UPCOMING EVENT: T-H Marine BFL - 2020 - Sam Rayburn Reservoir

FISHING LEAGUE WORLDWIDE

Neal’s Tennessee Waltz with Greatness

Neal’s Tennessee Waltz with Greatness

The foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains wrap around Lake Chickamauga like a glove. Grey in the morning, green in the afternoon and blue everywhere in between, their hues are a familiar sight for serious bass anglers hunting trophy bass in the depths of the Tennessee River, a signal that you’ve arrived in bass heaven, at a lake on a river that owns a reputation for lunker largemouths.

Here on Chickamauga, you’ll see 5-pound and bigger bass by the boatload. You’ll see those ever-present foothills, and if you look closely at just the right moment, you’ll see a young computer science major working the boat docks. That would be Michael Neal, the sixth-year FLW pro who finished eighth in the AOY standings in 2016.

Neal grew up on these waters, learning to fish the Tennessee River’s ledges and grass mats first as a boy, then as a college student at nearby Bryan College and now as one of the youngest, hottest FLW Tour pros on the circuit.

They call him, “The Real Deal.” But for the past three months, Neal has been without a boat.

“I haven’t had one since the end of the Norris [FLW Tour Invitational] tournament in late October,” he crackles over a cellphone. “Because of that, I’ve bass fished very little.”

As the year’s first Tour tournament gets set to blast off, Neal is re-arming himself with a new boat, and preparing mentally and physically for the two-hour trip south from his home at Chickamauga to Alabama’s Lake Guntersville. There, the landscape looks much the same. The Blue Ridge foothills lap up another Tennessee River reservoir in their southernmost reaches.

But 90 miles downstream from his boat docks in Tennessee, the stakes at Alabama are set high. At Guntersville, Neal will need to shake his offseason rust, and he’ll need to finish strong if he wants to make history.

“The first tournament of the year really sets the bar for the rest of the year,” he says. “It’s the most important tournament of the year for me. Last year, I started off by finishing in fourth place at Okeechobee, and that really helped my confidence for the rest of the year.”

Neal says that, thanks to the Okeechobee finish, he felt more focused in 2016. He says he feels hopeful about Guntersville, too. That the old Alabama standby can provide that same focus this year, that he has two wins in T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League events on the lake and that he has an intimate knowledge of Tennessee River reservoirs buoys his confidence there.

But confidence, for Neal, hasn’t always come easy. Despite a successful 2016 campaign, despite being one of the hottest young anglers on the circuit, and despite years of cutting it close, Michael Neal has yet to win a major FLW Tour title.

Michael Neal

Since joining FLW’s top ranks in 2012, Neal has come tantalizingly close to taking home major crowns. He’s finished third at Tour events on Okeechobee and Chickamauga, second (twice) at Pickwick, and second at last year’s Forrest Wood Cup at Wheeler Lake, a waterway that’s a stone’s throw away from Guntersville.

Neal is, undoubtedly, a force to be reckoned with – especially on the Tennessee River – but the pressure of his constant, flirtatious dance with greatness has taken its toll. And, for a while, that toll was almost crippling.

“I’m not going to lie,” he says. “It’s something I do think about at times. Anytime somebody brings up the Pickwick tournaments, it stings a little. In 2015, I barely made the Cup (he finished 31st in the AOY rankings). I realized that if I had performed just a little worse in any single tournament, I wouldn’t have made it. That’s when I decided I had to reevaluate. I had a serious talk with myself the night after that Cup.”

For Neal, reevaluating meant learning to put the past behind him. It meant finding a silver lining in sudden losses and near misses.

“When you think about that kind of stuff, it usually messes with you more than it helps,” says Neal. “I really feel that mentality is at least 75 percent of fishing. That kind of stuff is going to happen, and now I just try not to think about it. When I think about it [finishing second] at the Cup, it doesn’t bother me like the Pickwick tournaments did. I learned from what happened in the past. Sometimes, all you can do is fish clean and do your best and enjoy it all.”

Neal swears he tries to take each tournament step-by-step. That means no looking ahead. But, if pressed, he’ll confess that he’s most optimistic about upcoming stops at the Potomac River, at the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wis., and, first up, at Guntersville.

“They’re all places where I can fish off the bank a little bit,” he says. “They’re all places where I can use a swim jig or a ChatterBait, and I like to do that.”

Neal has, of course, scouted the first lake of 2017. And based on his Tennessee River knowledge, he expects to cover a ton of Alabama water Feb. 2-5 with lipless crankbaits in search of that elusive, but productive winter school.

“Chickamauga and Guntersville have a lot of similarities,” he notes. “In the winter, when the water goes down, we have very little grass [at Chickamauga]. Guntersville keeps a good stand year-round, but as far as depth ranges and prespawn and postspawn patterns, the lakes are pretty similar. When I went down to check out Guntersville, it was before a bad cold front and the snow that came through in mid-January. That could make for a lake with a lot of bad water, but that means when you find them, it’s going to most likely be a pretty good school of fish.”

