Tennessee’s Michael Neal Clinches Pro Circuit AOY Title

TULSA, Okla. – Based in Dayton, Tennessee and growing up in a family of anglers, Michael Neal started fishing as a pro on the former FLW Tour at just 20 years old. Since then, he’s finished second in the Forrest Wood Cup and REDCREST, and generally been excellent, consistent … and shy of a win. Though it took all year to make it happen, the 29-year-old pro finally has that win after being crowned Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit Angler of the Year on Day 3 of  Savage Arms Stop 6 Presented by Abu Garcia on the St. Lawrence.

Fishing a nearly flawless season, Neal started the year with a 22nd-place showing at Okeechobee and a 33rd-place finish at Lewis Smith. Then, he turned up the heat. In the final four events on Lake Murray, the Potomac River, Lake Eufaula and the St. Lawrence, Neal’s lowest finish was 11th, which surged him past a slipping Cole Floyd and well ahead of Skeet Reese.

Finishing 11th at the St. Lawrence with 55 pounds, 3 ounces of smallmouth, Neal wrapped up the win in style.

“It still really hasn’t set in, I’m excited, but I don’t think I have everything emotionally coming out yet,” Neal said of the AOY title. “It’s just a great year, there are so many things I can look back on that shouldn’t have happened that did. Randy Haynes once told me, ‘When you’re going to win a tournament, stuff like that will happen.’ It’s happened every tournament this year and his words came true.”

Neal said he’s gotten lucky all year, with one good call after another making the season come together. When you do it all year long it stops being luck at some point, but he’s still grateful for the things that have gone right.

“There’s something from every single tournament that I can look at and say ‘Wow, that was lucky’. Either catching a big one or catching a couple off a place, or whatever,” Neal said. “At Murray, for one, I went up the river in practice for about three hours and had one bite and it was a 2-pounder. Then, the first day I had an OK bag skipping docks, the second day I had to find something else to do – I went up the river and started catching them. The fourth day, that’s where I caught almost all my fish.

“At the Potomac, I didn’t fish down south all tournament, then I ran back to Aquia [Creek] the last day and caught some fish that were really key to coming in second. Every tournament, there’s something that happened that just helped things go right.”

Even at the St. Lawrence, on his very last day of fishing, Neal had some things just go right.

“I was re-tying and I had individual rock piles marked, and I set my trolling motor to go towards the next one and it actually put me up on top of a grass flat,” Neal said. “As soon as I got done re-tying, I realized where I was, stood up, picked up a drop-shot, flipped to the edge of the grass and caught a 4-pounder right there. It’s been like that all year.”

A pitcher in his youth, Neal lettered for the varsity team as a freshman in high school, but quickly turned to fishing.

“When I hurt my elbow playing baseball, I had to make a choice, to either completely tear my ligament for Tommy John surgery or quit,” Neal said. “When I quit baseball, fishing was pretty much all I did all summer, and any time I got the opportunity.”

Shepherded along by his father Mike Neal, his grandfather Alan Brown and his uncle Rogne Brown, Neal has been competitive from the get-go.

“My first couple years were pretty rough, ’12 and ’13,” Neal said. “2012 was pretty much a learning experience, my first year being on tour, but since then, everything has kinda clicked. I’ve always went out there and did my own thing, trying not to worry too much about what everybody else is doing or what you’re supposed to do at that lake. Especially now, I just do what I want to do and go fish my way, and it’ll either work out or it won’t.”

Fishing BFL events and as a co-angler on the FLW Tour in 2008 and 2009, Neal worked his way up so quickly that it’s easy to think he’s been around for longer than he has. Starting on the Tour as a pro in 2012, Neal fished five events the first season while still in college to get his feet under him.

Back then, the same low-key and friendly angler was catching fish all over the country and putting up highlight reel finishes when he got in his wheelhouse on the Tennesee River. In 2014 and 2016, Neal banked Top 10 finishes on Pickwick Lake, finishing second both times and absolutely cracking them on the final day in 2014. In 2016, he sat on one schooling spot for the entire event to finish runner-up to John Cox in the Forrest Wood Cup on Wheeler Lake.

This year, fishing both the Bass Pro Tour and the Pro Circuit, Neal put together his best year yet.

