Michael Neal of Dayton, Tenn., has yet to qualify for the Elite Series via the Bassmaster Opens, but time is on his side.
At only 24 years of age, Neal has won nearly a half million dollars fishing the FLW Tour. His second place finish at the 2016 Forest Wood Cup demonstrates that he can hold his own against some of the country’s top anglers.
Since 2014 Neal has fished one Bassmaster Open division each year, twice in the Southern and once in the Northern. He also competed in the first Northern Open of 2016 but dropped the final two events from his schedule because he did not fare well enough in the first one to give him a shot at the Elites.
“The only reason I fish the Opens is to qualify for the Elites,” Neal said.
Neal will surely be striving to become a Bassmaster Elite Series pro in 2017 most likely by competing in the Southern Opens where he feels more at home. He grew up fishing the Tennessee River reservoirs, and it is on these storied bass waters that Neal excels.
A trio of bass anglers started Neal fishing early in his life and got him hooked on bass tournaments. They include his father, Mike, grandfather, Allen Brown and uncle, Rogie Brown.
“I was fishing for whatever would bite when I was 3 or 4 years old,” Neal said. “When I was 8 or 9, about all I wanted to fish for was bass.”
During the summer, Neal would go fishing three or four times a week with one of his three adult mentors. Some of Neal’s most memorable outings are fishing with his grandfather for schooling bass. His favorite tactic then was casting a popping cork, called a Long Tom, which was attached to a leader knotted to a floating fly or a tiny spoon.
“We used to wear them out on that,” Neal said. “We had some 100-fish days.”
Neal hasn’t forgotten the popping cork lessons he learned from his grandfather. On practice days for the 2016 Forest Wood Cup, Neal was sacking schooling bass on a popping cork just as he and his grandfather had done when he was a tad.
Once the Cup began, the bass showed a preference for a Lucky Craft Sammy. This walking stickbait produce all but one of the bass Neal weighed to nab second place.
Neal’s grandfather and fatherlaunched him into bass tournament competition by fishing weeknight buddy events, which they called “dogfights.”
Uncle Brown is the one who taught Neal advanced offshore fishing methods and introduced him to all-day tournaments on weekends. Brown is a well-known guide on Lake Chickamauga. Neal pointed out that Brown holds the heaviest BFL single day record on Chickamauga with a limit that made the scales groan under 40-pounds, 14-ounces of bass.
“My uncle is an offshore guy,” Neal said. “I never fished the bank with him.”
As a result, Neal’s strong suite is fishing offshore ledges. When he goes shallow, Neal does well fishing submerged grass with a chattering jig or a swim jig.
Neal acknowledges that his father, grandfather and uncle gave him an advantage that many anglers never have.
“I’m one of the fortunate ones,” Neal said. “A lot of guys don’t have somebody to take them fishing at a young age and teach them.”
Lest you think Neal was born with a silver jigging spoon in his mouth, be advised that he is no stranger to work. His father helped him purchase the Dayton Boat Dock at Lake Chickamauga in 2012, which is where most of the major tournaments take place on this reservoir. They revamped the facility with a restaurant and a tackle shop that is stocked by Bass Pro Shop.
The year 2012 is also when Neal began fishing the FLW tour. Besides running Dayton Boat Dock, which has six employees, and fishing bass tournaments, Neal was enrolled in Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn. He somehow managed to juggle all three successfully.
In the FLW Tour AOY standings, Neal finished 20th in 2013 and seventh in 2014. He also graduated in 2014 with a degree in computer science.
“No matter what happens in my fishing career, if I have to drop out or have injuries, I can always get a good job in computers,” Neal said.
Neal’s current sponsors include Big Bite Baits, 5X3 Fishing (apparel), Sunline, Gill (rain gear), Cal Coast, True South Custom Lures and Cashion Rods.