January 16, 2018
By Cory Schmidt
How lucky we've been this generation that a gentleman like Ned Kehde has been on hand to witness and tell us about our angling ancestry. Surely, no one alive has observed more influential fishing history than this remarkable, unassuming man. Kind-hearted; self-effacing; meticulous in his English; equally precise in his fishing—the retired University of Kansas archivist, fishing guide and energetic writer has lived the life of an angling renaissance man. Kehde hasn't merely interacted with the sport's most significant characters; he's actively participated in the modern fishing revolution, contributing mightily to its collective memoirs.
To spend an afternoon in a boat with Kehde, however, or even just to visit with the affable man for a few hours, you'd never know any of the above. Remarkable that a man so gifted with the language would be so reluctant to speak of himself. But as someone once said, 'that's what friends are for.'
"Ned is a great friend and my favorite guy to have in the boat," says Terry Bivins, former NASCAR driver and the man Kehde calls the "single best marabou jig fisherman I've ever seen."
"He's one of the classiest men you'd ever hope to meet, always willing to help teach folks to fish. But what particularly strikes you is his gentle spirit. Ned never seems to get mad at the weather, the fish or other factors that tend to get under most anglers' skin.
"Of course, he's also one of the best finesse anglers in the country. Put him in the back of the boat with one of his finesse rigs, and he's likely to whoop your butt."
Says Steve Quinn, Hall of Fame angler and senior editor of In-Fisherman magazine: "Ned Kehde is truly one of the pioneers of modern angling. He's eagerly contributed so much knowledge; with only the desire to help others catch more fish, stay healthy and enjoy this great sport."
Doug Stange, longtime In-Fisherman editor-in-chief, notes Ned's uncanny ability to provide accurate portrayals of fishing situations and to place them into historical context. "Ned is a master at capturing how other great anglers fish. Our magazine has thrived over the years on recognizing angling writers with unique abilities, and Ned's writing style, which is a steady flow of consciousness infused with historical context, is always as fresh and interesting as it is factually inspired. To boot, a nicer man one could never find."
Born in St. Louis in 1940, Ned Kehde moved to and grew up in Sedalia, Missouri, where he began fishing Cole Camp Creek, a minor tributary of Lake of the Ozarks in 1947. "Most of our early fishing was wading secondary feeder creeks with my father and grandfather," Kehde recalls. "It was all baitcasting tackle then; throwing lures like the Heddon River Runt and Midget Digit for spotted bass and smallmouths, and lots of white bass."
The Minnesota Years
The Kehde family's love of fishing eventually led Ned to the shores of Lake Hubert, Minnesota, where his grandfather had kept a cabin since 1930. The family also stayed at Minnewawa Lodge on nearby Clark Lake, where Kehde would meet up with the likes of Fred Potthoff—legendary lodge owner and local fishing guide. "In those days, families from St. Louis would travel to Minnesota to escape the summer heat and play Canasta.
"I was more interested in fishing," Kehde admits. So much so that beginning 1953, Potthoff asked Kehde to "row boats," a bygone term and manual method for taking folks fishing for pay.
"Most of the fishing in those days was working reeds and wild rice with Heddon topwaters. But when we discovered Shannon Twin Spins, it was wowee-zowee; these early spinnerbaits changed our fishing. So did the Abu Straight Line Spinner and Heddon Sonic. We fished mostly Pflueger Supremes and red Garcia freespool reels on 5-1/2 foot rods. Frog fishing was a big deal, too—rigging a live leopard frog on a single or weedless hook, casting it into the shallow pads and other vegetation for largemouth bass.
"My roommate, Fred Meyers of St. Louis, would drive me over to the wetlands near Mission Creek, and we'd spend a couple hours some nights catching frogs. Think we got a dollar per dozen, which was a pretty fair payday."
During this same time, Kehde witnessed the revolutionary tactics of guide Harry Van Doren. "While I guided bass in North Long and Mission, walleyes were Harry's domain. He was a master — one of the first in our circle to own an outboard motor and the first angler to backtroll. It changed everything; was a brilliant boat control maneuver that allowed us to use the wind to precisely work weedlines and other structure, no matter the species."
Kehde maintains that Van Doren—alongside Fred Potthoff—also pioneered deep weededge fishing for bass. "As early as the 1930s Van Doren and Potthoff were working weedlines. They spied the red tassels of cabbage plants, using them as guides to deep drop-offs, all this well before Carl Lowrance's first depth finder."
Fortuitously, the years Kehde spent guiding bass in Central Minnesota overlapped with one of the most influential eras in freshwater fishing history. Between the summers of 1953 and 1958—when Kehde left to work the first of several college degrees—the young angler absorbed countless essential lessons from a rare collection of exceptionally talented fishermen. But it just the beginning of his extraordinary angling education.
