Back in the spring of 2014, Austin Felix and his University of Minnesota teammate Chris Burgan were on the top of the FLW College Fishing world. With a win in the National Championship on Lake Keowee, Felix was headed to the Forrest Wood Cup as a pro.
“It’s one of those ‘pipe dream’ deals for me, where I will get to test my mettle against the very best in the sport,” he said almost two years ago. “My goal is to go pro one day. It might never become a reality, but this is a great first step.”
That August on Lake Murray, the world watched as Anthony Gagliardi took home the title in one of the most dramatic Forrest Wood Cup finishes of all time. For Felix, the trip to Murray wasn’t quite as successful, but he ended up wrapping up 36th place.
More importantly, he got the opportunity to experience a real professional event and set himself up to take the next step this season, when he’ll begin his rookie campaign on the Walmart FLW Tour.
Moving up the ranks
Though the transition from College Fishing standout to rookie pro is straightforward enough, the young Minnesotan has taken a winding path to reach this point.
“My old man [Dennis Felix] got into tournament bass fishing from a buddy of his, and he’s fished tournaments since I was about 8 or 10 years old,” details Felix. “I started fishing small Wednesday-nighters with him from the point I turned 16, and we fished together until I was about 20.”
After about a year at the University of Minnesota, Felix was out of school and back out fishing and hunting nearly all the time, but the hiatus didn’t last long.
“I always planned on going back to school, but I wasn’t motivated at the time,” explains Felix. “I just decided to do it so I would have the business and marketing knowledge to run a business with myself as the product, and because it looks good on a resume if this fishing deal doesn’t work out.”
Once he got back to school, Felix focused on a self-designed business and entrepreneurship major to prepare for the business side of a fishing career, though he didn’t immediately join the fishing team. It took him a while to actually connect with the club and get signed up.
Once he did start the fishing part of his college career, Felix enjoyed immediate success. With Burgan [now a full-time communications and social media strategist at FLW] as his partner, the Gopher anglers notched a couple of top-five finishes en route to qualifying for the National Championship on Lake Keowee. Once there, they stayed steady for two days before catching the biggest bag of the final day to rise into first.
After his lackluster showing at the Cup and a hard-fought but unsuccessful bid in 2014 to qualify for the National Championship again, Felix turned his sights toward the FLW Tour and a pro career.
“I signed up for the Tour last year, but I was one of the first guys that didn’t get in because of the shortened field,” says Felix. “Once I found out I wasn’t in, the Bassmaster Northern Opens series was one of the only things I could get into.
“I finished 13th overall in the Opens and cashed two checks, but my finish at Lake Erie [68th] kept me out of the Elite Series. Still, it let me know that at least for two tournaments I could hang in there with a lot of Tour pros, Elites and locals.”
Prepared for the transition
The fragmented climb to the sport’s top level might not have been exactly what Felix had in mind, but it seems to have prepared him well.
“Fishing in college was really good,” he says. “Learning how to study the lakes and patterns really helped. Traveling opened my eyes to the fact that a bass in South Carolina is still a bass. You just need to figure it out. Back in high school I used to think that the Tour level was an impossibility because I didn’t have that home knowledge [of Southern lakes], but fishing in college showed me it all comes down to fundamentals.”
College also prepared him for the parts of the job that happen off the water. Without any hard evidence to say otherwise, the young pro feels comfortable speaking the language of marketing and says he knows how to meet and set expectations when it comes to figuring out the sponsorship aspects that are so important for an up-and-coming pro.
Of course, Felix isn’t going to coast on past performance this season. He’s putting in the time as well.
“I’m going to try to pre-practice as many of the lakes as I can, because with the exception of Kentucky Lake and Hartwell I haven’t spent any time on any of the venues,” details Felix. “I’m used to having a whole week instead of three days to figure out a game plan, so figuring out how to approach official practice and learning from pre-practice will be important.”
Prior to this article being published, we caught up with Felix while he was putting in time on Okeechobee before the lake went off limits. Okeechobee is a challenging, unique fishery that often stumps first-time anglers. He was hoping his early recon would shorten the learning curve.
“I like a lot of the stuff I see, as far as the structure goes, and I’ve spent a lot of time back home with a flipping stick in my hands. But it’s so big, and I showed up during the first real cold front,” he told us. “The first day I did surprisingly decent, but it’s been real tough the last few days.”
Lucky for him, a lack of success in pre-practice doesn’t guarantee an unsuccessful tournament. With a stop at the Bassmaster Open on the Kissimmee Chain and official practice before the Okeechobee Tour, Felix still has a good chance to learn the ins and out of Florida bass.
The thing he’s most prepared for is the last stop on the schedule. Felix routinely crushes big limits of brown fish on Minnesota’s famed Mille Lacs Lake, and he’s fired up to get to Lake Champlain.
“I think that’s the one I’ll probably do best on,” he says. “I think I have an advantage over a lot of people when it comes to smallmouth fishing, and I know how Northern summer largemouths act. Once you get farther south, largemouths tend to shut down in midsummer, whereas they eat in the summer up north.”
Knocking down the next goals
It’s well known that just fishing as a pro doesn’t make you one. The next task for Felix is to lock down a long career with success on the water.
While returning to the Forrest Wood Cup is his No. 1 goal, winning the Rookie of the Year title is second.
“I’ve fished against a lot of these guys in the Opens and at the Cup, and outside of school, fishing is about the only thing I’ve done the last five years,” muses Felix. “I need to try to not get spun out by the hype and just go do what I’ve got to do.”