Building a Tournament Foundation: Riding John Kerr’s Coattails
He and John Kerr had attended Poway High School together, but had only become friends after meeting many years later in the mid-to-late 90s at Lake Poway. “He was catfishing off a point and I was done bass fishing for the day so I went over and started catfishing near him. We got to talking and he told me he was getting into bass fishing,” Kerr said.
Kerr was already established as one of the best in San Diego, a tournament veteran of many years. After John’s primary tournament partner, Richard Winfrey, moved away, Mike asked John if they could fish a tournament together. They entered a WON Bass Tournament on Oct. 27, 2001 at San Vicente, the first of seven WON Bass tournaments scheduled for the 2001/2002 season. With a field of 87 other teams on the older, smaller San Vicente, they were challenged for space but still came away with a $825 check for finishing fourth. Of the five bass they weighed that day, totaling 20.92 pounds, Mike contributed zero.
They continued to fish together the rest of that season, tallying a 14th, 7th, 3rd, 4th, 31st and 2nd place finish in the remaining six events. That string of solid finishes was good enough to earn “Anglers of the Year” honors despite not winning a single tournament. Long brought little to the table, “of the 35 fish we weighed that year, Mike caught one of them,” Kerr said.
They collected a modest $4,465 in those seven tournaments, which split two-ways fell drastically short of the $25,000 Long was accustomed to winning in the Big Bass Record Club the previous three years.
As defending “Anglers of the Year” in the series, they continued to fish together the following season, beginning with a Nov. 9, 2002 tournament at San Vicente where they took sixth. A pair of seventh place finishes followed.
On March 8 2003, Long and Kerr took second at Lower Otay in the fourth WON Bass Tournament of the season. Long was now 12 tournaments into his “career,” without a win or much to show for in terms of earnings.
It was at this point that Long would start to branch out. He began fishing American Bass Association (ABA) Tournaments, partnering up initially with Chris Nelson, a friend and coworker of mine at Aim Marine in Lakeside. Their first tournament, on March 22, 2003 at San Vicente, yielded a modest 12th place finish worth $140.
But that was about to change…
Cashing In: Exploiting Team Tournaments
He fished the second ABA Tournament alone (despite putting Chris Nelson’s name down on the entry form), a bold move for someone who had struggled to boat fish in previous tournaments. But he would crush the other 54 teams, weighing a 5-bass limit totaling 28.22 pounds with a 7.96-pound kicker fish at San Vicente on March 15, 2003. He collected a nice $2,592 check. In second place? John Kerr, fishing with Buck Buckhanan.
Long showed up without a partner (though he again listed Nelson on the entry form) two weeks later at El Capitan Reservoir for the next ABA Tournament. His tournament-best 16.87-pound limit included the biggest bass of the tournament, at 5.11 pounds. Another win, another $2,298 in his pocket.
Looking back on these tournament results is revealing. This is the point where I think it really becomes clear that something crooked is going on. He had failed to win in a year-and-a-half of fishing with arguably the best bass angler in San Diego as his partner, and his first two tournaments fishing without partners he comes out on top? In two weeks he had won more money and caught more, and bigger bass than his previous 12 tournaments combined.
Coincidentally, Long’s first tournament win was the first one I ever fished. In my mind, there was no reason to even doubt him at the time. He was a legend already because of the BBRC, the lake records, and tournament success he had with John Kerr. You expected him to win, to catch the biggest bass of the tournament, to be “Mike Long.” The fact that he was better without John Kerr wasn’t as suspicious in the moment as it should have been.
We lacked perspective at the time. Being able to look back on his whole body of work now, the mountain of controversies, allows us to see the whole picture and put it into perspective.
Following those first two solo wins, he was back to El Capitan on April 5, this time with Kerr for a WON Bass Tournament. They took seventh with 11.97 pounds and split $471.
The week after that he was at Lower Otay, taking on another team event by himself in an ABA where he finished sixth. On May 3, 2001, he was fishing solo again at El Capitan for another ABA that saw him cash a $1,056 check with a second place finish against 40 other teams.
On May 10, Long and Kerr would break through and win their first tournament as a team. They boated a huge 33.04-pound limit at San Vicente in the WON Bass Series, anchored by a 9.65 pounder, and split $4,118. According to Kerr, Long contributed zero fish to their limit.
Long rounded out the ABA Season with 24th and 45th place finishes. Nelson rejoined him for the last one. That 2003 ABA Season was interesting in that it ultimately pitted Long and Kerr against each other. The points format to decide “Anglers of the Year” also “threw-away” each team’s worst two finishes. So, Long and Nelson would be awarded “Anglers of the Year” over Kerr and Buckhanan, despite Nelson only being at only two of the seven tournaments, one of which was thrown out.
Nelson was outwardly suspicious of Long’s big bass catches. I vividly remember a candid conversation he and I had in the service department office at Aim Marine, “Mike Long is a snagger. I know a snagger when I see one,” he plainly told me. Despite agreeing to team up for the whole season in ABA, Long had told him that he fished better alone, and asked him not to show up for those tournaments which he fished by himself.
Kerr and Long would again win the “Anglers of the Year” race in WON Bass for the 2002/2003 season, successfully defending their title from their first season. The formation of a dynasty was taking shape. And, with Long besting Kerr in ABA, the optics were clear that Long was the bell-cow in their partnership, even if in reality it was the complete opposite.
Ultimately, they would win six-straight “Anglers of the Year” Titles in WON Bass together before parting in 2007.
Kerr was skeptical of Long’s success. What he saw from him as a teammate didn’t match the results that Long was generating as a competitor. And he had witnessed Long pull some things with lake record claims that made him question the man’s moral compass. Long’s lake records were especially dubious, and Kerr was far from the only one who doubted their validity.