“Going into the year I was on the fence of whether I should have signed up for both [tours] or not,” Neal said. “I didn’t know if I would be able to do it stamina-wise, and I wasn’t sure if I would get burnt out. But I really think that’s what has caused me to have the year I have had on both sides. When I’m home I don’t fish, ever. Just spending more time on the water, it doesn’t matter if you’re smallmouth fishing, largemouth fishing, in Florida, New York or Texas, you’re still staying in tune with the fish and making decisions and staying in rhythm.”

Now, with his best smallmouth finish ever under his belt to cap off an AOY season, Neal feels like he’s really accomplished something.

“I consider this a win, it’s not one tournament, but it was the best for the year,” Neal says. “I feel like now I’ve got an accolade I can hold as a career accomplishment that’s better than a win. Now that’s done, maybe some wins will follow.”

With a BPT event this week on Lake Champlain and then the Tackle Warehouse TITLE Presented by Mercury on the Mississippi, Neal will have some opportunities to get a win in short order. Then, he’ll finally get to go home to East Tennessee.

“It’ll probably be a party when I get back,” Neal chuckled. “Which will be about a month from now.”

For complete details and updated information visit MajorLeagueFishing.com. For regular updates, photos, tournament news and more, follow the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit presented by Bad Boy Mowers on the MLF BIG5’s social media outlets at FacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.


Fish Dayton’s Michael Neal Edges Lee by 1 Ounce for a $50,000 Check

Published on MajorLeagueFishing.com by Mason Prince  – September 4, 2020

There are not many opportunities in life to catch a $50,000 bass. The season’s Heavy Hitters tournament on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes was an event like we’d never seen before in the history of professional bass fishing: massive payouts for the winner and the biggest bass of each day of competition.

The angler who weighed in the biggest bass of the Knockout Round would take home $50,000. With only about 20 minutes remaining in the round, it looked as though the eventual winner of Heavy Hitters—Jordan Lee—was going to collect the big check with his 8-pound, 14-ounce monster.

As Lee remained comfortable with his big fish and his big lead on SCORETRACKER®, Michael Neal was surprisingly struggling for the majority of the day.

“I went into the round expecting it to be a pretty decent day considering how I did in the first two rounds,” Neal remembered. “I didn’t catch a scorable bass for two periods, so that pretty much sealed my fate in not making the cut for the Championship Round.”

Neal admitted that his head wasn’t really in the game during that final period. With temperatures soaring above 90 and little cloud cover or wind to speak of, he was ready to call it a day and head on in. But there was something about one area in particular that he couldn’t get out of his brain.

“At the start of Period 3, I had one area that I kept circling multiple times just trying to catch enough fish to work,” Neal said. “I caught a couple of 2-pounders, but nothing really to put me in contention. Then, kind of out of nowhere, I ran into that big one.”

On the edge of a hydrilla bed in about 6 feet of water, Neal finally got a big one to bite. With only 20 minutes left in the round, he had a 1/2-ounce Z-Man Black and Blue ChatterBait with a 4 1/4-inch Big Bite Cane Thumper trailer tied on when something big took his bait.

Michael Neal shows off his 8-15 largemouth he caught with 20 minutes remaining in Period 3. (MLF Fishing)

“The fish never jumped the entire time I had it hooked until it got right up next to the boat,” Neal recalled. “I thought it was probably a mudfish or something like that, not a bass. I had no idea what was even leading for big fish of the day because I was so far out of contention. I weighed it and it was 8-15, and that’s when my official told me I had the biggest fish of the day. I looked at him and said, ‘What? Are you serious?’”

Neal’s 8-15 held the top spot for the final 20 minutes as he edged out Jordan Lee by 1 ounce for the biggest bass of the Knockout Round. While he didn’t move on to the Championship Round, a $50,000 check sure is a nice consolation prize.

As for Lee, even though he won the Heavy Hitters event and an Angler of the Year title in 2020, he still thinks about the 1 ounce that cost him some extra cash.

“Losing that big fish of the day by 1 ounce is just brutal,” Lee recapped. “I really thought I had that $50,000 locked up with that 8-14. If someone had caught a 10- or 11-pounder, I would have been able to live with that. But to lose by 1 ounce was just really hard. I’m happy for Michael, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.”

