The all-in moment

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Andy Crawford

When rookie Elite Series pro Kyle Welcher noticed an old dredged-out barge canal on Google Earth the night before the St. Johns event started this past February, he shoved all his chips to the center of the table. The 27-year-old Alabamian was willing to risk his tournament life, his first tournament in the big leagues, on this tiny spot. The satellite photos showed that it had depth. Based on the cold front that had just ravaged central Florida, this deep canal could be his aces in the hole. Welcher had plenty of experience with this kind of bet, though, as he made a living playing poker for three years before qualifying for the Elite Series.

“I started playing Texas Hold ’em on the internet when I was around 18. After about six months of consistent play, I was able to make a profit and it built my confidence to enter face-to-face cash games,” he said. So, he traveled to Florida, where 18-year-olds can legally gamble, and made a run at this high-pressure occupation. “I’d stay down there months at a time, living out of a hotel room and playing 8- to 12-hour cash game sessions. I became a grinder.” Still, his first passion was bass fishing.

Welcher had the desire to be a professional bass fishing pro since he was a teenager. “My dad wasn’t really into fishing, but we were always outdoors. I really fell in love with the sport when I was around 12. Me and a couple buddies would camp on lakes around home and spend the entire weekend bass fishing out of an old aluminum boat.” By his sophomore year at Beulah High School, the Alabama pro wanted to take his game up a notch and started a fishing team there. He competed through his senior year. After graduating, Welcher attended the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB). As a freshman, he competed on a college bass trail and won the UAB points title. However, after his sophomore year, the poker felt was calling and he made the decision to pursue that opportunity.

“I really enjoy poker, but my love and passion is bass fishing. Actually, the two are very similar as it relates to the mental toughness needed to succeed. My mindset for both is to be as objective and analytical as possible, removing all emotions from my decisions. I don’t let things I can’t control bother me. If I set the hook on a fish and it gets off, no worries. I did everything right and things didn’t go my way. But if I stay in an area too long when my gut tells me to leave and it bites me, I will be bothered for a month.”

Eventually, Welcher’s passion for fishing pulled him from the casino to the water’s edge. He decided to go for his dream of becoming a pro bass angler and competed in the 2019 Bassmaster Eastern Opens. This was his first effort on the Opens stage, and he made the most of it. On the strength of a third-place finish on the Harris Chain and an 11th-place effort on Oneida Lake, he qualified for the Elite Series.

So, with only five Bassmaster tournaments under his belt, a satellite image of a deep canal and a whole lot of moxie, Welcher launched his professional career. Would his gamble pay off?

“I had three in the livewell at noon on Day 1,” he admitted. “I was starting to hear those internal voices of doubt. But, I knew the fish were there. I was able to not only land my limit, but cull three times by 3 p.m.” Welcher would go on to finish higher than any other rookie in the field, landing in eighth place with 39-11 once the dust settled. Plus, he landed a 10-1 on Day 2 to capture the big fish of the tournament. So, was the former poker pro lucky or was this skill? Can he reproduce these results as the Elite season plays out? Smart money wouldn’t bet against him.