UPCOMING EVENT: TOYOTA SERIES - 2020 - Lake Cumberland

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 

Murray State University Wins Abu Garcia College Fishing presented by YETI Tournament on Lake Guntersville

Murray State University Wins Abu Garcia College Fishing presented by YETI Tournament on Lake Guntersville

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. – The Murray State University team of Adam Puckett of Murray, Kentucky, and Nathaniel Lear of Greenville, Kentucky, won the Abu Garcia College Fishing presented by YETI at Lake Guntersville event Friday with a five-bass limit weighing 18 pounds, 1 ounce. The victory earned the Murray State bass club $2,000 and qualified them to compete in the... READ MORE »

Murray State University Wins Abu Garcia College Fishing presented by YETI Tournament on Lake Guntersville

Murray State University Wins Abu Garcia College Fishing presented by YETI Tournament on Lake Guntersville

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. – The Murray State University team of Adam Puckett of Murray, Kentucky, and Nathaniel Lear of Greenville, Kentucky, won the Abu Garcia College Fishing presented by YETI at Lake Guntersville event Friday with a five-bass limit weighing 18 pounds, 1 ounce. The victory earned... READ MORE »

Red Hill High School Wins FLW High School Fishing presented by Favorite Fishing Lake Guntersville Open

Red Hill High School Wins FLW High School Fishing presented by Favorite Fishing Lake Guntersville Open

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. – Alabama’s Red Hill High School duo of Jesse Franklin and Ally Huey brought five bass to the scale Saturday weighing 20 pounds, 9 ounces to win the FLW High School Fishing presented by Favorite Fishing Lake Guntersville Open in Guntersville, Alabama... READ MORE »

Top 10 Patterns from Fort Gibson

Top 10 Patterns from Fort Gibson

The beginning of September helped mark the start of the fall transition in the south and that is exactly what the field faced in the Toyota Series Southwestern Division event on Fort Gibson. From topwaters to soft plastics, the top 10 utilized a large chunk of Fort Gibson to catch their fish, with the Grand River paying the biggest role in the division’s second stop of the season. READ MORE »

Top 10 Baits from Fort Gibson

Top 10 Baits from Fort Gibson

Low water and changing weather patterns meant tough fishing at for the second stop of the Toyota Series Southwestern Division at Fort Gibson. While day one brought in prime topwater conditions, days two and three generally saw anglers slogging it out for bass stuck somewhere amidst the fall transition. Fittingly, a few well-known baits are tailor-made for that kind of fishing—including a regional favorite named for the lake’s most legendary fisherman. READ MORE »

Kessler Goes Back-to-Back on Co-angler Side

Kessler Goes Back-to-Back on Co-angler Side

Robert Kessler will readily admit it—he was not prepared to win a co-angler championship at January’s Toyota Series Southwestern Division event on Toledo Bend. In fact, he says that he didn’t even come prepared with enough clean clothes to stay on the lake for three days. But, by the time he walked away from the event with a brand new Phoenix 518 Pro bass boat; Kessler’s wife had already decided he was going to be fishing at Fort Gibson. READ MORE »

Foster Dominates at Ft. Gibson

Foster Dominates at Ft. Gibson

Throughout the week on Fort Gibson for the second stop of the Toyota Series Southwestern Division, the field found tough fishing with big bites few and far between. And then there was local pro Cameron Foster. READ MORE »

Ft. Gibson Midday Update – Day 3

Ft. Gibson Midday Update – Day 3

Cameron Foster began the final day of the 2020 FLW Toyota Series Southwest Division event at Fort Gibson Lake with an 11-pound lead. By 8:00 a.m., Foster had returned to the honey hole that brought him to pole position with $27,070 on the line for crossing the finish line. Thanks to a hot, early bite, Foster is now nursing a four fish total with at least one 4-pounder in the boat. READ MORE »