The Ozarks, Hibdons and Early Finesse Fishing
In the meantime, Kehde's undergraduate years were divided between University of Missouri, University of Kansas, and Central Missouri State. Then in 1965, the seeds of his emerging finesse fishing methodology received another leap forward. While working toward Masters degrees in History and another in Library Science, Kehde returned to his fishing roots, taking work as a guide at Carrington's Two Waters Resort on the Gravois Arm of Lake of the Ozarks. Here, he met up with the likes of Little Gete Hibdon, better known to the bass world as Guido.
"Guido and I hit it off right away," Kehde recalls. "This was before we had trolling motors. So a lot of the time, we'd beach our boats and walk banks, fishing from inside out. Most guys don't approach bass this way anymore; they hold the boat deep and cast shallow. So it's a lost art, and at times, still deadly effective."
The Hibdons—Guido and his father Big Gete—recalls Kehde, were the "Godfathers of the Ozarks." Yet this same rich fishing region hosted other eventual legends, such as Harold Ensley, Virgil Ward, and his son Bill, who Kehde calls "perhaps the best jig fisherman ever."
"Guido didn't like to use spinning rods at first, until Harold Ensley taught us their virtues for fishing light jigs and light line in shallow water. For Guido, who was undeniably a master, fishing was all intuition, concentration, and superior eyesight. No sonar, whatsoever. Hopefully, some of his lessons rubbed off on me."
Kehde says articulating genius is difficult. He's right, of course. But ironically it discounts the fact that some of his early writings achieved that very thing. Kehde's very first contribution to In-Fisherman magazine proved to be a brilliant essay that perfectly captured the essence of Hibdon and other anglers who'd had a major influence on Kehde's angling career.
This first In-Fisherman
article came along in 1981. Among dozens of articles, then to now, were vibrant essays on white bass, catfish, largemouth bass and insights into the on-water actions of the country's best anglers. In addition, Kehde wrote outdoor columns for the Lawrence
for twelve years and the Topeka Capital-Journal
"Ned's perspective is unique," says Stange, "in that he saw firsthand much of the development of breakthrough fishing techniques, living the life of an angler within hardcore angling circles during the 1960s, 70s and on to today."
Indeed, in modern angling literature, perhaps no one has so impeccably captured the inner-workings of famous anglers and their methods as Kehde. His written works consist of amazing essays on Kevin VanDam and Rick Clunn, and his profiles on the lives of hardcore catfishermen remain some of the most compelling reading in the collective literature. Likewise, his work with the Hibdons, Ensley, and an unsung angler named Chuck Woods stand as treasures in fishing literature.
Having moved from the Missouri Ozarks to Lawrence, Kansas in 1970, Kehde met up with the enigmatic Woods at a Kansas City tackle shop. "Woods was a taciturn old cuss," recounts Kehde. "Probably less than one in ten anglers knows that he actually designed the Puddle Jumper, as well as the Beetle, and Beetle Spin—three classic finesse lures. Certainly, they didn't know Chuck also created the first Texas Rig jigworm. I believe he has probably caught more largemouth bass in Kansas than any other man."
Finesse Fishing Then to Now
"In the 1950s, Chuck was fishing the Beetle with a spinning rod. This was some of the earliest finesse fishing," notes Kehde. Responding to the notion that finesse bass fishing began in California, he points out that Guido Hibdon and others were fishing little baits with light line and spinning rods long before Western anglers.
Kehde also observes that perhaps the first angler to fish finesse tactics in competition was Drew Reese, another Kehde colleague who fished the first Bassmaster Classic with a jigworm and a Beetle Spin, finishing in 7th place at the 1971 Lake Mead championship. "This was the first time Midwest finesse met Western waters."
Then in the 1980s, during a fishing trip to Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota, Ron Lindner introduced Kehde to the Gopher Mushroom jighead. The result of the meeting was at last the emergence of modern 'Midwest Finesse.' "A 1/16-ounce Gopher Mushroom Head jig is the most unbeatable jig in the history of the world," proclaims Kehde. "You can drag the Mushroom over rocky terrain and rarely get hung up. It's got a small #4 hook, which makes bass folks immediately skeptical. The jig slides and glides; works beautifully with a presentation we call the 'swim, glide and shake.' Love the jig's bait-keepers, too, which hold a softbait on the shank perfectly, no super glue needed."
In 2006, Kevin VanDam showed Kehde early ElaZtech baits, manufactured by Z-Man Fishing. That same year, he fished with Japanese bass legend Shinichi Fukae on Beaver Lake, who was wielding a Yamamoto shad shaped worm on a red jighead. "Fukae was using the same method we had adopted, retrieving the jigworm a few inches off bottom, reeling and shaking as it went along. It gave further credence to our Midwest style of finesse bassin'."
In the years since, Kehde has become a major proponent of Z-Man's uniquely durable ElaZtech baits. His favorite remains a green pumpkin ZinkerZ stickworm, cut in half (to 2.5-inches), stretched to removed salt and enhance softness and action, and rigged on a 1/16-ounce red Gopher jig. He's surely been responsible for the sale of untold numbers of the uniquely soft, durable bass baits, for which Kehde has scarcely received credit.