Two hours from home, under the shadows of the same mountains that he’s watched for most of a young lifetime, Michael Neal will have to find those schools.

“There is some pressure there, with Guntersville being almost like a second home lake to me,” he says.

Now, on the heels of a brand new season, Neal says he’s ready to handle the pressure. And if he can find those schools, he can start that new season strong. He can take the lead in his dance with greatness and – just maybe – catch a championship to bring back home.

Michael Neal

Tags: michael-neal  lake-guntersville  joe-sills  angler-features 

Ohio's Cole Floyd Wins T-H Marine BFL Regional Championship on Lake Guntersville presented by Mercury Marine

Ohio's Cole Floyd Wins T-H Marine BFL Regional Championship on Lake Guntersville presented by Mercury Marine

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. – Boater Cole Floyd of Leesburg, Ohio, – an FLW College Fishing standout from Bethel University – brought a three-day total of 15 bass to the scale weighing 44 pounds, 15 ounces, to win the no-entry fee T-H Marine FLW BFL Regional Championship on Lake Guntersville presented by Mercury Marine Saturday. For the win, Floyd earned $71,200, including... READ MORE »

Local Guide Leary Wins Two-Day T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League Event on Lake Guntersville presented by Cortland Line

Local Guide Leary Wins Two-Day T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League Event on Lake Guntersville presented by Cortland Line

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. – Local angler Jim Leary of Guntersville, Alabama, brought a two-day total of 10 bass to the scale weighing 37 pounds, 12 ounces, to win the two-day T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League (BFL) Choo Choo Division super-tournament on Lake Guntersville presented by Cortland Line Sunday. Leary earned $5,869 for his efforts... READ MORE »

North Augusta High School Wins 2019 Bass Pro Shops FLW High School Fishing Lake Guntersville Open Presented by Costa Sunglasses

North Augusta High School Wins 2019 Bass Pro Shops FLW High School Fishing Lake Guntersville Open Presented by Costa Sunglasses

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. (Mar. 4, 2019) – The North Augusta High School duo of Nathan Boatwright, of Warrenville, South Carolina, and Dustin Williamson, of Aiken, South Carolina, brought a five-bass limit to the scale Saturday weighing... READ MORE »

University of North Alabama Wins YETI FLW College Fishing Southeastern Conference Tournament on Lake Guntersville presented by Bass Pro Shops

University of North Alabama Wins YETI FLW College Fishing Southeastern Conference Tournament on Lake Guntersville presented by Bass Pro Shops

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. (March 4, 2019) – The University of North Alabama duo of Houston Calvert of Hayden, Alabama, and Justin Lane of Florence, Alabama, won the YETI FLW College Fishing event on Lake Guntersville presented by Bass Pro Shops Friday with a five-bass limit weighing 29 pounds, 3 ounces. The victory earned the Lion’s bass club $2,400 and a slot in the 2020 FLW College... READ MORE »

Lake Guntersville Readies for Weekend of FLW Youth Bass-Fishing Tournaments

Lake Guntersville Readies for Weekend of FLW Youth Bass-Fishing Tournaments

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. – Fishing League Worldwide (FLW) is set to visit the Guntersville area next week, March 1-2, with the YETI FLW College Fishing event at Lake Guntersville presented by Bass Pro Shops and the Bass Pro Shops FLW High School Fishing Open at Lake Guntersville presented by Costa. The tournaments, hosted by the Marshall County Convention and Visitors... READ MORE »

Tennessee’s Aaron Wins T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League Opener on Lake Guntersville Presented by Navionics

Tennessee’s Aaron Wins T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League Opener on Lake Guntersville Presented by Navionics

SCOTTSBORO, Ala. – Boater Chad Aaron of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, caught five bass Saturday weighing 25 pounds, 14 ounces, to... READ MORE »

Erik Luzak Wants to Go Fast

Erik Luzak Wants to Go Fast

Erik Luzak is a man who likes speed. He’s an adrenaline junkie who spends his winters ripping through snow on a sled (or, as we in the States call it, a “snowmobile”) or a snowboard. He rides wakeboards and mountain bikes. His girlfriend, Emily Roberts, is a well-known motorcycle rider in Canada and one of Luzak’s biggest supporters. READ MORE »

FLW Podcast 207 - Kyle Walters

FLW Podcast 207 - Kyle Walters

READ MORE »

Top 10 Baits from Lake Guntersville

Top 10 Baits from Lake Guntersville

You can flip it, frog it, punch it and fish any number of moving baits through it. It’s grass, of course, and Lake Guntersville is full of it. That’s why so many grass-fishing baits were in the mix among the top 10 finishers at the 2018 Costa FLW Series Championship on Guntersville. READ MORE »

Top 10 Patterns from Lake Guntersville

Top 10 Patterns from Lake Guntersville

Aside from figuring out grass patterns, contestants in the championship had to deal with heavy pressure from another championship derby and major weather swings. Day one was cancelled due to the threat of severe storms, so the entire field fished Friday and Saturday. On day two, windy, overcast conditions forced many anglers to adjust. The wind died and the clouds lingered on Saturday, eventually parting and giving way to a beautiful autumn day on the water. READ MORE »

