different stage, and we all traveled different roads to reach Kentucky Lake. Yes, the crowds have grown, and the payouts are better, and the stage is bigger too – but we are only five years into building what began dramatically with Matt Ball’s victory on Kentucky Lake in 2016.
To commemorate the five-year anniversary of the event, I assembled a cast of the event’s organizers and competitors and put together a small oral history of that week. Many of us had a sense we were making history, but we certainly didn’t imagine how far we would have traveled in only five years to where we are now. Here are some of the stories from the other competitors, in their own words. We will begin with the first KBF National Champion, Mr. Matt Ball.
Matt Ball: My good friend Coy Lehman and his father Coy Lehman Sr. decided to make the trip to Kentucky Lake to fish the first ever KBF National Championship. We were excited to go down and spend time at a house with a bunch of other friends from our club Mountain State Kayak Anglers. We all rented a big house and were going with little expectation of doing well on this water on which none of us had any experience. Our goal was to have fun with our club and fish some new water.
We arrived a couple days before the event to pre-fish and as we pulled into the area our first stop before heading to the house after a long day on the road was a McDonalds. We were waiting in line for our food and we noticed a rough looking character out by our kayaks looking them over. We got our food and went back to the truck and struck up a conversation about these fancy fishing kayaks we had on the trailer with the guy. He began to tell us tall tales of how he would go down to a few of the coves on the lake and spend all night catching fish as “long as your arm.” We all listened and quickly realized that this guy was quite the storyteller and that he probably did know a lot about the off the beaten path ramps and areas around the lake where one could soak some chicken liver and relax with a few cold ones. We also wondered if we would find ourselves without windows or tires if we went to these locations as well. We went to the cabin and settled in to head out the next morning to find a place to fish for the NC.
Shelly Efird: I arrived four days prior to the event. I stayed in a house with Rick Rowland, Cory Dreyer, John Ladd and Buster Swisher.
Ken Wood: On March 13, 2016, I began a long road trip that would end at Kentucky Lake in Tennessee. I was the only angler from New England to make the journey that year. I rented a nice little A-frame in Springville, with unrealistic dreams of winning the first-ever KBF National Championship. Things didn’t go as planned.
First, it took me forever to get there. On the way down I stopped at Delaware Paddle Sports to pick up a new kayak, a Jackson Big Rig, upgrading from my ten-year-old sit-in, a Pelican Getaway 140. That’s as far as I got on day one (after a nap in Connecticut), a little less than seven hours south of Massachusetts.
In my original post-tournament write-up, I said, “The road is my sleeping pill.” Turns out, I had type 2 diabetes (undiagnosed until the following February) and pounding sugar-laden Pepsis to stay awake had the complete opposite effect.Two days and too many naps later, I made it to Gatlinburg, TN, where my wife, kids, and mother-in-law were staying, on a road trip of their own (they would meet up with me again later in the week).
The third day on the road was one of distractions. Pawn shops, thrift stores, bookstores, music shops—I’m a book/music junkie, so I can’t ignore the siren call of shops that sell music and books. Eventually I rolled into Springville for an event that would, to put it simply, change my life.
John Ladd: I’ve been thinking about that 1st National Championship in 2016. I was very excited and proud to have qualified for it. I was staying at a cabin with Cory [Dreyer], Rick [Rowland], Shelley [Efird] and Buster [Swisher]. Pulling into the meeting area in Paris, I was almost overwhelmed by all the kayaks parked outside. When I walked in, it was a who’s who of the kayak fishing world. It was the same feeling I had when I used to walk into a B.A.S.S. or FLW starters meeting and seeing Roland Martin, Rick Clunn, Denny Brauer, Gary Klein and all the pros I had read about growing up. Over time I got to know them or fish with them, too.
Jen Mues: Dustin of #TeamMues qualified and brought our family of four to the Kayak Bass Fishing National Championship for a second year, held on the beautiful Kentucky Lake in Paris, Tennessee. We travel the 13 hour and 33 minute drive [from Nebraska] to watch as Dustin (Dad), took his shot at the title of the best of the best! We stayed a week at a beautiful little place called Fish Tale Lodge and enjoyed all the amenities! We all talk about eating some of the most amazing southern food and meeting some great folks.