"Wish I knew what makes them so dad-gum good," admits Kehde, in his usual modest manner. The truth is, no one knows more about the history or inner workings of finesse bassin' than the humble Kehde, who in response to his growing network of online correspondence, initiated the Finesse News Network several years back.
"I was fishing and talking with Brent Frazee, longtime outdoors editor for the Kansas City Star, and somehow we hit on the topic of TV's Financial News Network. I thought about it—FNN—why not give a name to the network of anglers we were already collaborating with? So we started calling our circle of email correspondents the Finesse News Network.
"We began with Brent, myself, guide Clyde Holscher and several others. We'd circulate email fishing reports to our inner circle. And before long we had communications from West Virginia and Texas, guys not catching squat who suddenly were taking tons of bass and other species with finesse methods."
To date, Kehde's finesse network encompasses 275 members across the continent. He also writes a related blog for in-fisherman.com, which has garnered one of the most loyal followings in bass fishing. The influence of this network did not go unnoticed by the tackle industry. A few years back, a manufacturer (Z-Man) was finally wise enough to pick up on the momentum and name a lure after the unassuming angling educator.
The Ned Rig has become one of the hottest finesse methods in the game. Produced by Z-Man Fishing, the rig consists of a Finesse ShroomZ jighead and Finesse T.R.D. stickworm. As Kehde's good friend Terry Bivins has suggested, the pint-sized combo is an incredible numbers presentation, capable of frequently out-fishing whatever bait thrown by the guy in the front of the boat.
"I look at tournaments after all these years of observing the best anglers and am still amazed by how few fish they catch," Kehde remarks. "Fishing for five big fish is not a good way for us or the everyday angler to propagate the sport."
The valid point can surely be made regarding tournaments versus everyday anglers, and it's one for which Kehde has become a champion. "Tournaments have exaggerated the price of what it truly costs to go fishing. On the other hand, frugality is a major component of our style of fishing, and it's important for recreational anglers to understand that fishing really can be much simpler, and much less expensive than it's too often purported to be."
Quinn credits a timely story Kehde wrote on the topic. "His article on 'Frugal Fishing,' which as penned during the height of soaring gas prices and the fall of the boating industry, became an instant classic."
Indeed, for much of his career, while he surely could have fished with expensive gear in his role as outdoor writer, Kehde has chosen to fish $15 rods and the same set of Cardinal Four reels since the 1970s.
Apparently, he's doing something right, for Kehde and friends often catch over 100 fish in a single four-hour outing on a string of small reservoirs near Kansas City.
Moreover, the resilient Z-Man baits fit perfectly into the thrifty motif, as a single softbait frequently accounts for dozens of bass. The record was set, Kehde says, by one particular Z-Man Finesse WormZ and 1/16-ounce Gopher jig that caught 102 largemouth bass, seven crappie and one bluegill during a single five-hour span in March 2012.
Preserving the Past
"To know Ned and understand much of the way he approaches fishing and fishing topics, one must understand a bit about his life's work," says Stange. "Archivists are historians, blessed with the practiced ability to see things and place them in historic context, which is what Ned does so well with topics like finesse fishing.
"He's not at all interested in publicizing his own angling abilities, which are tremendous, as he is in simply capturing how other great anglers fish. Ned himself likes to catch lots of fish and fishes as often as possible with the intent of catching at least 100 fish each outing, size mostly irrelevant; numbers literally tracked with a counter that clicks each time a fish is caught and released."
Adds Quinn: "Despite all his renown, Ned remains a very humble angler, giving all credit to the many anglers who've inspired him. I've tried to convince him to write a book. But he's more interested in spending time with his wife Pat and his ten grandkids and attend to his fabulously popular 'finesse fishing' blog."
As he's done annually since those early days "rowing boats" on Clark Lake, Kehde and family return to Minnesota every summer — for fishing and fellowship and to recall the good old days, like the one in 1984 when Kehde and his son John stumbled onto a magnificent surface bass bite on Mission Lake, "just across from Gary Roach's place."
I continue asking questions about Ned's best memories and fondest accomplishments, but mostly hear about the greatness of his family and friends. At last, Kehde conveys satisfaction for his work as an archivist for the University of Kansas, which lasted from 1970 to 2003. "It was a great job, an easy job. I never had a bad day. We built the largest sports archive outside Notre Dame—over 150-thousand cubic feet of records, film, and correspondence.
"I think it's important to preserve and chronicle the past. Donate your fishing records, your magazines, newspapers, journals, and photos to your local historical society. They need that stuff. It's the only way to assure we'll have an accurate portrait of the past for our children and their children's children."
It is said that assets in archival collections are unique, specialized, or rare. What better way to describe a singular man named Ned.