Historical tidbits from Kenora Bass tournament

The longest running bass tournament in Sunset Country – the Kenora Bass International – is all set to blast off on Thursday morning from Safety Bay in Kenora. In 1988, local resident Doug Bishop, then the owner of Canadian Tire, had an idea for a fishing tournament on Lake of the Woods. With the advice of local angler Gord Pyzer, a bass tournament was formed, partly as a way to relieve some pressure from the walleye fishery.  

In the early years of the tournament, Bishop did a great job promoting the event, attracting big name anglers from both Canada and the U.S. Within a few years, the tournament had a full field over 200 teams and was giving away a boat for the first place prize. The rumor that went around amongst local anglers back then was that he was paying some of these big name anglers to come and fish the event. This made some unhappy, but if that was the case it was a good move because these high profile anglers gave the tournament credibility, which helped it become the biggest event of the summer in Kenora each year.  

The tournament reached its peak in the mid to late 90’s, when it attracted it’s largest fields and had an almost festival like atmosphere around the yellow tent during the weigh-ins and nightly activities. In the early 2000’s the tournament almost died but a new group of directors took over and it has continued to go strong ever since. The field size today is not as big as it was in the early years but it still attracts 125-140 teams every year and remains one of the bigger open, team tournaments in North America.  

I fished my first KBI tournament back in 1993 when I was ten years old. After begging my parents, my Christmas present in 1992 was an entry for my Dad and I to fish the following summer. We fished a lot, which I’m very grateful to my Dad for, but not a lot for bass. Most outings were for walleye and lake trout, fish that were more popular to eat. Our goal in that first event was to catch a bass so we could walk across the stage and weigh-in. With an old beater 17 foot Starcraft boat, an 85 horsepower Johnson motor and a cooler with an aerator for a live well, we fished. We did not light it up in that first year but we caught a few bass and learned a lot. Within three or four years we became competitive and the KBI has been a highlight of my summer ever since.  

Over the years the tournament has been won in nearly every section of the lake. In the early years, the Sioux Narrows area or the west arm of the lake were where the winning catches were coming from most frequently. In the 90’s the tournament was even won a few times by anglers fishing close to Kenora, which we have not seen since. Today, the fishing around Kenora is excellent for numbers, it’s tough to consistently catch the size fish needed to compete for three days.  

In 2001, Fred Greene and Pat Handorgan won the tournament fishing south of the Aulneau Peninsula, bringing in a mixed bag of largemouth and smallmouth bass. After that, more and more anglers traveled south on the lake to fish south of the Aulneau Peninsula. That is where the winning catches have come from more often than not in the past decade.  

It’s interesting to look back at the different areas of the lake where the winning catches have come from. The extreme south end of the lake is where the teams of Bill Godin and Leroy Wilson and Jon O’Connor and Byron Sharp have been dominant in recent years. Sharp and O’Connor hold to all time tournament weight record with a three day total of 57.04 pounds, set in 2015. They are also the defending champions.  Their record could be in trouble if events over the past few weeks are any indication. New tournament record catches have been set at Lake Despair, the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship and the Bronzeback Classic. It will be interesting to see what happens. 
Finally, there has been a big change in the influence largemouths have on the tournament in recent years. From the late 90’s through 2014, the tournament was won with limits consisting of mostly largemouth bass more often than not. There were even people campaigning to have largemouths removed from the tournament. Today, largemouth bass seem to be disappearing around the lake. Areas that used to have great populations of largemouths like White Partridge Bay, Rush Bay and Sabaskosing Bay are all just about completely void of these bass. I think a lot of it has to do with loss of habitat. With the invasion of rusty crayfish into the lake over the past twenty years or so, there has been a correlating loss of vegetion in the lake, which the crayfish apparently mow down. Vast fields of lush, green coontail weed has been lost and that has been the biggest negative influence I think. There are still some largemouths out there and you will see a few weighed in this year but nothing like the numbers we saw a decade ago. While largemouths have always had a lesser population, the overall size potential is greater. Nearly all of the five and six pound fish that have been weighed in over the years have been largemouths. 

Jeff Gustafson and his father Jim Gustafson at the 1993 Kenora Bass International, their first bass tournament.

The tournament is running Thursday through Saturday with weigh-ins taking place on the dock at the harbourfront in Kenora. Unfortunately due to the pandemic restrictions, there will be nothing going on for spectators this year like there has always been in the past but the weigh-ins will be live streamed on the KBI website so anybody can watch. Hopefully next year we’ll be able to run a normal event again!