ONAMIA, Minn. — Drew Benton established himself from the first day of his rookie season on the Bassmaster Elite Series. He was in second place at Florida's St. Johns River after Day 1, and he eventually finished fourth.
Benton missed the Top 50 cut in only two tournaments all year in a wire-to-wire win of the Elite Series Rookie of the Year title.
"This sport is a big momentum deal," said the 28-year-old Panama City, Fla., resident. "Getting a good start in Florida really helped me out. I was able to put some money in the bank and kind of get some momentum going for the rest of the year. I really haven't lost too much steam."
You can say that again. Benton came into the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Tournament ranked 14th in the AOY standings with a Bassmaster Classic berth clinched. He had an insurmountable 132-point lead over second-place rookie Adrian Avena, so the Rookie of the Year trophy was awarded at the Day 1 weigh-in at Mille Lacs Lake.
And as good as Benton's year was, it could have been even better. He's got a couple of good fishing stories from his first season.
"I should have won that first tournament," Benton said of the St. Johns event that Rick Clunn won.
Benton dropped to 24th place on Day 2 when he weighed only 9 pounds, 14 ounces. He came back with 20-11 on Day 3, but it could have been so much more.
"I had one on a spawning bed that I thought was a carp the first time I went by," Benton said. "I thought the little male with her was about 1 ½ or 2 pounds because she was so big. I caught him and he weighed 4 ½ pounds.
"I've caught two fish in Florida that were over 13 pounds. This female was as big or bigger. I hooked her and had her at the boat. I was in the driver's seat when she came off and I touched her tail as she swam away. Her mouth was bigger than my hat. She was that big. I just sat there. My marshal said it was the biggest bass he'd ever seen in his life."
Benton had found a spot where bass were just moving in to spawn. He caught a 7-14 bass the final day, which was Phoenix Boats big bass of the tournament. But, again, it could have been so much more.
"Every bed that had just had a male on it the day before had a female with it. There was a 32-pound bag sitting there on the beds. But they were so fresh, they weren't committed yet. If I caught the male first, the female would swim off. I hooked an 8-pounder with about 10 minutes left and it came off.
"If I catch either one of those fish, or a couple of the 6-pounders that came off, I win that tournament. But it wasn't meant to be. It was meant for the champ (Clunn) to win that one."
Benton's other memorable, or rather, forgettable, moment came last week on the Mississippi River at La Crosse. On Day 2 he had a 13-pound limit in the boat when the sun came out.
"I was running the numbers in my head about what it was going to take to make the (top 50) cut," Benton said. "When the sun came out, that was going to be my deal with a frog. My best water was in Minnesota, so I threw about a 1 ¾-pounder back."
That was due to the Minnesota no-cull rule. But Benton never caught that fifth fish again. His four weighed 11-3, and he missed the cut by one pound. The only other top 12 cut he missed was at Wheeler Lake.
"In hindsight, I don't regret the decision (at La Crosse)," said Benton, who laughed and added, "I have regrets about that ($10,000) check I threw back. That would have been a good elk hunting trip."
Hunting ranks just behind bass fishing with Benton. He enjoys chasing deer and wild turkeys.
"I've got my bow in the back of the truck this week," Benton said. "It's that time of year. We meet all kinds of cool people on the road. And we get invited to go hunting all the time. This time, I'm ready."
In the meantime, Benton, with nothing on the line this week, is having a blast at Mille Lacs Lake. He's in 12th place with 43-6 after two days.
"This is Disney World for adults," Benton said. "There's just a ton of 3 ½- to 4 ½-pound fish out there. I don't know how many I've brought one to the boat and gone, 'Ah, it's another 4-pounder. It's not going to help.' You never hear that. It's just incredible."
Benton and his wife, Amanda, will celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary next month. They have a son, Cade, who turned two on Sept. 4.
Here's the thing about Benton; he's still a youngster in terms of bass tournament experience. He didn't grow up bass fishing in Panama City. Some of his buddies got into it in high school, and he joined them. He got his first aluminum boat when he was 18 and started fishing local tournaments.
But baseball was Benton's main sport. He played catcher at Gulf Coast State College.
"I was kind of getting burned out with the baseball thing, but I was still so competitive that I needed something else to do," he said. "So I started branching out from the house and fishing the Lake Seminole trail."
Benton won a February tournament at Lake Seminole that fueled his confidence. Then he started cashing checks regularly on the Ray-O-Vac circuit and gained even more confidence. In the first FLW tour level event that Benton fished, he won it and $100,000 at Florida's Lake Okeechobee.
When Okeechobee showed up on the 2017 schedule, well, it was just another sign that everything seems to be falling in place for Drew Benton.
"You try not to look too far ahead," Benton said with a smile, "but I've got that one circled for sure."
One more thing: It's not lost on the former collegiate baseball catcher that his first GEICO Bassmaster Classic appearance will weigh-in at Houston's Minute Maid Park, home of the Astros.
"It's like everything has come full circle," Benton said.