MO Sticks of the Past – Dwight Keefer

Dwight Keefer holding a nice largemouth. Photo Dwight Keefer.

The name Dwight Keefer may not be a household name amongst today’s fishing crowd but in the mid-60s and throughout the 1970s, the name was taken seriously amongst anyone who ventured into the realm of tournament fishing. Having won the Kansas Open Fishing Tournament in September 1967 gave him the opportunity to fish the 1967 World Series of Sport Fishing Championship held one month later in Wisconsin on Long Lake. Keefer ended up winning that event hands down – as a college sophomore.

After his wins, Keefer went on to finish college and become a sales rep for the Shakespeare Corporation – balancing competitive fishing with his sales job. In 1972 he fished two BASS events and qualified for the second BASS Master Classic held on Percy Priest Reservoir in Tennessee.

The following story is about Dwight Keefer, his early days of competitive fishing and his use of Midwest finesse tactics at a time when if you didn’t throw 20-pound string, you were considered a fool.

The Formative Years

Keefer started out as a young child fishing with his father, grandfather and uncle on the Marais des Cygnes River, local creeks and farm ponds around Ottawa, KS. They’d fish every weekend from spring to fall, throwing live bait and artificials, primarily looking for bass. Then in 1957 the family moved to Kansas City, MO where he and his father began plying the numerous strip pits located in nearby Clinton.

During the summers, he’d go back to Ottawa, KS to spend time with his grandfather and fish his old haunts along Marais des Cygnes.

“It was during those summers I learned a lot about fish and their habits,” he said. “I’d go down to the Marais des Cygnes on my bike, catch crawdads below the 2nd Street Dam and use them for bait. That’s when I discovered fish used channel banks (banks where the current had undercut the bank) as cover. This really helped me when I started fishing the new reservoirs that were being formed around the Midwest.”

After a move to Overland Park, KS in 1960, he began building rods with one of his high school buddies. It was then that he’d meet a number of people who would change his life.

Chuck Woods, inventor of the Beetle, Beetle Spin and other lures circa 1960s. Photo taken by Capt. Burton Bosley provided by Dwight Keefer.

“I met Ray Fincke, owner of Fincke Tackle Company, at a sports show in Kansas City in 1961 where my dad and I signed up for a fly tying class held at his shop. On the last night of the class, Ray approached us and asked if I’d be interested in working for him sorting feathers, filling paint jars and making jigs. With my dad’s approval, I said yes.

“Over time, my responsibilities grew to the point I was waiting on customers and building custom rods.

“Fincke’s was a one-stop shop for all fishermen,” he said. “All the top fishermen would come in there. One of those people was Chuck Woods, the inventor of the Beetle, Beetle Spin and many other lures.

“About this same time, Drew Reese (1971 Classic contender) started working at the shop too. We were near the same age and hit it off.

“Over time Chuck got to know Drew and me and started taking us fishing. We’d fish 8-pound line and the Fincke custom spinning rods with 1/32-ounce Beetles (a Beetle Spin minus the spinner) all the way up to 3/8-ounce Scorpion spinnerbaits. I’d always been what you’d consider a finesse fisherman but fishing with Chuck really taught me a lot about light line fishing.”

The Venture into Competitive Fishing

“In 1966 Drew and I fished our first tournament, the 1966 Kansas Open Fishing Championship on Pomona Lake,” Keefer said. “It was our first tournament and we were both only 18. Drew took 10th place and I took 16th, both with crappie (Ed’s Note: Back in the early to mid 60s, tournaments counted all species of fish).

“The next year, Drew couldn’t make the Kansas State Championship on Norton Reservoir in September so I decided to go it alone.

“Before I left for the tournament, Drew and I were in the shop when Ray went into the back and came out with a rod he’d just finished. He took the rod, whipped it and said, ‘Perfect.’ He then handed the rod to me and said, ‘Keefer, this is just what you need. Take your regular stinger rod (a short 5’-6” spinning rod) and this and fish them with 8- to 10-pound test.’ That would prove to be one of the most profound statements anyone ever said to me during my professional career.

“I thought the rod was giant. It was at least 6’-2” made out of a yellow Fenwick blank and a Featherlight spinning handle. Little did I know the rod would make such a difference.

“I left for the tournament with my dad’s 12 foot Aluminum boat, a Sear’s 10 Horse motor and a Shakespeare trolling motor. I prefished for four or five days and was on some good fish.

“The first day of the event I got paired with a guy who had a big boat (16-footer) with a big motor and troller so we fished out of his boat. We got to my first spot; I picked up the new rod and fired a Scorpion spinnerbait farther than my partner could cast with his free spool casting reels. I caught six or seven bass to his two.

“Around noon he decided it was time for lunch so he went over to a tree and I tied us up to a branch and he started eating. I wasn’t about to waste the time so I dropped a Beetle over the side with the stinger rod and caught 12 crappie. He decided that wasn’t good and pulled out of the tree so I couldn’t fish.

