FLW Pro Michael Neal of Dayton, TN, continues to fly under the radar despite hints that he’s poised for yet another breakout FLW Tour season
by Gary Mortenson – FLW Outdoors
In addition to my finishing my degree, my main goal fishing wise is to make the Cup. Anything more than that is just a bonus.
FLW Pro Angler – Michael Neal
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.
There, standing mostly by himself before final weigh-in at the Cup, outside of the limelight, outside of the glare of the television cameras and meriting only a brief mention in a few reporters’ notebooks was … Michael Neal.
“I first started out fishing with my grandfather, dad and uncle – all three of them really loved to fish. I started fishing before I could remember. I remember fishing with a Zebco rod. I would throw one in every time I went fishing when I was really young. So I had to keep buying them because I kept losing them in the water.”
Ultimately Neal took home a sixth-place finish at the 2013 Forrest Wood Cup and walked away with $45,000 – the biggest single payday of his young career. But if you had asked Neal, as late as one year prior, whether he expected to be standing on that giant stage – literally and figuratively – in Shreveport, La., last summer, he probably would have told you that you were crazy.
The formative years
After going through his fair share of Zebco rods as a child, Neal got the bug in earnest and started fishing local and team tournaments with his family. By the age of 16, he was finally fishing tournaments on his own. Then, in 2008, in a somewhat surprising move – defying the most common tournament-fishing trajectory – Neal decided that he wanted to make the leap and fish the Walmart FLW Tour as a co-angler.
Not surprisingly, the results weren’t that all surprising. As a co-angler on the FLW Tour he got hammered, at least statically speaking – recording a pedestrian 93rd overall rank in 2008 and only managing a 103rd-place finish in the standings during the 2009 campaign.
But Neal was undeterred.
“I don’t think I’d be where I am today without that experience (fishing as a co-angler on the FLW Tour during the 2008 and 2009 seasons). Those were not very good years for me as far as placing. But as far as learning, it was outstanding. I’d highly recommend it to anyone.”
While he continued to dabble in the BFL during the 2009 and 2010 seasons with decidedly uneven results, he also spent a good deal of that time trying to concentrate on his schooling as well as making the difficult transition from high school to Bryan College in his hometown of Dayton, Tenn.
But all the while Neal continued to think about fishing.
Sure, he couldn’t help but dwell on what had gone wrong during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. But he also embraced the positive memories and experiences that he obtained during those two formative years.
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So after stabilizing his academic footing, Neal licked his previous fishing wounds and made every effort to ensure that those unflattering numbers in 2008 and 2009 would only tell part of the Tennessee native’s story – a story which unfolded a lot more optimistically during the 2011 BFL season. After netting three BFL victories that year alone (two in the Choo Choo Division on Lake Guntersville and one in the Volunteer Division on Lake Chickamauga), Neal finally had all the confidence he needed to embark on the next stage of his career.
“I won those three BFL events in 2011 and decided to jump right into the FLW Tour.”
But it wouldn’t be easy. And it certainly wasn’t conventional. And he knew it.
So for the second time in his young career, Neal bypassed the EverStart Series circuit and plunged headlong into the rigors of the FLW Tour – only this time as a pro.
He was only 19 at the time.
Once again, however, the results were mixed as Neal’s 2012 FLW Tour campaign produced relatively lackluster results by almost any definition. Neal did record his best finish that year on Lake Champlain (26th place) at the very end of the season but otherwise, he could muster no better than a 55th-place result during any of the other five contests.
“The 2012 season was a learning deal for me. It was the first time that I fished against those guys in the front of the boat and it was intimidating. It really played with my head. There were many moments that year when I would just panic on the water. I didn’t always make the best decisions.”
During the offseason, Neal had plenty of time to reflect on his decision to “jump” into the FLW Tour as a pro at such an early age. He also had ample opportunities to mull what exactly he needed to improve upon.
“During the offseason after 2012, I had a lot of time to think about things. I basically decided to change my gameplan totally. Heading into 2013, I came into the season with a totally different mindset. I knew I could do it so it was just a matter of calming myself down.”
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With a newly revamped mental approach, Neal set his sights on the first of event of the 2013 FLW Tour season – Lake Okeechobee. However, while the “Big O” has had a tendency to derail some of the best-laid plans of tournament anglers year after year (just ask seasoned FLW Tour pro Brent Ehrler), Neal saw the Florida venue as a chance to start anew. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what happened. After a hard-fought tournament against some of the best anglers in the nation, Neal landed a four-day catch of 67 pounds, 12 ounces and walked away with a third-place finish and a nice fat check for $30,000.
“When I got that third-place finish it solidified everything for me. At Okeechobee, I knew I could do it. But I also had to prove I could do it.”
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During the next Tour stop on Lewis Smith Lake in March, Neal netted a 24th-place finish and cashed a check for $11,500. Following that, Neal scored an almost identical 27th-place finish at Beaver Lake later that April. Not only did he pick up an $11,000 check (and $50,000 in winnings after the first three tournaments), but he also came away with a healthy dose of vindication – perhaps for the first time in his career.
However, just as things were looking up for the young Tennessee native, his season took a decided turn for the worse.
