Photos and story by Max Goodwin
Not far from Martin City—just across the state line at a small lake I promised not to disclose—Ned Kehde pulls in another bass and clicks the metal tally counter around his neck.
In three hours on the water, we caught 21 bass between us. It’s far off Kehde’s regular pace. He typically aims for just over a hundred fish between two people in four hours.
“We try to catch about 25 per hour,” Kehde says. “I have a friend who caught 101 the other day.”
Reaching those numbers requires some rule-bending. Kehde doesn’t care to land each fish in the boat, for instance. He still counts it if a fish falls off the hook as long as he sees the fish come out of the water. “This isn’t tournament fishing,” he says—as long as it’s efficient.
His record is 110 bass in four hours. He’s caught over 250 fish without changing the plastic worm a single time. This style of fishing is about catching a lot of fish without spending much money.
It’s known as “Midwest finesse fishing”, and Kehde, 83, has chronicled its history from the 1950s when he was a kid through the present day. Originally from Sedalia, Mo., Kehde now lives in Lawrence, where he worked professionally as an archivist at the University of Kansas.
In 1980, Kehde’s expertise led him to start writing for In-Fisherman Magazine. He’s also written for the Lawrence Journal-World and Topeka Capital-Journal, among other publications.
Kehde learned his style of finesse fishing from Chuck Woods, a house painter in the Kansas City area. When Kehde wrote a story for In-Fisherman titled “Legends of the Heartland,” he called Chuck Woods “the greatest angler no one has ever heard of.”
Midwest finesse fishing consists of light tackle, spinning reels, a line as light as a four-pound test, and a small plastic worm on a mushroom jig head. It’s known to catch a fish when they aren’t biting anything else.
It’s the only way Kehde fishes. He snaps the barb off each hook with a pair of pliers to make getting the hooks out of the fish quicker. He doesn’t care about the size of the fish, just how many he snags.
Ned rig fishing is one of the most popular types of finesse fishing and was born out of this part of the Midwest. Ned Kehde created it decades ago to fish the small ponds around Missouri and Kansas.
Most fishing tackle companies now sell some version of a ned rig. Ned Kehde has been fishing a ned rig most of his life. He just never called it that. The first time he ever heard somebody call it that was in 2010. He thinks the editor of In-Fisherman was the first, and the title stuck.
The companies don’t pay Kehde for selling the ned rig, but he has worked with the Z-Man Fishing company, and it’s clear from the catalog of baits in various shapes and colors he keeps on his boat that Z-Man is the only brand he uses.
Kehde wasn’t the only one inspired by Chuck Woods. Woods taught two high school kids how to fish in Drew Reese and Dwight Keefer. Reese competed in the first Bassmaster Classic ever using Wood’s tactics, while Keefer competed in the third Classic.
One of the rods Kehde handed me to test out is a Z-Man Drew’s Ultimate NED Finesse Rod. It will be released this month by Z-Man. It’s a medium-light power rod that is just under six feet long. Drew Reese helped design the rods, but this kind of rod was developed by a group of anglers who would gather at a tackle shop on Southwest Blvd. in the 1950s.
“That’s where these rods first got developed. Back in those days we called it a stinger,” Kehde said. “Most people nowadays have six-and-a-half, seven-foot heavier rods, and these are extremely light.”
Professional tournament anglers sometimes look down upon finesse fishing for not hauling in the biggest fish, but there’s no denying the tactics can provoke a bite when nothing else seems to work. The big fish aren’t against biting the ned rig either. Kehde has caught plenty of them over the years.
Virgil Ward started a bass fishing company called The Bass Buster Lure Company in Amsterdam, Mo., a small town about 50 miles south of Martin City.
The Bass Buster Lure Company began manufacturing Wood’s creations, like the Beetle and Beetle Spin. Bass Buster created a custom jig head for Woods, making 10,000 jig heads and giving them out to Woods as he needed. Woods was also the first to use a shaky head worm with this mold for a jighead.
Virgil Ward and his son Bill, who is still close friends with Kehde today, created the first maribou jig.
A slew of innovations that changed the fishing world stem from a small group of anglers from the Kansas City area that Ned Kehde links back to. He only keeps a fish finder on his boat to know the depth of water he’s fishing in. Other than that, he uses no electronics.
Kehde simply fishes the same way he always has: Midwest finesse fishing. It may not win anybody a Bassmaster Classic anytime soon, but it can land 25 fish in an hour—and that’s good enough for Kehde.