From the top levels to the college ranks, 2021 was one for the record books in the MLF universe. Longtime pros earned signature wins, stars rebounded in style and the kids looked pretty good too. Though surely not complete, what follows are some of the highlights of the year that was. If you want in next year, then sign up for some tournaments and get the process started – the Phoenix Bass Fishing League is a great place to start!
Can You Believe Mundy?
Sam Rayburn Reservoir has been home to a lot of highlights over the years, but the stretch Derek Mundy put together this winter is one that will be remembered for a long time.
Weighing 40 pounds, 10 ounces to win the first Phoenix Bass Fishing League Cowboy Division event of the year, Mundy started the 2021 season with a bang. An 11-10 kicker headlined his bag, but really, they were all gigantic. Mundy’s bag edged out Anthony Sharp’s for the fourth-largest five-fish limit in MLF history and fell 1 ounce shy of tying Casey Martin for the third-largest bag of all time. Last February, Sharp walloped 40-6 in a Cowboy Division event on Sam Rayburn in February, so this was the second time in under a year that Rayburn has kicked out a 40-pound bag.
Of course, that was a prelude to the big time, when Mundy went wild in the Toyota Series event at the end of the month. Mundy tallied a pedestrian 12-13 on Day 1. On Day 2, he dropped 39-7 on the scale to rocket into first place with a 52-4 total. On the final day, going out with a 12-pound cushion, Mundy caught another 10-pounder to win with a 70-11 total.
His bag on Day 2 is the second biggest in Toyota Series history, and his 13-10 kicker is the third-largest bass ever weighed by a pro in Toyota Series history. Additionally, in just under a month, Mundy became the only angler alive with two of the Top 10 biggest single-day weights in MLF history, knocking out one of Greg Hackney’s giant Falcon Lake bags to do it.
Anyhow, maybe everything really is bigger in Texas.
Toho Puts Schmitt on Top in the Wins Column
With nearly $1 million in career earnings with MLF and FLW (he’s well over the mark if you count B.A.S.S. earnings), Bryan Schmitt is no stranger to the highlight reel. When he wins, he often wins in style, like when he blew past the field and caught hundreds of fish in the 2017 FLW Tour event on the Mississippi River, or when he caught 21 pounds on the final day to win the 2013 Toyota Series event on the Chesapeake Bay.
This year, he added to his mantle in multiple ways, but for our purposes, his sixth Toyota Series win takes the cake. Winning by more than 8 pounds on Lake Toho, Schmitt proved once again how unstoppable he can be in the grass and set the Toyota Series wins record. Busting out of a three-way tie with Randy Haynes and Koby Kreiger, Schmitt at six could be pretty hard to top.
Skeet’s Still Got It
MLF Veteran Skeet Reese‘s performance on the Bass Pro Tour has been less than spectacular in recent years. But in 2021, Reese was special right from the get-go, looking vintage in his Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit Stop 1 win at Okeechobee and then pushing Michael Neal to the limit for AOY in the season finale. Over on the BPT, he ended up 11th in points, which is a pretty big improvement over a 43rd place showing that saw him miss the REDCREST in 2020.
Skeet’s huge final day at Okeechobee was one of the highlights of the year (27 pounds in a few hours doesn’t happen often), and it set him up for a huge season. Reese fished loose all season long in just about every event he got in.
REDCREST Impresses, Despite Hurdles
Relocated at the last minute from Lake Palestine to Lake Eufaula due to a historic winter storm in Texas, this year’s REDCREST turned out to be a huge success. Not only did the move go off without a hitch (mostly), the wintertime event turned in fantastic numbers on live and featured excellent fishing.
In early rounds, Bryan Thrift dominated the tournament, looking like vintage Thrift in the process. Later, the folks with forward-facing sonar took over, and Dustin Connell fished a jerkbait over brush piles to perfection to earn the win in the final round.
Breeden and Smith Take the ‘Ship
Grand Lake with literal ice on it isn’t supposed to be a great time, but this year’s Abu Garcia College Fishing National Championship was a really good one. Coming out of a major cold snap, the fishing wasn’t as bad as everyone thought it would be, and competition for the top spot was fierce. Taking the win, Cole Breeden and Cameron Smith of Drury University edged out the rest of the crew with a stellar final day. Included in the Top 10 were Harbor Lovin and Zachary Martin of Murray State plying crappie jigs, Josh Kelly fishing solo out of a Bass Tracker, the Browning’s fantastic dog Buddy and a bunch of other fun storylines.
The Impossible Comes Easy for Cox
John Cox has a way of making every moment a highlight, but this year the “Tin Man” accomplished an unbelievable amount while fishing for $100,000 more than anyone else in the country. Fishing the Bass Pro Tour on almost no sleep or practice, Cox made multiple Knockout Rounds and REDCREST. On the B.A.S.S. Elite Series, Cox managed to miss an event and still qualify for the Classic ahead of a bunch of folks that fished the whole season. On the Pro Circuit, the third of his undertakings in 2021, Cox finally won at Smith Lake and knocked out a Top 10 on the St. Lawrence for good measure.