Foster Keeps Rolling on Ft. Gibson

Foster Keeps Rolling on Ft. Gibson

On a tough Fort Gibson fishery, Cameron Foster is making it look easy as he hauled in 18 pounds, 5 ounces on day two of the Toyota Series Southwestern Division event to back up his day-one performance of 22-11. With 41-0 overall, Foster holds a massive lead worth 11-13 heading into Friday’s final round of action. While Foster has had decent success from the back of the boat, he’s en route to posting the biggest win of his career if he can keep things rolling. READ MORE »

Ft. Gibson Midday Update – Day 2

Ft. Gibson Midday Update – Day 2

Competitors in the Toyota Series Southwestern Division event at Fort Gibson Lake awoke to a completely different waterway than the one they fished yesterday. While day one brought overcast skies and a bevy of baitfish to the surface, day two screamed bluebird skies from the start and has settled into a mostly sunny blanket of blue towards midday. READ MORE »

Foster Drops 22-11 For Ft. Gibson Lead

Foster Drops 22-11 For Ft. Gibson Lead

The second stop of the Toyota Series Southwestern Division season took anglers to Fort Gibson Lake in Oklahoma where they were greeted with low water and temperatures in the mid-80s as they set out for day one of competition making things a little tough. Still, while limits in the mid- to low-teens were commonplace at weigh-in, Cameron Foster sacked 22 pounds, 11 ounces to take a 4-3 lead over Danny Weems. READ MORE »

Fort Gibson Midday Update – Day 1

Fort Gibson Midday Update – Day 1

Day one of theToyota Series Southwestern Division event on Fort Gibson Lake is underway, as anglers largely from Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas battle it out over an extremely low fishery. The waters at Fort Gibson, a nearly 20,000-acre reservoir along the Grand River, are sitting some 4 feet below average lake levels. Many local anglers report having never seen conditions this low, as submerged houses and a cemetery threaten to peak above the surface in some areas. READ MORE »

Hayden’s Butler Wins Two-Day Phoenix Bass Fishing League Event presented by Fish-Intel on Lake Guntersville

Hayden’s Butler Wins Two-Day Phoenix Bass Fishing League Event presented by Fish-Intel on Lake Guntersville

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. – Boater Josh Butler of Hayden, Alabama, brought a two-day total of 10 bass to the scale this weekend weighing 32 pounds, 3 ounces to win the Phoenix Bass Fishing League presented by T-H Marine Choo Choo Division Super-Tournament at Lake Guntersville presented by Fish-Intel... READ MORE »

Grant’s Glasgow Wins Phoenix Bass Fishing League Event on Lake Guntersville

Grant’s Glasgow Wins Phoenix Bass Fishing League Event on Lake Guntersville

SCOTTSBORO, Ala. – Boater Michael Glasgow of Grant, Alabama, brought a three-bass limit to the scale Saturday weighing 16 pounds, 4 ounces to win the 2020 Phoenix Bass Fishing League presented by T-H Marine event at Lake Guntersville in Scottsboro, Alabama. Glasgow earned a total of $6,261... READ MORE »

Parrish’s James Swindle Wins Phoenix Bass Fishing League Event on Lake Guntersville

Parrish’s James Swindle Wins Phoenix Bass Fishing League Event on Lake Guntersville

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: SCOTTSBORO, Ala. – Boater James Swindle of Parrish, Alabama, brought a five-bass limit to the scale Saturday weighing 20 pounds, 7 ounces to top 223 boats and win the 2020 Phoenix Bass Fishing League presented by T-H Marine at Lake Guntersville in Scottsville, Alabama... READ MORE »

Choo Choo Division Kicks off at Lake Guntersville

Choo Choo Division Kicks off at Lake Guntersville

According to pro Casey Martin, who once won a BFL on Guntersville with a whopping 40 pounds, 11 ounces, it’s not unreasonable to expect a mid- or upper 20s bag to win this time. READ MORE »

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 »