Gross takes the gold at Eufaula

Gross Takes the Gold at Eufaula

EUFAULA, Ala. — After a week of constant adjustments, everything came together perfectly for Buddy Gross on Championship Saturday.

The Bassmaster Elite Series rookie, fishing only his second event on the trail, caught a tournament-best five-bass limit that weighed 27 pounds, 11 ounces and sprang from 10th place to a victory in the DEWALT Bassmaster Elite at Lake Eufaula with a four-day total of 84-8. He earned $100,000 and one of the coveted blue trophies that comes with every Elite Series win.

Instead of the usual routine of being handed the trophy by Elite Series Tournament Director Trip Weldon, Gross received the prize onstage from his family due to strict social distancing measures in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It doesn’t get much better than that,” Gross said. “This is something you dream of as a kid because B.A.S.S. is the epitome of fishing — just the staple of the fishing world. To dream about something like this, and then for it to happen so early in my career, is amazing.”

Gross, who lives in Chickamauga, Ga., made two scouting trips to Lake Eufaula before the event. Each trip, the weather was so rough that he spent all of his time just idling around and marking brushpiles.

During those two trips, he said he marked over 300 of the man-made structures that are so prominent on the fishery.

But when he showed up for the official practice period on Sunday, some of the brush he had marked was gone — presumably washed away by flooding in the area. However, Gross said new brushpiles had already been put in place since his most recent visit.

“I didn’t want to spend time fishing phantom waypoints,” Gross said. “So, I had to start marking those places off the list where brushpiles had washed away. Then as I was doing that, I found brushpiles in places where there weren’t any back before the off-limits period just 35 or 40 days ago.

“The people in this town must be part beaver or something. I’ve never been to a place with so many brushpiles.”

Gross started his week probing the brush with a Zoom Swimmer in the Tennessee shad color and a 5-inch Natural Light Scottsboro Swimmer. That netted him just 16-14 on Day 1 and left him in 43rd place.

The next day, he made possibly his most important adjustment of the week.

“On the second day of the tournament, I switched over to a jig,” he said. “First cast, I got bit. Second cast, I got bit. It was just consecutive. Every brushpile I went to it probably increased my bites by 50 or 60 percent.”

The magic lure was a prototype bullethead jig from Nichols Lures with a green pumpkin Zoom Super Chunk trailer. It allowed him to catch 20-7 on Day 2, 19-8 on Day 3 and then the monster bag of 27-11 during Saturday’s final round.

On Saturday, another slight logistical adjustment was necessary for him to find the quality of fish he needed to jump from 10th place and surpass Alabama pro Scott Canterbury who entered the day with more than a 4-pound lead.

“I had started off fishing new brush this morning, just places I hadn’t fished,” Gross said. “On the deeper ones, I just didn’t get bit.”

Then he moved to an area with shallower brush in Pataula Creek.

“On the first shallow brushpile I fished, I hung one and lost it,” he said. “Then on the second one, I caught a 6-13 that was my biggest fish of the day. I said right then, ‘This is gonna be the deal all day.’

“My best brushpiles today were the ones in 5 1/2 to 6 feet.”

The season has been one of ironic twists for Gross.

Considered one of the best anglers on Lake Chickamauga, he was deeply disappointed when Elite Series tournaments scheduled for that fishery were cancelled in February and then again in April. He thought that might be his best chance for a win this season, but Eufaula helped take the sting out of those two curves thrown to the professional fishing world — first by flooding on the Tennessee River and then by the COVID-19 outbreak.

This week, Gross wouldn’t have even qualified for Saturday’s final Top 10 if North Carolina pro Shane LeHew hadn’t been penalized several ounces for weighing in dead fish and then 2 pounds for accidentally making a cast with six bass in his livewell.

Crazy things also happened to Gross on the water.

“The first day of the tournament, I was running brushpiles so fast that I was fishing with my lifejacket on,” he said. “I had a 7-pounder at the boat, and I reeled my lanyard up into my reel. That fish was out there jumping, so I tried to just muscle through it. All that did was make it worse.