“After he finished lunch, we went to another spot in the back of another creek and there were a couple of bait fishermen hooking and breaking off big northern pike fishing with live Bluegill. My partner started throwing a spinnerbait and was getting cut off. I figured if I could throw a smaller bait, the fish wouldn’t hit it as hard and I’d have a better chance of not getting sawed off.

“I tied on a 1/8-ounce Bass Buster marabou jig attached to a jig spinner and on my first cast hooked a 13-pound northern pike that at the time was a Sports Afield Kansas record. As the fish came close to the boat my partner tried to knock it off with the net. I took the net and landed the record northern. I ended up in 1st place the first day.

“The second day I drew an angler who hadn’t caught any fish the first day. We went in my boat and fished around my number one creek all day long with Scorpions. I ended up winning the tournament, which qualified me to fish the 1967 World Series of Sport Fishing Championship to be held one month later on Long Lake in Wisconsin.

“When I got home from the state championship, I went to Virgil and Bill Ward of Bass Buster Lure Company and asked them for help. I was a sophomore in college and couldn’t afford to go to the World Championship. I asked them to supply me with all the lures I needed, help pay my expenses and loan me their 20-hp motor. They agreed to help. I think I was one of the first sponsored anglers ever because of that.”

Some of Keefer’s winning bass from the 1967 World Series of Fishing Championship. Photo Dwight Keefer.

The 1967 World Series of Sport Fishing Championship

The World Series of Sport Fishing Championship attracted anglers from all over the U.S. and world. It was, at the time, the biggest tournament in the industry and the winner would be recognized the world over. It was a serious event for experienced anglers let alone a 19 year-old college kid.

“When I arrived at the World Championship, I met up with some anglers from Illinois – two of which were Harold Smiley and Bob Lang, the pre-tournament favorite. Harold, Bob and I hit it off.

“During practice I’d found two patterns that were producing for me – one throwing Scorpions on coon-tail covered points and the other fishing over hydrilla with the same bait. Then one day during practice I ran into a couple on the water who befriended me. As we were eating lunch on the lake, the gentleman saw I had a Chuck Woods Jig Head Plastic Worm rig tied to one rod and said, ‘Dwight, that’s the magic bait.’ After lunch I went over to a patch of hydrilla and cast that worm, with a small aspirin head, and the fish ate it.

“The first day of the tournament I went to one of the points I’d found bass on, threw my scorpion and caught two 2 1/2- to 3-pound fish on the Scorpion. I went to the next spot and caught another on the blade. We went to my 3rd spot and I caught seven in a row on the worm. The guy I was paired with threw a Creek Chub Pike Minnow and blanked.

“The limit was six fish and I had six 3-pounders. I had 18 pounds and figured I was in the top 5 easily. After I weighed the fish and the totals were tallied, I was in 1st place by over 9 pounds.

“The next day I got paired with a guy from Illinois who had a 35-hp motor so we decided to use his boat. What I didn’t realize was he didn’t have a trolling motor on his boat and by the time I found out, it was too late to get my trolling motor and battery. I figured I could get 3 to 4 fish junk fishing a blade and with the lead I had I didn’t worry too much.

Keefer’s 1967 World Series of Fishing Championship Trophy. Photo Dwight Keefer.

“This guy didn’t catch a fish on the first day so we went to my areas. When we got to the first spot he tried to cut me off from the water. I zinged my blade right past his ear and he opened up a little. Then we went to my other spots and he continued to backseat me. By the end of the day I had 3 or 4 fish and ended up weighing 24 or 25 pounds and won by 12-plus pounds. I also won 1st place for the team event so it was a pretty big deal. Again that longer spinning rod made the difference.

“The next day, Monday, I drove straight through back to Kansas and when I got there Ray’s (Fincke) shop was still open for the Monday night fishing crowd including my dad, Frank Keefer. I walked into the shop with my all my trophies and Ray and my dad were speechless.”

World Champion

Being the World Champion would open a lot of doors for Keefer – much like winning the Bassmaster Classic does today.

“After I won the Championship, I was working the 1968 Kansas City sports show and met the Shakespeare rep, Jim McCabe. Jim was the number one sales rep for Shakespeare in the U.S., had the most prominent booth at the show, right at the front doors, and next to him were Ray’s and Virgil’s booths. All during the show, I’d talk to people about Bass Buster lures and show them how to cast.

“One day during the show Jim took me to lunch and offered to get me a job with Shakespeare after I got done with college. That appealed to me because I had met a lot of tackle reps at Ray’s store and I wanted to be a tackle rep.

“In March of 1970 Shakespeare hired me and I started right after I graduated in May of that year. By the first of June, I was living in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Shakespeare was flying me all over to entertain clients and take them fishing.

“When I wasn’t flying around the country, they had me getting ready for sports shows and answering all the customer letters that were pouring in. Basically I was doing whatever they wanted me to do and I also enjoyed doing some TV work with some local fishing programs.”

Professional Angler or Tackle Rep

In 1971, things changed for Keefer in a big way. He’d been working for Shakespeare for a year and had also gotten back into the competitive side of fishing. But his life would meet a serious crossroads.

