Opens: Meet the ‘Young Guns’

Trey McKinney, Tyler Williams and JT Thompkins at Watts Bar Lake

Years from now, this photo might be retaken with the same anglers recalling their early years on the tournament trail. Who knows, Bassmaster Elite Series wins and even greater achievements might be retold and celebrated. 

Meet the Young Guns. They represent a bigger picture of what the highest level of bass fishing is destined to look like, and sooner rather than later. 

In this photo, from left to right is Trey McKinney, 18; Tyler Williams, 21; and JT Thompkins, also 21. This photo was taken following Williams’ win at the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Watts Bar Lake. Thompkins finished second and McKinney took third place. 

Reading deeper into tournament performance resumes proves their recent successes are not short lived. They are also not alone. The future is now, thanks to the incredible success of the Bassmaster High School and College programs, now a feeder system for the Opens Series, and from there, the Elite Series. Let’s single out the Bassmaster Opens EQ format as another initiation level. No one could have predicted the infusion of youth in play to qualify for the Elite Series in the inaugural year of Opens EQ. 

Like Williams, Thompkins scored a 2022 Opens win on the stingy Chesapeake Bay. The Myrtle Beach, S.C. angler has five Top 10s, nine top 20s and 12 top 30s in 28 tournaments fished. He’s fished four Championship Saturdays this season, including back-to-backs at Watts Bar Lake and Lake of the Ozarks. Thompkins also fished the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota after winning the Open. 

McKinney, the youngest of the pack from Carbondale, Ill., has two second-place finishes, one third-place and four Top 10s in eight events fished this year. That includes four Championship Saturday appearances. 

Williams, from Belgrade, Maine, has a win, three Top 10s, four top 20s and seven top 30s, including three times this season fishing Championship Saturday, including back-to-backs at Watts Bar and Lake of the Ozarks. He’s cashed checks in nine of 19 tournaments. Williams will fish the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota. 

Thompkins, based on his recent continued momentum, is destined to be an Elite Series rookie in 2024. Rookie by title, but seasoned pro before his time by the work he puts into every tournament. Thompkins pre-fished all nine Opens EQ events, but not just to find the hot spots. His time was spent deep diving into the details of bass behavior. 

“I spend 325 days on the water fishing all over the country,” Thompkins said. 

“My time on the water means everything,” he said. “Every single bite you get will key you in just a smidgen more, and the more bites you get everywhere you go, then you can carry that knowledge over other places.

“You have anglers with the ability to win doing one thing, but if I can travel around the country, build on my abilities at each lake and become like a local doing a lot of different things, then I’m are going to put myself in contention to win more than a lot of other anglers.”

That’s heavy stuff but a sign of what’s to come from the Young Guns. Unknowingly at the time, McKinney and Williams also pre-fished every Opens EQ fishery, and I’m sure they weren’t alone.

Yes, McKinney is 18, and yes, he grew up playing video games. But his take on the current forward-facing sonar debate adds a third dimension to the yes or no division of opinions on banning it from tournaments. 

“The technology of forward-facing sonar is fascinating,” McKinney said. “What I primarily view as its overall advantage is you can use it to learn about bass behavior; not necessarily catch them, but see how they set up on structure, how to read a fish and all that is super important. 

“A lot of people are bashing live scoping bass and that’s valid. You see a dot on the screen and throw a lure at it. You are missing everything by taking that approach, because there is so much more that it can teach you. 

“It’s about studying the fish, learning about their habitat, what makes them bite a lure. What you see on LiveScope in shallow water can be applied even without it elsewhere in a similar situation.”

Williams offered the same opinion. 

“With forward-facing sonar, I use it more as a tool to help me understand how fish are behaving and not just treating it like a video game,” he said. 

“Being from Maine I was at a disadvantage not knowing anything about any of the lakes, and forward-facing sonar was like a research and study tool for me to get dialed in to how those lakes set up, how the bass behave. 

“Sure, there’s YouTube but the forward-facing sonar does it for you in real time.” 

Williams already has a near-miss in qualifying for the Elite Series. He took the first turn as a lesson learned to do more background work. 

“I almost got in my first year (2021). I’m really happy that I didn’t make it because it would have been three tournaments and into the Elites,” said Williams. “This Opens EQ format definitely will better prepare me for the future.”

Get ready Bassmaster Elite Series fans — here come the Young Guns.