“That fish eventually got off — and I thought [for] sure that would cost me a lot. But I guess when something is meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

Bryan College angler Victorious in Carhartt Bassmaster Classic Bracket


Deerwood, Minn. – Just days ago, it was the duo of Jacob Foutz (SO/Charleston, Tenn.) and Jake Lee (SO/Knoxville, Tenn.) who hoisted the hardware for the Bryan College Lions Fishing Team as they were crowned the 2017 Carhartt Bassmaster National Champions, presented by Bass Pro Shops, outlasting some of the best collegiate anglers in the nation on Lake Bemidji in Bemidji, Minn. Foutz and Lee did their best to let the feeling of national champs sink in, but they knew they had their work cut out for them as they headed to Serpent Lake to test their individual skill on the water in a head-to-head matchup with the other top-3 teams from Bemidji running from Monday through Wednesday (Aug. 14-16).

Despite the Lion’s rivals from Bethel University (Tenn.) having two teams, four anglers, make it into the Classic Bracket, only one Wildcat made it to day two. Foutz bettered Bethel’s Brian Pahl, Lee retired reigning Classic Bracket Champion John Garrett of Bethel, Chico State’s (Calif.) Chad Sweitzer put an end to Bethel’s Carter McNeil, and lone Wildcat Cole Floyd downed Tyler Firebaugh of Chico State to wrap up round one.

There was no stopping the Lions in round two as they roared their way to the final with Foutz overwhelming Sweitzer and Lee outlasting Floyd, making a place for themselves in the Bassmaster record books. Not only has an individual from the Bassmaster National Championship team never taken home the Classic Bracket honor, but also it is the first time since the Bracket’s creation that a college freshman has qualified for the Bassmaster Classic, also referred to as the “Super Bowl” of bass fishing. Lee and Foutz are the third set of teammates to make it through the eight-angler fish-off and meet in the championship round. The last occurrence was when Auburn University’s Matt Lee and Jordan Lee did so in 2012. To explain the importance of the Classic Bracket for the collegiate anglers, it should be known that both Lee brothers are currently Bassmaster Elite Series pro with Jordan being the reigning Bassmaster Classic champion. As the Classic Bracket winner, the individual gets a shot at the professional level with the Classic berth and paid entry into all nine Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens next year.

Ahead of Wednesday’s final, Foutz explained that he’d have to turn in some of his best fishing if he were to top fellow teammate Lee, and that’s exactly what he did. With a total weight of 16 pounds 5 ounces, Foutz weighed in the biggest bag of the bracket week, claiming the Classic Bracket title. Lee’s efforts gave way to 10 pounds 12 ounces.

Ultimately it was Foutz’ adaptability to the two different bodies of water and separate styles on each that led to success on Bemidji and then Serpent. Foutz and Lee went after largemouth bass while vying for the national championship, and then Foutz turned his attention to smallmouth bass when hitting the water on Serpent. His decision paid off after consistently producing impressive bags through the Classic Bracket.

Foutz, a native of Charleston, Tenn., has longed for the opportunity that almost all anglers dream of—to fish the Bassmaster Classic. “It’s an unbelievable feeling, one that is hard to describe unless you live it,” Foutz said. “I’ve been fishing ever since I could crawl, and as long as I can remember I wanted to fish the Bassmaster Classic. I’m fortunate enough to have fulfilled a lifelong dream.”

In the past week, the Lions have added a national championship and a victory in the Classic Bracket to their already notable achievement of Cabela’s School of the Year, which is a testament to the talent the young three-year program possesses.

“There are a bunch of unbelievable anglers at Bryan College,” explained Foutz. “They push Jake (Lee) and myself to be the best we can be. I look forward to representing college fishing this next year.”

The crucial moment for Foutz was when he landed a 4-pound smallmouth after an extremely slow start to the day. “When I caught that 4-0 I felt like I gave myself a shot to win,” Foutz said. “I kept culling up throughout the day and when I hit the 16-pound mark I was pretty certain I won.”

In addition to the Classic berth and entry fees waived for the opens, Foutz will receive a fully rigged and wrapped Toyota Tundra and Nitro Z20 bass boat with a 225 Mercury Pro XS equipped with Power-Pole shallow-water anchors, Humminbird electronics, and a Minn Kota trolling motor. Carhartt awarded him with $7,500 in prize money to help with travel expenses as he sets his sights on the professional events ahead.

Bryan College will be hosting an event to celebrate the national champions as they return home. The welcoming will begin at 12pm on Friday (Aug. 18) at the bottom of the new Bryan College entrance on Landes Way as the anglers make their way back to campus. Directly following the parade to usher in the national champions will be a media day in Summers Gymnasium, including a chance to hear from Bryan Fishing Head Coach Mike Keenand a Q&A time with Lee and Foutz. Invite your friends and family to help give the victors a warm Rhea County welcome back home!

