BOURBONNAIS – High and fast waters made the top catch of this year’s Kankakee River Fishing Derby as murky as the river itself.

While the big board was full of sizable fish, none of them were the clear-cut grand champion going into Wednesday night’s Northern Illinois Anglers Association awards ceremony.

“There wasn’t a fish that jumped out and said, ‘Pick me. Pick me,’” NIAA President Ken Munjoy said. “It was a fight between a handful of fish. There were many great catches but none that jumped off the board.”

In fact, it was so competitive that this year’s grand champion sat down after a smoke break just before Munjoy announced his name.

Anthony Benvenuto and his 1-pound, 3-ounce crappie edged out Eric McNeeley’s 3-pound, 10-ounce smallmouth bass in a tie-breaking vote to win this year’s grand champion plaque, $100 and a year’s worth of bragging rights.

“I’m really amazed,” Benvenuto said. “I didn’t think a 1-pound, 3-ounce crappie was that big of a fish in that category, but I was surprised. I’m shocked.”

This was Benvenuto’s fourth year of competing in the derby. The 26-year-old Orland Park native fished at his family’s cabin east of Momence. It was the aspiring mechanical engineer’s way of celebrating his recent graduation from Purdue Northwest University.

The river conditions convinced Benvenuto to sit out the first couple days of the derby. But once the river lowered, he was out at the cabin every day.

“It was just a rough year for fishing,” Benvenuto said. “I was ready to get out there the first two days, but the river was high. I won’t go out unless its below four and a half feet below flood stage. I went out the rest of the week, and it turned out well for me.”

Benvenuto hauled in a 10-ounce crappie last Friday and had it weighed at Bordertown Guns in Momence. That same spot netted him his prize fish the next morning.

“I went back out to the same spot. The first fish I caught was that 1-pound, 3-ounce crappie,” Benvenuto said. “I pulled it out, put it in the bucket and weighed it in. I released it, so it’s out there for somebody else to catch.”

Munjoy said this is the most competitive derby in recent memory. NIAA members nominated five fish before breaking it down to Benvenuto’s crappie and McNeeley’s smallmouth.

To break the tie, Munjoy called NIAA founding member and honorary board member Jack Beaupre, who voted in favor of the crappie.

“I couldn’t be happier with the way it was done,” Munjoy said. “Jack Beaupre is so important to this organization. It was special for it to come down him making the decision.

“He had a good, logical reason. A 1-pound, 3-ounce crappie isn’t great in some bodies of water. In this river, it is a great catch. It couldn’t have been better.”

Benvenuto plans on using his $100 cash prize on more fishing. The grand champion plaque will accompany his second place certificate from the 2017 rock bass category.

“I’m going to put it next to all the deer I have,” the outdoorsman said. “I’m just surprised it won. It’s an incredible feeling.”

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