RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — Steve Kennedy of Auburn, Ala., wasn't dominating the event until he weighed 16 pounds, 9 ounces of bass during the final weigh-in to take home $100,000 and the third championship of his career at the GoPro Bassmaster Elite at Lake Dardanelle presented by Econo Lodge.
A big bass late in the day on Monday that weighed 5-10 anchored his five-bass limit and pushed his four-day winning weight to 63-12. The last time Kennedy topped a Bassmaster Elite Series field was in 2011 at Georgia's West Point Lake.
"I've been so close so many times before, and I've usually lost tournaments because of a missed bite, or losing a fish before I could get it inside the boat," Kennedy said. "It sure feels good to win one, especially after nearly winning this year's Classic on Conroe."
Kennedy won $50,000 for an impressive second-place finish at the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK'S Sporting Goods in March on Lake Conroe in Texas.
The 48-year-old veteran made a 100-mile round trip each day to fish a small backwater just below the Ozark Dam on the Arkansas River.
"I found that spot during practice, and since the water is over 20 feet high right now, I was able to get my Bass Cat into the small pond-like area," he said. "Once I got in there, I was impressed with the amount of life that was present. There were gar surfacing everywhere, shad flicking and bass feeding, which told me it was worth a visit each day."
On Friday's opening round of competition, he made the run to the dam and caught 16-10, which had him quietly in ninth place. Saturday morning he went to the same location, caught 14-3 and moved up the leaderboard into fifth place.
"On Sunday I caught 16-6, which had me in third place and I knew I had a real shot," he said. "After I caught that big fish today I felt like I had it locked up, but Mark Davis kept it too close for comfort."
Davis of Mount Ida, Ark., led the event on both Saturday and Sunday, but could only manage 13-10 on the final day and finished second, only 1-10 behind Kennedy.
Most of the fish that Kennedy brought to the scales this week were caught on a 3/4-ounce D&L Advantage flipping jig with a white plastic trailer.
"I used the exact same program at the Classic back in March," he said. "There was still a bit of a shad spawn going on this week, and by swimming the jig through the willows, stopping it and letting it fall along the edge of the weeds, the bass would absolutely smoke it. I also caught several fish on a green pumpkin swim jig, and a few on topwater."
With Kennedy's wife and children there to congratulate his victory, he was elated.
"It's been a while," he said. "I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform and do well, and when I don't succeed I take it hard. It means a lot to my family and me to bring home one of those coveted blue trophies."
Other top finishers included Kevin VanDam, third with 60-11; Mark Menendez, who won here in 2009, fourth with 57-9; and Dean Rojas, fifth with 56-7.
Ott DeFoe, who finished 15th at Dardanelle with 41-12, has a slight lead over Jacob Wheeler and Brandon Palaniuk for Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year with three more regular season tournaments remaining in the Elite Series. He was awarded $1,000 for leading the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race at the end of the event.
David Mullins of Mount Carmel, Tenn., claimed the $1,500 Phoenix Boats Big Bass Award for a 6-pound, 8-ounce largemouth he caught during Friday's opening round.
Davis won the Livingston Lures Day 2 Leader Award of $500 for leading the tournament on Saturday's second day of competition.
Jamie Hartman of Newport, N.Y., won the Toyota Bonus Bucks Award of $3,000 for being the highest-placing eligible entrant in the program. The second-highest-placing eligible entrant, Cliff Pace of Petal, Miss., received $2,000.
Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., earned the Power-Pole Captain's Cash Award of $1,000 for being the highest-placing angler who is registered and eligible and uses a client-approved product on his boat.
The event was hosted by the Russellville Advertising and Promotion Commission.