Chad Hoover: The first KBF National Championship made use of the best facility available in Paris, TN at the time. That was the [Paris County] fairgrounds and we were able to use the largest expo hall on the property. Having the oversize parking lots made logistics easy and contributed significantly to the feeling of camaraderie.
Matt Ball: Our goal was to make this massive lake as small as possible for us as we were used to fishing small lakes in WV that were usually smaller than most of the tributaries running into this lake. As we were looking at maps we decided why not check out some of the areas where you can catch fish “as long as your arm.” Why not? We arrived at a small ramp off a dirt road and began rigging out kayaks and getting ready to set out for our maiden voyage on the mighty Kentucky Lake. The weather was absolutely beautiful. Sunny, warm, and calm winds. We all headed to the back of the cove and started fishing. My first fish of Kentucky lake was a pig of a Largemouth that measured over 20 inches.
I was excited to break the ice and took a couple pictures and released her back into the water. I was fishing a deep ditch off of the muddy shallow flat and decided to move on up the ditch and was quickly rewarded with another 18+ inch fish. Coy and his Dad were about 100 yards in front of me and had found a brush pile that they were pulling multiple 16 inch fish and better out of. We had found the spot and decided we needed to leave and see what else this lake had to offer. We spent the next 2 days looking at everything we could and did not find much that was producing. We knew the weather was going to change drastically for tournament morning so the afternoon before the event we went back to our spot, paddled to the location and made a few casts to verify that our fish were still in fact there.
Ken Wood: Prior to the first National Championship, the biggest kayak tournament I’d ever fished had a total of eleven competitors. That’s right—<em>eleven</em>! I was unprepared and out of my league. Big time.
Our lakes in Massachusetts are small. Those few that are as big as some of the southern lakes are public drinking water and largely off-limits to fishing if not completely. The biggest public body of water in the state is South Watuppa Pond at 1,460 acres, a puddle compared to Kentucky Lake. Again, I was way out of my league.
Kentucky Lake was down over two feet to accommodate all the incoming run-off water from storms that drenched the state days before. With that influx of water came tons of mud, which basically ruined every spot I’d planned to fish. The water in those areas was shallow and muddy, and most of the structure I’d hoped to fish was completely out of the water.
On that first day of pre-fishing, however, I did manage to catch a Kentucky Lake giant: a 30-pound carp! A lot of fun, but not the kind of giant I was hoping for. I pre-fished a different area the next day. The water was less muddy, but the bite was nonexistent.
The final day of pre-fishing was also the KBF Open. I fished another area and finally found some bass relating to wood in the area—all two pieces of it. I battled heavy wind to reach the back of a nearby cove and hooked up with two small bass. Unfortunately, one flopped off the Hawg Trough and the other came unbuttoned. Frustrating.
John Ladd: Practice went okay. I found fish in two areas on a Redeye Shad and a couple other crankbaits. I caught one over 5 pounds in practice and it was on the board in the Big Bass Brawl, but it got knocked down pretty quick with all the big bass that were caught there.
Jen Mues: While Dustin pre-fished, the rest of us set out in search of a Kentucky Lake Giant! We all caught fish and ended up having a great time exploring.
Shelly Efird: I found a good spot right away, but that year the Championship was only 5 fish over two days, so I decided to save it. When I was pre-fishing, I started out on the main. It was my first time on Kentucky Lake and I found the fish were moving in. The best spots were where the rock transitioned from big rocks to small rocks, like pebbles. Anywhere that rock changed, I found fish. The fish had committed, even when the weather changed, and the fish stayed on the spots. Those spots reloaded all week, too, so I knew I had good fish. I didn’t fish the Open [on Friday] though. I don’t know why.