“In October ’71 Jim McCabe committed suicide,” he said. “That put me in a tough spot – work wise. Shakespeare divided up McCabe’s territory and I got Western Missouri and Arkansas. I ended up moving back to Kansas City, MO. Here I was married with a pregnant wife with a huge territory to cover. Not only that, Shakespeare’s booking time was August for the next year and I was three months behind. I was working day and night.

“Then Drew came back from the Classic (Reese fished the first Bass Master Classic) and we talked a lot about it. I decided I’d fish the 1972 BASS events I could make.

“By this time, I wasn’t only selling for Shakespeare I was also selling some Bass Buster lures and doing seminars for Shakespeare at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Everything was falling into place with my job.

Getting off the plane in Nashville, TN for the second Bass Master Classic on Percy Priest Reservoir. Top to Bottom:  Bill Rice (Press Observer), Billy Westmorland, Dwight Keefer and Ernest Neil. Man at bottom right unknown. Photo courtesy of Bill Rice.

“When ’72 rolled around, I decided to fish BASS and the local events. I fished the BASS event at Ouachita in May and placed 11th. Then I went to Watts Bar in June and finished 5th. It was enough to get me into the ’72 Classic at Percy Priest.

“The Classic was an awesome event. I learned a lot about the upcoming Classic from Stan (Sloan) and Bobby (Murray) because they’d both fished the first Classic. We only had one day of practice and were limited to 10 pounds of tackle.

“In practice I’d gone into the creek that Don (Butler) ended up winning the event in but the fish weren’t there. I did find fish at the mouth of the creek.

“On the first day I caught some good fish at the mouth of the winning creek but by the second day, the bigger fish were gone. I think what happened was the fish moved into the creek and Don got them.

“Ricky Green was fishing right behind me and finished second. I was on the right area; the fish just didn’t bite for me.

Keefer fishing at the second Bass Master Classic. Photo courtesy of Bill Rice.

“The Classic was exciting,” he said. “I didn’t like my finish but it was the highest-profile event I’d ever fished. Compared to the World Series Championship, the Classic was a 10. Hy Peskin’s events were a 5 compared to Ray’s (Scott) events. The media coverage, the airline flight to the “Mystery” lake, the Ranger Boats and the fact we fished with writers was all very exciting.

“Back to Hy’s events, they didn’t compare. In fact, the way he had treated Glen Andrews (winner of the ‘65 and ’66 World Series, see Historical Links) was down-right racist.”

After the ‘72 season, Keefer had to make a decision – fish professionally or continue on with Shakespeare. The lack of time required to compete against the likes of Roland Martin, Bill Dance and Tom Mann made the decision for him.

“It was just too tough to fish the BASS events and continue with my rep job,” he said. “At that level you have to be in it 100 percent. I decided to fish local events and concentrate on my job.”

Keefer would not only become a successful rep, he ruled the local Mid-America Bass Association Tournament series for five years.

“I fished the Mid-America Bass Association Tournament series from 1974 through 1979, which were held in the states of Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma,” he said. “Anglers like Charlie Campbell (the man who brought the Zara Spook much fame), Bob Martin, the Johnson Brother’s and other big names were fishing it at the time. I ended up winning Angler of the Year each of the five years I fished it.”

Looking Back

At the end of 1979 Keefer left competitive bass fishing altogether. But during the years he competed and after, he met, got to know and became friends with nearly everyone in the industry.

“In 1976 I left Shakespeare to start my own rep company,” he said. “I don’t regret not being a professional angler at all. I think I made a better businessman plus the economics just weren’t there in professional bass fishing.

“I met and became friends with a lot of the major players in the sport over the years. Bobby Murray and Stan Sloan were close friends. Both were magical at bait design. In fact, I look at a lot of the bass baits today and wonder what these designers are thinking.

“Bobby Murray and I still talk all the time about lures and rod design,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know that Bobby is a great finesse fisherman in his own right. Johnny Morris was also someone who I became close friends with and we still are to this day. In fact, I gave Johnny a bait and pattern that allowed him to finish the 1972 Watts Bar event in 6th place. I also became friends with Billy Murray, Tom Mann, Bill Dance and Jerry McKinnis.

“But it all started with my dad, Frank Keefer, Ray Fincke and Chuck Woods – in fact I am eternally grateful to all of them. Without them my life would not be as abundant. My last two recent fishing trips were very successful with 25- to 50-bass days using those finesse techniques that each of them taught me. I am blessed.”

Keefer now resides in Phoenix, AZ and continues to fish to this day. He’s still an avid finesse fisherman and experiments with rods and techniques on Lake Pleasant and the other surrounding waters.

  • Great article about a very good fisherman I knew from Ray’s shop. About time he and Drew get some ink. Chuck was the guru for many of us. If Dwight had pursued it he would have become a household name in professional bass fishing.
    by the way I took that picture of Chuck climbing up the bank of a strip pit near Pleasanton, Ks.

    • Capt. Bosley, It’s great to have you here and thanks for the comments on the site. I had the opportunity to fish with Dwight last year in AZ. It was a great time and a trip I’ll never forget.

      I’ll change the photo caption to reflect that you took the picture.