Day on the Lake: Trey McKinney

I have seen the future of competitive bass fishing, and his name is Trey McKinney. This lanky kid from southern Illinois fishes with the skill and confidence of the most seasoned Elite Series veterans I’ve shared a boat with, yet he had just turned 18 when we met for his DOTL challenge. “I grew up in a rodeo family,” McKinney says. “I reckon that’s where my competitive streak comes from. I started out fishing local ponds, then graduated to competing in church-run bass derbies, high school tournaments and regional bass circuits. When I was 13, my partner [Carter Wijanco] and I won the 2018 Bassmaster Junior National Championship at Carroll County Lake, Tenn. — this inspired me to one day compete on the Elite Series.”

McKinney, a home-schooled high school senior, is well on his way to achieving his dream; he’s totally sponsored up and itching to compete in all nine 2023 Bassmaster Opens. “I had a decent finish in my first Open at Lake Eufaula, [Alabama] and I’m totally focused on qualifying for the 2024 Elites,” he says. “It’s been an awesome journey so far, and I’m feeling confident and really blessed!” So how did this young fishing phenomenon fare on a mystery lake during an early April cold front? Stay tuned to find out! 

• 6:41 a.m. It’s 47 degrees, cloudy and windy as McKinney and I pull into Lake N’s deserted boat launch. He arranges a stash of St. Croix rods paired with Lew’s reels on the Charger’s front deck; all of his lures except the big swimbait he’ll tie on around midmorning are by Strike King. What mode does he anticipate the bass to be in today? “This region’s spring weather has been like a roller coaster — sunny and warm one day, cold and stormy the next. It rained hard here yesterday, and the temperature dropped 15 degrees overnight. In spring, there will always be some fish up shallow regardless of the weather, but I expect a lot of them are still in a prespawn staging phase. I can’t wait to get out there and find out!” 


• 7 a.m. We launch the Charger. McKinney checks the water: It’s 61 degrees and stained. He pulls several more rods from storage and rigs one with a white half-ounce spinnerbait. Even though the day is gloomy, his mood is sunny. “That north wind is brutal, but I do love a spinnerbait in choppy water!” What’s his first move? “I want to idle around a bit and get a feel for the lake.” 

• 7:08 a.m. After some brief idling and electronics checking, McKinney opts to run uplake. “The water may be warmer there from recent rains, and in early spring, warmer is usually better.” 

• 7:15 a.m. McKinney makes a high-speed run uplake; here the water is muddy, shallow and choked with lily pads. “The surface temp up here is still 61, but if the sun ever comes out, this muddy water should warm up quickly.” 

• 7:18 a.m. McKinney makes his first casts of the day to the pads with the spinnerbait. “A spinnerbait is a great pad bait; I’ll slow roll it through scattered pads and kill it at the edge of a thick pad cluster so it flutters down.” 

• 7:28 a.m. McKinney has made quite a circle around the pad field and is now keying on grass and pad stems near a steep shoreline. He’s switched to a 3/8-ounce black and blue Thunder Cricket Bladed Jig with a matching Rage Menace trailer. 

• 7:39 a.m. McKinney transitions to a nearby shallow pocket and grinds the Thunder Cricket around scattered pads. “In spring, they’ll move into these pockets and suspend, waiting for the water to warm up before moving to the bank to spawn.” 

• 7:48 a.m. McKinney exits the pocket and moves to a main-lake bank. He casts the Thunder Cricket to some pads and catches his first keeper largemouth of the day, 1 pound, 1 ounce. “The bait hung on a pad, I popped it off and he nailed it!” 

• 7:54 a.m. McKinney’s forward-facing sonar has detected a lone stump in 8 feet of water with several fish around it. He casts a 3/8-ounce peanut butter and jelly Baby Structure Jig with a green pumpkin Rage Menace trailer to the cover. 


• 8 a.m. McKinney bumps the stump with the jig but can’t entice a bite. “Those fish might be crappie.” 

• 8:12 a.m. McKinney runs back downlake to a channel bank with a wood seawall and tries the jig. 

• 8:16 a.m. He casts a tiny jighead minnow to some fish suspending three castlengths off the seawall. 

• 8:27 a.m. Upon moving back to the seawall, McKinney catches his second keeper, l pound, on the jig. 

• 8:30 a.m. A muskrat swims past McKinney’s boat as he continues jigging the seawall. 

• 8:34 a.m. McKinney catches keeper number three, 1-4, off the seawall on the jig. “The lake looks high after all the rain they’ve had. I can feel some chunk rock down there.” 

