Drew Benton of Panama City, Fla., joins the Bassmaster Elite Series this year after getting some experience on the FLW Tour, which he joined in 2012 after narrowly missing the Elite Series cut from the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens.
“The Elite Series is where I always wanted to be from the start,” said Benton, 27. “Looking back the extra three years it took to get there helped everything to fall into place, though.”
Benton won his first FLW Tour event and then built on that success with consistent finishes for the next three years. Along the way, his professional skills matured as he learned to pattern bass in a variety of waters and conditions.
“You rely on angling strengths early in this game, and I did that with my first big win on Okeechobee,” recalled the 2013 FLW Tour Rookie of the Year. “I knew I needed to get out of my comfort zone to qualify for the Elite Series.”
Benton, a skilled shallow water angler, got forced out of that comfort zone in a positive way. Schedule conflicts prevented him from entering the Southern Opens for the next two seasons. His only choice for Elite Series entry would be the Northern swing. He missed the cut, although learning new tactics on unfamiliar water added maturity to his professional skills.
The 2015 schedule allowed him to fish the FLW Tour and the Opens. The Southern Opens began in Florida and concluded near home on Lake Seminole. He finished 23rd at the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, fifth on the Alabama River and closed out the season in 22nd place on Seminole.
“Even though I got to fish my strengths, it was one of the toughest years of fishing the Opens,” he recalled. “It seemed like everyone in the Top 5 points standings had a Top 15 finish in the tournaments.”
The turning point came with the strong showing on the Alabama River. That relieved pressure of finishing the season on his home lake. Even so, Seminole was stingy with its largemouth.
Experience taught Benton to be open-minded, even at home, and it proved to be the game changer. He abandoned an unproductive lower lake pattern in favor of searching the Flint River for shoal bass. That unplanned move paid off with enough points to qualify for the 2016 Bassmaster Elite Series.
“What I learned at Seminole was to fish even more with an open mind,” he recalled. “Too often I was fishing the tournaments how I wanted them to go for me.”
That open-mindedness will prove beneficial as Benton adjusts to how success is measured in the Elite Series.
“In the Opens, you are fishing for the win because there are only three chances to qualify for the Elite Series or the Bassmaster Classic,” he said. “In the Elite Series, points are much more important. You need those consistent finishes across the longer season to stay in contention for the Classic.”
After three years of dual-tour experience, Benton knows much more is at stake in the Elite Series.
“Until now, I normally held back my best tactics and patterns until later in the tournament,” he said. “You can’t do that in the Elite Series because of the high level of competition.”