The National Championship
Ken Wood: The night before day one of the National Championship, exhausted, I forgot to charge my fish-finder and Power Pole batteries, and also forgot to set an alarm. The tournament started at 6:30 AM, and I woke up at 10:30 AM. I rushed out of the house, headed to a new area, but that turned out to be a windblown, muddy mess. I drove down the road a bit, saw another area on my GPS app, zoomed out to make sure it was connected to the main lake, and saw that it was, so I launched there.
But it wasn’t connected to the main lake. The GPS map was wrong. Rookie mistake. According to some other guys that were fishing that area for catfish, they’d never seen a bass in there, nor had they ever seen anyone fishing for bass in there. In a nutshell: a big fat waste of time and huge screw-up on my part.
I didn’t bother fishing day two. I packed up and headed home early, tail tucked and defeated, but I had every intention of doing it again the next year.
John Ladd: I can’t remember how I did in the tournament, but I did catch fish both days and struggled to get my fish uploaded to the leader board. I remember driving like a NASCAR driver to the weigh in so I could get Dwayne [Dwayne Walley, of TourneyX] to help me upload my fish.
Shelly Efird: Like I said, I found a good spot and I saved it for the Championship. We only needed two fish on Day 1, and I was in 2nd place at the awards, so I knew I had a chance. But on Day 2 the swells were so high that I couldn’t reach the spot, so I went to a back up spot. I was fishing secondary points in two feet of water, using a Senko with a weight. I didn’t have nail weights, so I went to a hardware store and bought ¾” screws. I never told that to anybody, but they made the worm sink in that wind and held it down like a shaky head. Cory [Dreyer] kept asking me what I was fishing with, and I said “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.” I never told him what it was, but I guess he will know now [laughs].
Anyway, I had a good bag with a big fish on Day 1, but I went to a back up spot on Day 2 because of the wind, and I couldn’t upgrade a small fish I had in my three fish that day.
I finished a couple inches from the top spot, but it was tight up there, and there was even a tie in the top five [Shelly is right, there was a 3-way tie at 93”].
Matt Ball: Tournament morning we were greeted by freezing temperatures and strong north winds. It was a 180 degree difference from pre fishing and we were nervous to say the least. I paddled to my spot which was about a 100 yard ditch that was unprotected from the wind and dropped my 8 pound dumbbell that I bought at Walmart the night before and hunkered into the cold waiting for first cast. I had been catching them in pre-fishing on a 1/16 oz owner finesse head with a 5 inch worm. The wind was not going to allow that so I went to a ¼ oz shaky head with the same bait in order to get my bait to the bottom in the brutal wind. It took a while to get the presentation correct but was eventually rewarded with some quality bites. I fished the same 100 yard ditch 2 days straight and was able to take home the National Championship in some truly brutal conditions. I was fishing out of a Jackson Coosa HD powered by my Bending Branches Angler Classic paddle and found the ditch with a 5” Lowrance Fish finder.
Matt Ball: There is so much about this event that was truly special. Having 20 some friends from Mountain State Kayak anglers in the crowd going crazy and rushing the stage when my name was announced brings tears to my eyes to this day. To share that moment with those great guys that have become lifelong friends is my most cherished memory and trophy. One of the craziest things about this event was the attention that I received from the kayak fishing community. It was truly astonishing the amount of people who reached out to me and congratulated me after the event. I am also eternally grateful to Chad Hoover who took me under his wing and helped me to manage the many opportunities that this win put before me. Chad has continued to this day be someone who I am proud to call a friend and mentor in this industry.
I often get asked how winning this event has changed me. My answer and my prayer is that I hope that it never changes me. It changed the opportunities that were put before me. It changed the way people see and recognize me. It gave me a platform to share my faith and to reach and encourage people that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It has given me so many good friends from across the country that I wouldn’t have had. My true hope isn’t that I am changed. It is that in some small way I can help change someone’s life by introducing them to this sport and the amazing people and places that It takes us.
Ken Wood: Though this event was a complete disaster for me, I came home inspired and motivated. That was the year I started my own club, Massachusetts Kayak Bassin’, which now runs the largest kayak tournaments in the state. Our members are many, and kayak bass fishing has exploded in this region [the Northeast] in recent years.