For a look at how the Classic Bracket unfolded, visit bassmaster.com.

For photos from the Classic Bracket, click here.

For a look at the Classic Bracket weigh-ins, click here.

Andy Morgan Wins Third AOY Title

(Editor’s Note: This story courtesy Curtis Niedermier, www.FLWOutdoors.com)

There’s no established benchmark for what is a dynasty in professional sports. It’s a subjective term.

What the pundits can agree on is that a dynasty requires multiple championships over the course of several seasons. How many championships we can all debate, but in the case of Andy Morgan’s performance over the last four seasons, the case could be made that he’s established a dynasty on the Walmart FLW Tour.

Today at Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, N.Y., Morgan won his third Angler of the Year title and its $100,000 prize. He’s not the first to win three, but Morgan is the first in FLW Tour history to win three in four years.

The first came in 2013. Then Morgan went back to back with his second in 2014. Last season, Morgan “slipped” with a ninth-place finish in the standings – what would be a career best for many other anglers – and he’s now back on top in 2016.

Generally, dynasties are contingent on winning year-end championships, but in professional fishing we can argue that AOY is the more challenging title to win. It rewards consistency over the course of a season. And Morgan’s year defines consistency.

He made the top-20 cut this week at Champlain, so his final place hasn’t been recorded, but he’s going to average at least a 22nd-place finish for the season. He took 40th at the opener on Okeechobee then had his worst finish of 42nd place at Lake Hartwell. Morgan made the top 10 at Beaver Lake and Kentucky Lake and finished 11th at Pickwick.

“My first two tournaments were not that great,” Morgan says. “I got checks, and I was proud of that. But to win AOY it wasn’t the kind of checks you need to get. The last four tournaments I put it together, and it just worked out well. It was a blessing to do well.”

Remarkably, Morgan never really had a bad day over that span. He’s caught a limit every day of the season so far and attributes that kind of consistency to both willingness to gamble and his unwillingness to relent on the tough days.

“After you do well for a little while you get a little fearless,” he says. “You kind of get the preconceived stuff out of the way. You have a game plan, but you’re not afraid to scrap it sometimes when it all goes bad. And it usually does. In practice and the tournaments, sometimes it’s totally different, right and left. But you get fearless, and you just go fishing. You treat it like a normal day. That sounds simple, but it’s not easy to do when you pay the big entry fee and it’s all on the line.”

Morgan overtook Jeff Sprague for the AOY lead at stop No. 5 on Kentucky Lake in early June, but his biggest hurdle was the finale here on Champlain. It’s a place where smallmouths are in play, and Morgan has never been shy about his distaste for Northern smallmouths. It’s also a place where everybody catches fish. A scrapper who cashes a lot of checks with a spinning rod in hand, Morgan says he’d have preferred that the AOY title be settled in a tough event.

“I’m just not comfortable up here,” he says of Champlain. “It’s not a good feeling to come here in a slugfest and have to catch them. I think this is my fifth time here, and every time everybody catches them.”

Adding to the drama was a pair of dead fish in Morgan’s limit today – his first dead fish, he says, in “I don’t know how long.” It appeared early on in the weigh-in that the resulting 8-ounce penalty might open the door for Sprague or one of the other contenders to take away Morgan’s lead. It didn’t happen. He weighed 16 pounds, 14 ounces, and one by one the rest of the AOY contenders fell short.

It wasn’t a dominating performance that sealed the deal. His wasn’t a season-long display of big limits and contending for tournament wins. It was more a collection of scrappy, blue-collar performances that allowed him to survive the tough days and gradually build momentum throughout the season. It was a hard-working AOY win, says Morgan. And if anything, that’s the definition of the Andy Morgan dynasty.

“I’ve always said it just takes a good rain coat and some sunscreen to get out here and compete. That kind of grinding, and that kind of mentality that you’re not going to beat me is what it takes,” he says. “You have to learn to work. You learn to get up early and put in whatever it takes to compete and stay competitive. I’m 44 years old. You can see the gray in my beard. But I still know how to work. It’s all about the hustle.”