Co-angler Traba Completes Dream Season

Co-angler Traba Completes Dream Season

The fall of 2018 will stand out as a milestone season for Pacifica, Calif., co-angler Jacob Traba. In a span of just a few weeks, he won the Costa FLW Series Western Division finale on the California Delta, earned the Western Division Strike King Co-angler of the Year title and won the Costa FLW Series Championship on Lake Guntersville. READ MORE »

Florida’s Walters Wins Costa FLW Series Championship on Lake Guntersville

Florida’s Walters Wins Costa FLW Series Championship on Lake Guntersville

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. – Pro Kyle Walters of Grant-Valkaria, Florida, caught a five-bass limit weighing 24 pounds, 4 ounces Saturday – the largest limit of the event – to win the weather-shortened Costa FLW Series Championship on Lake Guntersville with a two-day cumulative total of... READ MORE »

Lake Guntersville Day 3 Coverage

Lake Guntersville Day 3 Coverage

It’s championship Sunday at the Costa FLW Series on Lake Guntersville. Due to day one being cancelled, all of the anglers are back on the water and have a shot at taking it all. Hopes should still be high for many of those competing today. Since the event has been shortened to two days, there are many within striking distance of winning this thing. All it takes is a couple giant Lake Guntersville bass and someone could make a big jump up the leaderboard. READ MORE »

Walters Punches for Guntersville Win

Walters Punches for Guntersville Win

Kyle Walters of Grant Valkaria, Fla., won the 2018 Costa FLW Series Championship on Lake Guntersville with a two-day total weight of 44 pounds, 3 ounces. Walters punched grass mats for two days, utilizing the same approach in the same area as when he won the 2013 T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League Regional on Guntersville. The champ dropped 24-4 – the biggest limit of the event – on the scale today to hold off a charge by Bryan Thrift. READ MORE »

Top 5 Patterns from Guntersville – Day 2

Top 5 Patterns from Guntersville – Day 2

The highlight of Friday’s first day of competition (though technically day two) at the Costa FLW Series Championship on Lake Guntersville was Carl Jocumsen’s 20-plus-pound bag that he caught on a glide bait. It’s pretty rare that someone uses the big glide to hammer them on an Eastern fishery in a major 200-boat tournament in the fall. But Jocumsen saw an open window of opportunity and leapt through it. Behind him (but not too far back) in the standings is a squad of guys relying on various Guntersville staples such as frogging, flipping and fishing offshore structure. They’re all hoping that a forecast change in conditions, from overcast to sunny, might stall Jocumsen’s mojo and open the door for a come-from-behind win on Saturday. READ MORE »

Australia’s Jocumsen Leads Day One of Costa FLW Series Championship on Lake Guntersville

Australia’s Jocumsen Leads Day One of Costa FLW Series Championship on Lake Guntersville

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. – Pro Carl Jocumsen of Queensland, Australia, caught a five-bass limit weighing 20 pounds, 2 ounces Friday – the only 20-plus-pound limit of the day – to grab the lead after Day One of the Costa FLW Series Championship on Lake Guntersville. Jocumsen will bring a slim 3-ounce... READ MORE »

Lake Guntersville Day 2 Coverage

Lake Guntersville Day 2 Coverage

Complete coverage of the 2018 Costa FLW Series Championship in Guntersville, Ala. READ MORE »

Jocumsen Glides to Guntersville Lead

Jocumsen Glides to Guntersville Lead

For the last four or five years, FLW pro Carl Jocumsen has been tinkering and testing, experimenting and dialing in ways to incorporate glide baits into his tournament arsenal. He’s been trying to figure out how it can shift gears from being a big-bass bait to a tournament tool. Apparently, he’s getting really close to nailing down those details. Today, Jocumsen used a glide bait to pound out a 20-pound, 2-ounce limit at Lake Guntersville to establish the lead at the 2018 Costa FLW Series Championship. “It’s one of those days you’ll never forget,” he says. “I hope I can back it up tomorrow.” READ MORE »

Costa Championship Postponed

Costa Championship Postponed

FLW officials have cancelled the first day of competition at the 2018 Costa FLW Series Championship on Lake Guntersville due to the threat of severe weather. All tournament competitors will fish on Friday and Saturday, with the pro and co-angler winners determined by two-day cumulative weight in their respective competitions. READ MORE »

Guntersville Lake Tour

Guntersville Lake Tour

Winding through Tennessee, north Alabama and Kentucky, the Tennessee River is studded with some of the most legendary reservoirs in bass-fishing history. Many would argue that Lake Guntersville is the best of the bunch, and though that is up for debate on any given year, Guntersville’s place in fishing history is undeniable. This week, the lake is under heavy pressure from a local championship event, anglers out to have fun and the 198 pros and co-anglers in the Costa FLW Series Championship. Here’s a look at what they’ll encounter on the water. READ MORE »