During the finals of the 2013 Forrest Wood Cup, bass-fishing fans couldn’t have scripted a more intriguing and compelling final day of tournament action. Would Randall Tharp ultimately come back, put his runner-up finish in the 2011 year-end championship behind him and pull off his first-ever Cup victory? Would Bryan Thrift, arguable one of the hottest anglers on the Tour over the past few years, net his first championship title? Could Jacob Wheeler pull off an impossible storybook finish and net back-to-back Cup titles for the first time in FLW history despite only being 22 years old? And then there was fishing legend and sentimental favorite Larry Nixon. In the end, Nixon was right there, knocking at the doorstep and so close to adding one of the most important wins of his career to his already storied legacy. But who would prevail?Obviously, we all now know the answer. Tharp found his fifth gear, persevered to the end and finally got the monkey off his back – nabbing the Cup title while justifying and embodying nearly every bass-fishing cliché in the process.But while those aforementioned pros rightfully grabbed most, if not all, of the headlines during the 2013 Cup, there was one angler who garnered nary a mention all week despite fishing one of the best events of his career.Sure he was the youngest Cup qualifier in 2013 at only 21 years of age.Sure he was just a college kid.Sure he was one of the quietest and most humble competitors on Tour.Sure, at least statistically speaking, he had done nothing prior to the 2013 season to suggest that he would ever be mentioned in the same breath as Tharp, Thrift, Nixon, Wheeler … or any other Cup competitors for that matter.But there he was nonetheless, standing and competing toe to toe with the nation’s best when it counted most.In the Cup finals.In his first Cup finals.With virtually no frame of reference for what he was about to accomplish. (Continued)
8/18/2013 FLW Outdoors
Flying under the radar … Of all of the top-10 pro finalists, the least recognizable name was arguably Michael Neal of Dayton, Tenn. Fishing in only his second season on the FLW Tour and the first year he’s actually fished all six FLW Tour events, the 21 year old proved that he was definitely worthy of bass fishing’s biggest stage. “It’s just amazing,” he said. “I finished 20th in the points this year and that’s way more than I could have hoped for.” Neal said that this season was almost a dream come true on every level. “I kind of accomplished a couple of goals this year. I made two top-10 finishes (the FLW Tour events on Lake Okeechobee and Lake Chickamauga) and qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup. Going into this season, I just wanted to make the show. And I did that. After that I just kept stepping up my goals. I made the top 20 and then I wanted to make the top 10. After that my goal was to finish in the top five.” While Neal ultimately had to settle for sixth place, his season could be summed up as a complete success by any conceivable metric. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m just really fortunate to have had the opportunity.” So is Neal still flying under the radar? “I’m trying to.” (Full Story)
6/30/2013 FLW Outdoors
Neal slips to third
Like Strader, Neal got off to a slower start on day one and then came on strong towards the weekend. On day four, he fell back a bit – catching 17 pounds, 1 ounce to finish the tournament with 79 pounds, 13 ounces. “I really thought 78 to 80 pounds would win it,” said Neal, the owner of the Dayton Boat Dock. “I got myself there, but as it turned out it took a lot more.” Neal switched back and forth between targeting schools of fish or specific pieces of cover like a brush pile or stump. The first day of the tournament he fished mostly cover and in hindsight thinks it was a mistake. On days two and three he whacked them early in the morning near an underwater spring. Today the fish weren’t there, but he has to assume they were on day one. While it was just one of several mid-lake spots, it accounted for much of his weight on days two and three. “I would love to have day one all over again. But anytime you average 20 pounds a day you can’t complain. It was an awesome week; it was all I can ask for.” Neal caught most of his fish on a 3/4-ounce Warrior football jig with a Warrior craw and a homemade 1-ounce bucktail jig. He also caught a few ripping a spoon and a few casting a solo Strike King Shadalicious swimbait. For third place, Neal earned $28,520. And like Martin, Neal will be in Shreveport this August for his first Forrest Wood Cup. (Full Story)
6/29/2013 FLW Outdoors
Neal rises to second
Local pro Michael Neal put a serious hurt on the Chickamauga bass for the second consecutive day. Amazingly, he still lost ground to Martin. Neal’s day-three stringer weighed 22 pounds, 8 ounces. With one day remaining, Neal’s total sits at 62 pounds, 12 ounces. “I got off to a strong start,” said the second-year pro. “My first five weighed over 20 pounds. I caught a bunch more fish, but no more big ones. Hopefully that place will reload and I can catch another 20 pounds.” Once he had over 20 in the well, Neal switched to targeting isolated brush and stumps, but the big bite never happened. He upgraded four times on the day, but in total gained only a pound. “All the fish I weighed today were deep structure fish. I caught some stroking a jig and some ripping a spoon.” Neal said the place he’s caught them each of the last two mornings he didn’t even fish on day one. “I’d love to have day one all over again. But anytime you average over 20 pounds a day you can’t complain.” Neal’s stringer Saturday was anchored by two 5 1/2-pounders. To catch Martin tomorrow, he may need five just like them. “I think I can catch them tomorrow. I left them biting this morning. I’m ready to get back out there.” (Full Story)
6/28/2013 FLW Outdoors
Neal rises to third
After a frustrating first day, Neal got in a groove Friday and caught a 22-pound, 14-ounce limit. “Yesterday I hit more cover,” explained Neal. “Today I fished more schools. Yesterday I ran around and hit probably 75 to 100 places – stuff like brush piles and stumps.” Neal caught four good ones off one school he has to himself. At one point he caught a bass on almost every cast for 15 minutes straight. But several other fish came off community areas. “Now since we’re in the cut, I should be able to move around on these community schools. They’re community for a reason; they’re full of fish.” With his second top-20 cut of the season, Neal also punched his ticket for the Forrest Wood Cup, a first for the young Tennessee pro. (Full Story)
2/25/2013 FLW Outdoors
Third place: Michael Neal
Hometown: Dayton, Tenn.