• 8:40 a.m. The water here is clearer than in the lake’s upper end, prompting McKinney to try a perch pattern KVD jerkbait along the seawall. 

• 8:45 a.m. McKinney dredges the submerged rocks with a grey and chartreuse 1.5 squarebill crankbait. 

• 8:51 a.m. He yo-yos a half-ounce blue/chrome Red Eyed Shad lipless crankbait off the channel bank’s point but hauls water. 


• 9 a.m. McKinney enters a nearby tributary and tries the squarebill and jig on a riprap bank. 

• 9:11 a.m. McKinney presses farther up the creek arm; here, it’s a jungle of overhanging tree limbs, laydowns, pads and grass. He expertly skips the jig tight to the bank while looking for spawning beds. 

• 9:17 a.m. There’s a big pad field in the back of the tributary. McKinney tries the bladed jig around the vegetation. 

• 9:22 a.m. McKinney moves into a pad-choked pocket. Neither the bladed jig nor the spinnerbait produce here. 

• 9:25 a.m. McKinney speed trolls to a nearby clay point and catches keeper number four, 1 pound, on the jig. 

• 9:29 a.m. The sun is struggling to burn through the thick cloud cover as McKinney rounds the point and tries the jig on a brushy shoreline. “I’ve seen a couple of carp along the banks but no bass beds yet. I bet this funky weather has delayed them from spawning.” 

• 9:31 a.m. McKinney pitches the jig to a clump of submerged grass and catches his fifth keeper, 2 pounds even. “They’re not big, but at least I’ve got my limit. Time to start culling!” 

• 9:36 a.m. Continuing down the bank, McKinney tags a nonkeeper on the jig. 

• 9:50 a.m. McKinney has moved into a residential cove. He ties on a 6-inch perch Megabass Magdraft swimbait and retrieves it parallel to a brushy bank. “This is a big-fish lure and the water clarity looks ideal for it — too muddy and they can’t see it; too clear and they’ll either short-strike it or just follow it.” 


• 10 a.m. McKinney catches a 1-4 on the Magdraft; it culls a pounder he caught earlier. 

• 10:08 a.m. He pitches the jig to a dock. “Where’s that 9-pounder when I need it?” Evidently not here! 

• 10:13 a.m. McKinney swims the Magdraft around a concrete seawall. 

• 10:19 a.m. McKinney tries a pearl-colored Sexy Dawg topwater stickbait around shoreline docks. “A buzzbait is usually the first surface lure I’ll try in early spring, but I still had this one tied on from last month’s Lake Eufaula Open.” 

• 10:22 a.m. A bass slaps at the Sexy Dawg twice, missing it by at least two feet. “Wow! That fish needs glasses!” 

• 10:30 a.m. Back to the Magdraft on a main-lake bank. What’s McKinney’s take on the day so far? “I was hoping to find some bedding fish up shallow, but the recent storms and today’s cold front have obviously put a damper on spawning. There’s been no real pattern to the keepers I’ve caught so far, so I’ll just keep covering a variety of cover and depth options in hopes of running into some better-quality fish.” 

• 10:34 a.m. McKinney idles into another residential cove where he tries the jig and Magdraft around another seawall. 

• 10:40 a.m. A big shad jumps out of the water near the seawall. McKinney flings the Magdraft near the disturbance, but whatever was chasing the baitfish ignores his offering. 

• 10:45 a.m. McKinney changes Thunder Cricket and trailer colors to white and roots the new combo along the seawall. 

• 10:51 a.m. The wind has shifted out of the east and the air temp has dropped as McKinney reverts to the jig along the seawall. 

• 10:55 a.m. He retrieves the spinnerbait parallel to the seawall. No love here. 


• 11 a.m. The water is getting muddier the farther McKinney advances into the cove. He finally exits this spot and races downlake to a tributary point with thick grass cover, where he tries the jig. 

• 11:03 a.m. McKinney catches his seventh keeper, 1-12, off the grassy point on the jig. 

• 11:05 a.m. McKinney rigs a green pumpkin Rage Punch Bug craw on a stout flipping hook below a jig skirt and a 1-ounce sinker. He flips the offering to the thick grass and shakes his rod until it slithers down through the vegetation. Immediately a good fish inhales the bait; McKinney hammers back his rod, but the bass comes unbuttoned. 

• 11:10 a.m. The thick grass produces no more bites, so McKinney targets a submerged brushpile near a boathouse with the Baby Structure Jig. He catches a 2-1 largemouth in the sunken shrubbery. 