I like to think I played a small role in that, but whatever the reason, it would not have happened so quickly without Chad Hoover, Kayak Bass Fishing, and a little-known tournament called the KBF National Championship. I have no doubt about that.
Shelly Efird: The 2016 KBF National Championship was my first big tournament. I never thought I would finish in 6th place. I just went out to experience it and fish Kentucky Lake. Rick Rowland and I drove from one end to the other and fished all day, every day. It was a bit overwhelming. I had only fished local tournaments, so it was the most kayaks I had ever seen at one event.
I still talk to Rick [Rowland] about that spot we couldn’t reach It was loaded with huge Smallies and Largemouth Bass. I always wonder “what if.” [Editor’s note: Rick Rowland won the 2017 KBF Open on KY Lake and finished 3rd at Nationals in 2017].
John Ladd: I can recall driving back home wishing I could go back and do it all over again. And I did in 2017, with most of the same crowd.
Chad Hoover: The 2016 KBF Championship format laid out the future of how our events would be run in subsequent years, and has only evolved slightly from the original format. It truly laid out the foundation for how we run a world class event with large numbers of anglers. We use the lessons from each year to improve so that anglers have the experience of a lifetime.
Jen Mues: Matt Ball is still smiling about his win! What an absolute blast! We met up with a lot of our fishing community. Advance all these years later, and both Dad and Mom will complete for their chance at becoming the 2021 Kayak Bass Fishing Champion held this year in Shreveport Louisiana!!! Heck yes we’re all four coming!
These are five of the stories that over 250 competitors, organizers, hosts and industry reps could tell about that famous event five years ago. And 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.
The 2021 Kayak Bass Fishing National Championship will be held October 13-15 in Shreveport-Bossier, LA. What stories will you tell about it when it’s your turn to take the stage?
Matt Ball (Ohio) has gone on to a successful career as a kayak fishing competitor. He is on the Jackson Kayak Fishing Team and is sponsored by Torqeedo, Fishing Online, NRS, Bending Branches, Yak Attack, Cal Coast Fishing, Gerber Gear, Z-Man, Tennessee Trailers and ANGLR.
Shelly Efird (North Carolina) is on the Hobie Fishing pro staff and a Member of the Great Outdoors Provision Company Fishing team.
Ken Wood (Massachusetts) is on the Jackson Kayak Fishing team, Dakota Lithium, Radfish Lures,
Titan Tungsten, Rocky Ledge Tackle, and Three Belles Outfitters. For an earlier version of his account of his 2016 KBF National Championship with a video recap, click here.
John Ladd (North Carolina): fished the FLW, B.A.S.S. and Everstart circuits as both a co angler and boater in the 1990’s, and he won the FLW event on Lake Eufala in 1997. He still competes with Carolina Kayak Anglers and Queen City Kayak Bass Fishing. He is sponsored by Great Outdoors Provision Company, Hobie Kayaks, All in Tackle, BizzBaits/TrueSouth Custom Lures, Brains Crankbaits, Bloody Thumb Lures, M-tech Lithium batteries, Powell Rods and Pulse Lures.
Jen Mues (Nebraska) is director of marketing for the Bass Fishing Dads Podcast. She is sponsored by Bonafide Kayaks, YakAttack, Wicked Weights, Anglr, Experts, Line Cutterz, RockNReel Custom Lures & Sport Threads.
Henry “Hank” Veggian (North Carolina) is on the Jackson kayak Fishing team and he is sponsored by Ketch and Shop: Get Outdoors Paddlesports. He is media coordinator for Kayak Bass Fishing.
Chad Hoover is the Founder and CEO of Kayak Bass Fishing.
Watch Chad Hoover’s video from the 2016 National Championship here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu9fkPXMF_s
Hank Veggian’s 2016 article in the now defunct Pacific Standard magazine about the first KBF National Championship was the first to cover the event in a national magazine. You can read a copy of it here.
Click the link for the complete TourneyX standings from the 2016 KBF National Championship.
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