New Elite: Trey McKinney

Trey McKinney

Imagine that you are 18 and you’ve never fished an adult-level Bassmaster tournament prior to the Bassmaster Opens Elite Qualifiers in 2023. After the nine EQ events, you finished second twice and landed in the top 20 in six out of nine tournaments — good enough for third place in the final Bassmaster Opens EQ standings.

It sounds like a dream, but this is precisely what Illinois whiz kid Trey McKinney did in 2023. After maintaining this level of bass angling excellence through the full EQ schedule, he became the youngest person to ever qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series.

From rodeos to fishing

McKinney claims he threw his parents a “curveball” because he didn’t inherit their zeal for rodeo barrel racing.

His grandfather, Bob McKinney, was a world-class barrel racer. His parents, Rick and Kim, were also elite barrel racers. McKinney’s 21-year-old sister Elaina is a third-generation barrel-racing star.

The family business, McKinney’s Western Store in Marion, Ill., sells anything and everything for a horse and rider.

Although horses and rodeos were an inevitable part of McKinney’s world growing up, his parents allowed him to follow his own interests. Chief among them was fishing.

Starting young

“My mom was amazing,” McKinney said. “When I was 4 or 5, she started taking me to our pond so I could fish for anything I could get to bite.”

After mom McKinney secured her son in a life jacket, she paddled him about the pond in a 10-foot johnboat so he could indulge his fascination for fishing.

His passion for bass hit him like a sledgehammer at age 10 when his cousin Trevor McKinney took him bass fishing to Illinois’ Cedar Lake. Trevor also fishes the EQs and qualified for the 2021 Classic by winning the Carhartt Bassmaster College Classic Bracket in 2020.

“We really hadn’t done much with each other before that,” McKinney said. “I was astonished by how many 4- and 5-pounders we caught.”

Fishing tournaments

Following that outing the McKinneys paired up to fish small bass tournaments put on by a local church.

“I was hooked on tournaments after that,” McKinney said. “Trevor ignited my fire, but it was Rick Cheatham who got me to where I am today.”

A customer at the western store told McKinney’s father of someone who might take his son bass fishing. That someone was Cheatham, who agreed to take the young McKinney to Illinois’ Lake of Egypt.

That first outing quickly evolved into a close friendship.

“Ever since then we’ve basically been together for every tournament I’ve fished,” McKinney said. “Rick was a local tournament hammer around here forever. He stopped fishing for a while. Thank the Lord, I gave him a reason to start back.

“He started showing me everything I’ve ever learned, and so much about fishing shallow water. I would not be where I am without him.”

Early success

Cheatham taught him well. In 2018 McKinney won the Junior Bassmaster Championship, the TBF FLW Junior World Championship and was the USA Bassin Next Generation Classic Champion at age 13.

Cheatham and McKinney often teamed up to fish open tournaments and have won two boats in the process. Despite this success, McKinney doubted he was ready to compete on his own against the best anglers in his home state.

At age 16 he took a chance and entered a BFL tournament on Lake Shelbyville. He finished fifth. At the next BFL in the series at Rend Lake he finished third.

“That I could compete with those guys was shocking to me,” McKinney said. “That gave me the confidence to keep going with it.”

At the end of the series, he found himself atop the point standings. To date, he is the youngest angler to ever win AOY honors on the boater side of a BFL series.

The following year, at age 17, he was again the AOY in the Illinois BFL series. He also qualified for the All American, which tied him with California’s Michael Bennett as the youngest angler to qualify for this event as a boater.

Cheatham traveled to all of the BFL events with McKinney and fished them as a co-angler.

Moving to the Opens

This success prompted McKinney to enter the 2023 Opens EQ along with Cheatham, who fished as a co-angler.

“It’s been unreal,” McKinney said of the success in the EQs. “We’ve been blessed.”

Because McKinney was a senior in high school when he began fishing the EQs in spring of 2023, his participation would not have been possible were it not for homeschooling. His parents allowed him to take the time needed to fish the tournaments provided he caught up on his schooling when he returned.

His “absolute goal” for 2023 was to qualify for the Elite Series.

“It’s kind of crazy once you make it to the Elites,” McKinney said. “It puts you in a very small percentage of anglers. The Elites are the wolves of the fishing industry.”

In 2023, McKinney’s sponsors included Strike King, Lew’s, St. Croix, Lithium Pros, Charger Boats, Honda Marine, Farmers State Bank, Oasis Outdoors, Bait-Pop, Seaguar, Texas Roadhouse in Marion, Ill., Lowrance, Power-Pole, Bajio Sunglasses, Ego Fishing, T-H Marine, B&W Trailer Hitches, Trophy Graph Systems, Fowler Heating and Cooling and Gamakatsu.