• 11:19 a.m. McKinney moves quickly down a steep tributary shoreline, alternating between the jig and the Magdraft. 

• 11:28 a.m. McKinney’s trolling motor is kicking up mud as he reaches the back of the tributary. 

• 11:32 a.m. He catches a 1-1 keeper on the jig; it’s no help to his total. 

• 11:40 a.m. In the extreme back end of the tributary, McKinney catches a 2-pounder off a laydown on the jig. “That fish was just 6 inches deep.” 

• 11:47 a.m. McKinney catches another 1-pound keeper; this one hit his jig on a boat ramp. 

• 11:55 a.m. The wind is howling as McKinney moves to the opposite bank of the tributary. He catches a 1-14 off a laydown on the Magdraft. 


• Noon. The sun is peeking through the clouds as McKinney continues casting the Magdraft to shoreline laydowns. 

• 12:16 a.m. McKinney has run back uplake; he’s now targeting shallow flats and pockets adjacent to a deeper channel. He hammers a big laydown tree with the jig. 

• 12:18 p.m. He catches his 13th keeper, 1 pound, off the laydown. “I need them to be getting bigger, not smaller!” 

• 12:25 p.m. McKinney races farther uplake to a shallow pocket with scattered pads where he tries the bladed jig. 

• 12:36 p.m. Another hop uplake takes McKinney to a steep bank lined with flooded bushes, pads and laydowns. He hits the smorgasbord of cover with the jig. 

• 12:39 p.m. A 1-4 largemouth falls victim to McKinney’s jig in a pad clump. 

• 12:48 p.m. Another cookie-cutter keeper, this one weighing 1-3, eats the jig on a laydown. “They’re all stamped out of the same little mold! I’m needin’ a big fish for photos!” 

• 12:56 p.m. McKinney runs back to the channel bank with submerged rocks that he fished earlier and catches a 1-4 on the jig. 


• 1 p.m. He catches a short fish off the adjacent seawall on the jig. 

• 1:11 p.m. McKinney moves to scattered pads in a nearby pocket and hangs a bass on the jig, but it comes unbuttoned. “Rats, that one felt bigger.” 

• 1:19 p.m. McKinney runs to another cove and flips the jig around a big blowdown tree. 

• 1:24 p.m. He gets two consecutive pecks (resulting in two swings and misses) in a nearby pad clump. 

• 1:32 p.m. McKinney races to a bank lined with scattered rocks and bushes and tries the jig without success. 

• 1:41 p.m. McKinney catches a 1-10 keeper (No. 17) off a laydown on the jig. “There must be some bigger fish somewhere in this lake! They can’t all be the same size!” 

• 1:47 p.m. McKinney’s time is running out. He stows his trolling motor. “I’m gonna run to the dam and make my remaining casts with the Magdraft.” 

• 1:55 p.m. A bone-chilling run downlake has put McKinney on Lake N’s dam with five minutes remaining. He casts the Magdraft to riprap lining the structure. 

• 1:59 p.m. On his last cast of the day, McKinney gets a savage strike on the Magdraft! He works the fish closer to the boat, drops to his knees and wrestles aboard a spectacular 5 pound, 14 ounce largemouth! Time’s up! The 18-year-old angler ends his day on Lake N with 18 keeper bass; his five biggest fish weigh 13 pounds, 12 ounces. 


“This is unbelievable!” McKinney exclaims as I photograph him with his last-minute lunker. “Toward the end of the day, I had a huge gut feeling that I needed to hit the dam with that big swimbait, and I’ve learned that following my instincts usually pays off! In spite of the cold front, I had quite a few bites today, but 17 of my 18 keepers fell between 1 and 2 pounds. I never saw any bedding or cruising fish up shallow; the spawn has obviously been hampered by nasty weather. The Lord really blessed me with that beautiful photo fish! If I were to fish here tomorrow under these same conditions I’d spend a lot more time grinding that big swimbait close to deeper water.” 


1)  2 pounds; 3/8-ounce peanut butter and jelly Strike King Baby Structure Jig with green pumpkin Strike King Rage Menace trailer; submerged grass patch; 9:31 a.m. 

2)  2 pounds, 1 ounce; same lure as No. 1; submerged brushpile; 11:10 a.m. 

3)  2 pounds; same lure as No. 1; laydown; 11:40 a.m. 

4)  1 pound, 14 pounds; same lure as No. 1; laydown; 11:55 a.m. 

5)  5 pounds, 14 ounces; perch Megabass Magdraft swimbait; riprap on dam; 1:59 p.m.