Occupation: College student/Owner Dayton Boat Dock and Grill
Home lake: Chickamauga
Favorite fishing style: Offshore structure
Highest FLW finish prior to Okeechobee: Three BFL wins
Knew I wanted to get serious about tournament fishing when: “As a freshman in high school I gave up baseball to fish more.”
Fishing inspiration: Andy Morgan
FLW Tour event most looking forward to this season: Chickamauga
FLW Tour event least looking forward to this season: Smith
For proof that the new faces in professional bass fishing mean business, consider Michael Neal. At 21 years of age, Neal is a junior at Bryan College studying Computer Science, he also owns the Dayton Boat Dock and Grill and is fishing his second year on the FLW Tour. Oh, and he comes complete with a glowing endorsement from a neighbor of his in Dayton, some guy named Andy Morgan.
“Michael is the real deal,” said well-known FLW Tour pro Andy Morgan. “He comes from a tremendous fishing family in this area. He’s a fast learner, smart as whip and a great offshore fisherman. I’ll put it to you this way, if I have something going on with my electronics that I need tweaked, the first call I make is to Michael. He’s a perfectionist when it comes to electronics and the offshore game.”
Somehow Neal finds a way to juggle college, business and fishing.
“School works with me,” he said. “They excuse my absences when I’m on Tour. Sure I would like to fish more, but I want a degree as a back up.”
Interestingly, Neal jumped straight from the BFLs into the FLW Tour, bypassing the EverStart series. In 2008 and 2009, Neal fished as a co-angler on the FLW Tour while fishing as a boater in BFLs.
“That was a great learning combination for me,” Neal said. “I could pick up things from the Tour and apply them in BFLs. In 2011 I won three BFLs and I decided to try to use that momentum to go straight to the Tour as a boater in 2012.”
His highest finish last year was 26th at Lake Champlain. He missed the Potomac River FLW Tour event because he also made the All-American as well and decided to fish the All-American instead of the Tour event as they were held simultaneously.
This year Neal is off to a much stronger start. His third-place finish at Okeechobee came from Government Cut where he spent all four days.
“I had never been to Okeechobee before,” Neal said. “So I just picked out a section of the lake and dedicated myself to finding fish in that area instead of running all over the place each day. I wanted to find some kind of contour – which is hard to do in Okeechobee – so I settled into the northeast side of the lake where Government cut ran through a bunch of flats and bays and I fished the canal edges where it dropped into deeper water. I felt comfortable holding my boat in 5 to 8 feet of water and casting up into one and two feet – it’s the closest thing I could find to the way I like to fish and it worked.”
Neal’s primary observation about fishing in the pro ranks is that there is no time for dawdling or indecision.
“The best guys are at the top of their game mentally,” he said. “There is no room to get flustered or bogged down. You have to stay focused and be able to make super quick, efficient decisions and they have to be the right decisions at the right time.” (Full Story)
2/10/2013 FLW Outdoors
Neal rises to third
Dayton, Tenn., pro Michael Neal steadily climbed the leaderboard all week. He started the tournament in 22nd with a 15-pound, 7-ounce limit. On day two, he sacked his big stringer, a 22-pound, 12-ounce catch that brought him up to sixth. Each of the final two days he crept up a few notches with limits in the teens. Today his official weight for five bass was 13 pounds, 1 ounce. Neal worked a unique program where he targeted areas that were adjacent to deep water. On Okeechobee, deep water is considered 5 feet or more. While he was working the outside edge earlier in the week, during the final round he moved inside from time to time. “I fished the edge of a ditch in Eagle Bay Island, near the Kissimmee River,” said Neal, a junior majoring in computer science at Bryant College. “I was strictly throwing moving baits – a swim jig (1-ounce Strike King Hack Attack Heavy Cover) and swimbaits (Gambler Big EZ) around scattered grass looking for a reaction bite.” Neal described it as a go-between area as the fish were either prespawn or postspawn. While certain portions were more productive, the entire stretch was roughly a mile long. “The swim jig accounted for most of my big fish,” Neal said. The second-year pro learned to work moving baits through the grass from Brett Hite, who he drew as a co-angler at the 2008 FLW Tour opener on Lake Toho. “That was a crash course in grass fishing. I’ve taken that lesson and I applied it here this week.” For his first FLW tour top-10, the 21-year-old Neal earned $30,000. (Full Story)
2/9/2013 FLW Outdoors
Neal rises to fifth
Dayton, Tenn., pro Michael Neal cracked the top five Saturday after catching a limit worth 16 pounds, 8 ounces. After three days on the Big O, his total weight stands at 54 pounds, 11 ounces. Neal has a unique program where he targets areas that are adjacent to deep water. On Okeechobee, deep water is considered 5 feet or more. While he was working the outside earlier in the week, today he moved inside from time to time. “I’m strictly throwing moving baits – a swim jig and swimbaits. I’m fishing a 1-mile stretch of water on the north end of the lake by the Kissimmee River.” Neal described it as a go-between area as the fish are either prespawn or postspawn. He said the swim jig has accounted for most of his big fish. He learned to work moving baits through the grass from Brett Hite, who he drew as a co-angler at the 2008 FLW Tour opener on Lake Toho. “That was a crash course in grass fishing. I’ve taken that lesson and I’m applying it here this week.” (Full Story)
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