You’re doing something right when you qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series at age 25 in your first season of fishing the Bassmaster Opens as a boater. Pennsylvania’s Jonathan Kelley pulled this off in a big way by claiming the 2021 Northern Opens Angler of the Year title. Along the way, he made the Top 10 in two of the three events.
Two factors encouraged Kelley to enter the Northern Opens. One, he was familiar with the tournament waters. Two, “I knew I was ready to take that jump.”
He earned his confidence the previous year by finishing 11th in the AOY standings of the Toyota Series. Had he finished one place higher, he would have qualified for the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit.
It was tempting to return to the Toyota Series, but he felt he had learned enough over a lifetime of bass fishing to take a shot at becoming a Bassmaster Elite Series angler.
Although Kelley is young, he has over two decades of bass fishing experiences to drawn from. His first outing happened at age 3. It was a bank-fishing venture to the Susquehanna River with his father, John. They turned over rocks in the shallows to catch hellgrammites, which they used to catch smallmouth bass.
His father eventually bought a 16-foot aluminum V-hull, which allowed them to cast for bass at small lakes near home. Before long, a bass boat replaced the V-hull and Kelley’s father began competing in local bass derbies. From age 9 through 11 Kelley often fished these events with his father on weekends. His mother didn’t fully approve of one particular weekend tournament. It was a night event that ran from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
When Kelley was 12 his father began fishing BFL tournaments in the northern region. Kelley was too young to participate, but he would go out with his father on practice days. He began fishing these events as a co-angler when he reached the 16-year-old minimum age requirement and continued to do so until he was 18.
“I got to fish with new people who taught me different styles of fishing,” Kelley said.
The events took place in Maryland and New York. Champlain, Oneida, the St. Lawrence, the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay were regular venues.
After graduating from high school, Kelley enrolled at South Carolina’s Coastal Carolina University where he earned a master’s degree in business administration. The university had a fishing club, but it did not participate in tournaments. Kelley and his friend John Duarte became the university’s first fishing team.
By Kelley’s senior year the university had eight teams. He qualified for the Bassmaster College Series National Championship four times. Duarte did so three times.
“Competing in college gave me an opportunity to fish a lot of lakes, rivers and reservoirs in different parts of country,” Kelley said. “Anglers who have gone the college route get the jump on those who haven’t.”
After graduating from Coastal Carolina, Kelley returned home to work in his father’s construction business, which specializes in plaster, stucco and stonework, plus winter snow removal.
“My number one benefit is to have parents that support me,” Kelley said. “Working for dad gives me time off and the freedom to go and fish these tournaments.”
Along with working with his father after college, Kelley began fishing the Toyota Series. The most important thing he has learned about tournament fishing since his college days is to not let a bad day of practice or tournament competition scuttle what he does the following day.
“A bad day used to negatively affect me for more than one day,” Kelley said. “Now my next day after struggling is often my best day.”
His sponsors include Geico of Scranton, Spano Construction, John Kelley Construction, Carhartt, XZone Lures, Eco Pro Tungsten, P-Line, Owner Hooks, Power-Pole, Bass Boat Technologies and Denali rods. He also branded himself as JTK Fishing with his truck and boat wrap.