At age 24 Alabama’s Wyatt Burkhalter is fishing the Bassmaster Opens for the first time. After two tournaments in the 2020 Eastern division and three in the Central division, he is currently fifth in the Eastern Angler of the year points standings and 10th in the Falcon Rods Bassmaster Opens Angler of the Years overall standings.
Burkhalter doesn’t remember catching his first bass from a dock when he was 4 years old. His mother and father, Wesley and Kim, handed him a rod with a Texas-rigged Zoom Baby Brush Hog on the line.
“They told me they turned around and somehow I was reeling in a bass,” Burkhalter said.
Despite this early encounter with a largemouth, Burkhalter was unaware of bass tournaments until he was in his teens. His father is an addicted angler, but mainly for tuna and other saltwater species.
“My dad is an accomplished tuna fisherman,” Burkhalter said. “From an early age he would take me out overnight tuna fishing in a 28-foot boat. We’d fish all day and most of the night and fish again in the morning. I still go with him from time to time.”
When they weren’t tuna fishing, Burkhalter and his father would cast for bass from the bank of a pond behind the house. On weekends they would occasionally fish a little lake on their hunting lease from a small aluminum boat.
“I would be so fired up to fish at the lease I could hardly sleep the night before,” Burkhalter said.
While fishing from the boat they would cast Texas-rigged Brush Hogs, floating worms and fluke style baits to lily pads and cypress trees.
“I had never heard of the Texas rig until later in life,” Burkhalter said. “We always called it a bouncing worm.”
His bass fishing world expanded exponentially at age 13. That’s when his father hired Justin Hamner, who is currently sixth in the Eastern Open AOY standings, to be trained as his boat captain for saltwater fishing.
Although Hamner was young, he was a capable bass angler. He was also old enough to drive. The boat captain deal didn’t pan out because it interfered with Hamner’s tournament fishing.
“My dad asked Justin if he would take me fishing,” Burkhalter said.
Hamner was happy to do so. Over the next three years Hamner took Burkhalter bass fishing on nearby Coosa and Tennessee River reservoirs. These outings opened Burkhalter’s eyes to a world he didn’t know existed.
“Before then, I didn’t realize all the public water I had around me to fish in Alabama,” Burkhalter said. “I didn’t realize what was going on with bass tournaments or that it was possible to be a bass pro.”
Near the end of this phase, Hamner invited Burkhalter to fish a night tournament with him at Lake Tuscaloosa. They didn’t fare well, but the experience prompted Burkhalter to get a 17 1/2-foot bass boat at age 16 and to begin fishing local tournaments regularly on his own. He was pleased to find that he could hold his own against anglers who had much larger boats.
A major milestone in Burkhalter’s young tournament life was his first high school tournament. The event took place at Neely Henry.
“There were over 100 boats, and I went and practiced and found some fish having never been there in my life,” Burkhalter said. “I ended up winning with almost 18 pounds, and second place was 13 pounds. That really fired me up.”
After graduating from high school Burkhalter began competing on the Alabama Bass Trail. These events typically draw 225 boats and the anglers are “the best of the best in Alabama who aren’t fishing the Elite Series.”
These tournaments took him to a wide variety of lakes in Alabama. They forced Burkhalter to learn new techniques and taught him how to compete against a large field of capable anglers.
“I definitely want to make the Elite Series,” Burkhalter said. “I’m putting in more time on the water and feel like I can compete at a young age.”
His only “sponsors” are his parents. He works for his parents to maintain houses they rent to college students.
“My parents are my biggest sponsor for sure,” Burkhalter said. “I wouldn’t be doing this without them helping me financially and letting me take off work to go fishing.”