Powell Kemp admits he was mostly trying to avoid criticism for ending early. But in doing so, the local pro from Scotland Neck, N.C., stumbled across a key area that helped him tally a three-day total of 48 pounds, 13 ounces to secure a wire-to-wire victory at the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Buggs Island.
Kemp started his run by nabbing the tournament’s heaviest bag — a Day 1 limit of 19-8. Adding 16-12 in the second round, then a Championship Friday limit of 12-9, Kemp cruised to victory by a margin of 3-2 over Bassmaster Elite Series pro David Williams.
For his achievement, Kemp took home over $52,000 and earned a spot in the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota March 22-24 in Tulsa, Okla.
“That sounds unbelievable,” Kemp said upon hearing his winnings announced. “The Classic is the goal for every fisherman out there. Weekend guys, tour guys — that’s what everyone wants. Dream come true.
“I’ve been blessed; my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has done this. Everything I’ve done, I can’t explain. It just happened.”
With Buggs Island rattled by a recent cold front and fluctuating water levels, the Roanoke River reservoir proved challenging. Each day, Kemp noted that, due to the lack of consistency, he was simply fishing instinctively.
Toward the end of Day 2, marrying that instinct with the aforementioned criticism concern led Kemp to what was likely a game-clinching decision.
“Yesterday (Thursday), I was running in with about 30 minutes left and I knew if I went in then, my friends would say, ‘You are crazy. You came in 30 minutes early.’
“So, I stopped at one place 500 yards outside the off-limits area, caught three fish and culled one. I started there the final morning and caught most of what I weighed really quick.”
With his Day 3 nerves settled and a good limit in the boat, Kemp ran down to one of his key areas in Nutbush Creek but ended up catching all of his weight on the lake’s upper end. Flooded gum trees and buckbrush were his top targets.
Kemp caught all of his bass on a 1/2-ounce Hawg Caller spinnerbait and an unnamed spinnerbait with oversized gold blades for the dirtier water. Slow rolling his baits was the best presentation. Kemp used no plastic trailers, but he rigged both baits with trailer hooks.
“That 20-pound P-Line CXX X-tra Strong line ripped them all out of the bushes,” Kemp said. “I didn’t lose any; I didn’t break any off.”
Kemp said the cold air that chilled the region likely limited the shad spawn that would normally be on fire this time of year. Lacking this morning jumpstart, his first two days were somewhat disjointed.
“I’ve fished here hundreds of days, but it was just a wind deal,” Kemp said. “I went where the wind said go and where the good Lord told me to go.”
Day 1 was particularly difficult due to strong winds, which built 4- to 5-foot waves on the main lake. Kemp was moving around a lot and just as he was about to relocate, the tournament’s biggest bass gave him a much-needed boost of confidence.
“I went through the shad spawn deal and when I got to the end of the stretch, I said: ‘Let me hit this little corner where some bushes are.’ I missed the male (of a spawning pair) so I threw back over there and caught the 5-13 (female).
“I was losing my mind while she was out there jumping. I finally got my hands on her. I’m glad I didn’t hurt her when I grabbed her. I was so excited to get her in the boat.”
Hailing from Newton, N.C., Williams finished second with 45-11. He started at a moderate pace with 11-5 but stepped on the gas in the latter two rounds with 17-0 and 17-6.
“My first day, I stumbled a little bit, but these last two days were incredible,” Williams said. “I covered a lot of water and never fished the same water twice. I fished from one end to the other — from Nutbush Creek to up the river.
“I covered water and the last two days, it just seemed like they bit everywhere I went. It’s an awesome lake and I’ve had a lot of success here. It holds a special place in my heart.
On Days 2 and 3, Williams focused on areas that had been windblown the first day. He caught his bass on a 1/2-ounce homemade white spinnerbait with two blade combinations. He used a double willow-leaf model in clear water and a Colorado/Indiana combo in stained water. Both carried Zoom Split Tail trailers.
Casey Scanlon of Eldon, Mo., placed third with 44-13. His daily weights were 14-11, 13-14 and 16-4.
Noting that he contended with dynamic conditions, Scanlon said he found success by sticking with his go-to bait.
“I pretty much kept my 1/2-ounce Trophy Bass Company spinnerbait with a 2/0 Hayabusa trailer hook in my hand,” he said. “The spinnerbait was a morning deal. A 1/2-ounce Z-Man Jackhammer ChatterBait with a Tackle HD Minnow Fluke trailer was an afternoon deal. Today, I caught four on the spinnerbait and one on the ChatterBait.
“I took it easy on that Nitro and Mercury. I didn’t make any long runs; I stayed within about 5 miles of here. Conditions changed for me every day and I had to change with it.”
As part of the Yamaha Power Pay program, Birmingham, Ala., angler Jake Maddux, who finished 11th, took home an additional $2,000.
Kemp won the $750 Phoenix Boats Big Bass award for his 5-13 largemouth. He also won the $500 Garmin Tournament Rewards.
Kemp leads the St. Croix Bassmaster Opens Division 3 standings with 200 points. Williams is in second with 199, followed by Scanlon with 198, Jack Dice of Lynchburg, Va., with 197 and Ryan Broughman of Corapeake, N.C., with 196.
John Garrett of Union City, Tenn., leads the Opens Elite Qualifiers standings with 577 points. Matt Henry of Milledgeville, Ga., is second with 545, followed by Kenta Kimura of Osaka, Japan, with 539, Wesley Gore of Clanton, Ala., with 538 and Ben Milliken of New Caney, Texas, with 535. Rounding out the nine anglers who are in position to qualify for the 2024 Bassmaster Elite Series via the Opens EQ are Trey McKinney, Keith Tuma, Brett Cannon and JT Thompkins. Follow the Opens EQ race all season at Bassmaster.com.