“Lewis Smith Lake wasn’t too far from my home so I had a little background fishing there. And I had some experience fishing Beaver Lake as well. But the next two stops, Lake Eufaula and Grand Lake, I’d never been there before. Heading into Eufaula, I was third overall in the angler of the year standings and I think I got caught up in that a little bit too much.”
The results were a 113th-place finish on Lake Eufaula and a 109th-place finish on Grand Lake. Suddenly, instead of being mentioned in the same breath with other prohibitive favorites in the FLW Tour AOY standings race, Neal was left once again questioning his confidence levels.
“It played with my head.”
But as chance would have it, the final Tour event of the regular season would take place on Lake Chickamauga, the same body of water Neal grew up fishing throughout his formative years.
“Lake Chickamauga is my home lake. It’s a lake I’ve fished all of my life. And it’s the lake I’d been looking forward to fishing all year. For me, I really like fishing ledges out in 30 feet of water. I learned (that technique) from my uncle who really taught me how to fish out deep. So everything I’d learned I was finally able to put in practice.”
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And the outcome reflected as such. After boating a four-day catch of 79 pounds, 13 ounces, Neal finished the event in third place overall, grabbed his second top-10 finish on the Tour that year and netted an additional $28,520 payday. And because of his strong finish, Neal finished the season ranked 20th overall on the FLW Tour, easily earning his very first Forrest Wood Cup berth in the process.
Unofficially speaking, Neal was back. However, with the biggest tournament of his career a few short weeks away, there was no time to sit back and enjoy the moment.
In short, the Red River was calling.
“Right after Chickamauga I took off for the Red River (the site of the 2013 Forrest Wood Cup) for two weeks. I’d never been there before and I wouldn’t have found the fish I did at the Cup had I not traveled there early to pre-fish. I actually wound up finding fish in Pool 4 in some off-the-wall place. And if you remember, I was the only boat to lock down into that pool on day four.”
But fishing in the Forrest Wood Cup, especially for the first time, is a whole different experience than fishing a regular-season FLW Tour event. And although Neal was cognizant of that fact, he did his best to filter out the noise and hype.
“I didn’t know exactly how to answer the question about what it would be like to fish the Cup. I knew it would be a bigger stage but I just told myself that I’d be competing against the same group of guys I’d competed against all year. So when you take the glitz and glamour out of the equation, it was really like fishing any of the other Tour events I’d fished all year – at least that’s what I told myself.”
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After some early Cup jitters, Neal quickly showed that even on bass-fishing’s biggest stage, he was ready for primetime. By the time all was said and done, Neal was one of only 10 anglers who were able to survive all four days of the grueling Red River battle – finishing his first Cup with a more-than-respectable sixth-place finish, his third such top-10 finish of the year.
“Once the tournament started, I stayed in my own bubble and decided to just let the cards fall where they may. Overall, it was an amazing experience. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”
Reflecting back on the rollercoaster ride that was the 2013 season, Neal believes he’s grown much more than simply becoming a better angler.
“It was really intimidating at first. I’m not a big people person and I’m usually extremely shy. And when I first started fishing the Tour, I didn’t really want to approach anyone because I didn’t know what to say. But now some guys are starting to come over and talk to me. I guess I don’t feel like I’m 10 steps below the guys now. I just feel more comfortable. And now I enjoy talking to everyone.”
That being said, Neal argued that there is still plenty of room for improvement. For starters, the Tennessee pro has a few techniques he needs to iron out before he can begin to feel comfortable about his overall game.
“I really need to get better at flipping. On Okeechobee last year, I was the only boater in the top-10 without a flipping stick. I like to flip but I really have to work on that technique. The other area where I need to spend some more time is on sight-fishing. It hasn’t come into play too much for me (on the Tour) yet, but it will. It’s only a matter of time. So that’s the other technique I need to get a lot better at.”
I really liked being a dark horse this year. I really liked flying under the radar. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that anymore.
FLW Pro Angler – Michael Neal
But while there undoubtedly will be some more growing pains for Neal as his career progresses, there is little doubt that youngest Forrest Wood Cup competitor of 2013 will be entering next season with much more confidence and the respect of his peers.
“Going into the 2014 season I’m going to have the same mindset, but I’m going to have a lot more confidence. The schedule really plays into my strengths. Really, the only tournament I’m not sure about is Sam Rayburn because I’ve never even fished in Texas before. I’d like to go early (to pre-fish) but I can’t because I’m going to be in school. But overall, I feel good about the schedule and the upcoming year.”
Neal, who continues to split his time between his professional tournament fishing responsibilities and trying to hammer out a computer science degree in college, says he remains intently focused on both endeavors.
“In addition to my finishing my degree, my main goal fishing wise is to make the Cup. Anything more than that is just a bonus.”
With over $178,000 in career earnings, 10 FLW top-10 finishes and his first Cup berth under his belt at the tender age of 21, Neal undoubtedly has proven to both himself and bass-fishing fans everywhere that he can fish with the best. However, while it’s clear that he gained much from his most recent 2013 campaign, there is also one thing that the burgeoning computer science specialist has lost – and probably lost for good.
“I really liked being a dark horse this year. I really liked flying under the radar. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that anymore.”
That sounds like a pretty safe bet.
This article was written by FLW’s Gary Mortenson and published with permission from FLW Outdoors. All content including images are property of FLW Outdoors.