In 2022, Cox plans to cut back to just the Pro Circuit and Elite Series, which should scare pretty much everyone he’ll be fishing against.
Castledine Sets AOY Mark in the Toyota Series
Veteran pro Todd Castledine took down his fourth Angler of the Year title in the Toyota Series this year. It boosted him out of a tie with Cory Johnston and into the all-time top spot. Depending on both Castledine’s and Johnston’s future plans, it’d be no surprise to see the bar raised. But for now, the lanky Texan has bragging rights on the Canadian.
In each of his previous AOY seasons, Castledine has had at least two Top-10 finishes. This year, he wrapped it up with a pair of Top 20s and a fourth-place finish. The Southwestern Division faced a lot of weird conditions in 2021, and Castledine stayed consistent through the face of it all to end up on top. With two Toyota Series wins to his credit and a Top 10 in this year’s championship, Castledine’s latest accomplishment is fitting for an angler of his stature.
KVD Finally Earns a Bass Pro Tour Win
Since starting on the Bass Pro Tour, Kevin VanDam has been good, but certainly not lights-out amazing as befits the greatest of all time. This summer on Lake Chickamauga, VanDam finally earned a win. Flying high the whole event, he triggered ledge bass better than anyone else the final day, beating out the likes of Jacob Wheeler and Jason Lambert to prove that he’s still the man to beat on the Tennessee River.
Gallelli Carries the Flag for Italia
Jacopo Gallelli came into the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit as one of the more intriguing rookies. An Italian covered in laurels back home and at the triple-A level with MLF, he was a rookie to watch for sure. In June at the Potomac River, he delivered on that promise in style.
Starting the final day in sixth, Gallelli crushed an even 20 pounds to handily beat runner-up Michael Neal and earn his first win in the US. From there, he headed north to Champlain to add a Top 10 in the Bass Pro Tour event to really make the point that he’s here to stay.
Neal Goes Big
Getting engaged in December was probably the highlight of the year for Michael “Real Deal” Neal, but before that he’d put together one for the record books. Winning the Angler of the Year title in the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit and earning the W in the season finale of the Bass Pro Tour on Lake St. Clair and Erie put him in pretty rarified air.
For his AOY, Neal’s lowest finish was 33rd at Smith Lake. From there, he ripped off four great derbies in a row, with his lowest finish being 11th at Eufaula and the St. Lawrence River. Always super-consistent, Neal has had a lot of close calls at wins, and finally locking down an AOY title felt very significant.
Of course, Neal wasn’t done covering himself in glory. Not long after, he rolled back north for the Bass Pro Tour finale and crushed it. Targeting smallmouth migrating to the Detroit River, Neal set records in the Qualifying Round and tallied 58 fish for over 168 pounds on the final day to earn his first win above the BFL level. Coming from a guy who has seen his share of runner-up finishes and close calls, Neal fans from East Tennessee to Vermont and the Ozarks were thrilled for him.
Martens’ Indomitable Will
A physical shell of himself and undergoing cancer treatment, Aaron Martens still competed in some of the Bass Pro Tour events this season. At Champlain, he did his best work. Sometimes fishing and practicing from his knees, Martens made the Knockout Round with smallmouth he plucked from the depths. It really shouldn’t have been possible against that level of competition, but he never stopped believing in himself.
Martens passed away in early November, and his death was greeted by an outpouring of grief and reminiscence from everyone who had crossed passed with the bass-fishing great. Major League Fishing is in the process of planning a memorial event to celebrate Aaron’s life during the 2022 Bass Pro Tour season. Please keep an eye on our website and social media pages for updates.
Washam’s Coming Out Party
Jimmy Washam didn’t look like anything special early in the Tackle Warehouse TITLE, as he barely made it out of the Qualifying Rounds fishing in the Black River, along with several other pros that wouldn’t make waves in the end. Then, he put the hammer down, weighing 14-15 in the Knockout Round and 17-15 in the Championship Round to earn the win. Catching them on a wacky rig and a topwater, Washam beat out Bobby Lane, Zack Birge, a red-hot Mitch Crane, Skeet Reese and more to earn a career-defining win.
Of course, the TITLE win wasn’t it for Washam in 2021. The second-year pro also won a Toyota Series event in freezing temperatures on Lake Guntersville and earned the Central Division Angler of the Year title. So, you could say he had a pretty good year.
Chris Johnston Dominates at the 1000 Islands
The Northern Division of the Toyota Series had a few standout performances in 2021, and most of them involved smallmouths. Steve Estes cracking a 20-pound average on Champlain was dope, but Chris Johnston’s win out of Massena takes the cake. Running from Massena on the St. Lawrence River, west to Lake Ontario, the younger Johnston brother caught more than 25 pounds each day of the event to beat Cory Johnston by more than 7 pounds with a 77-15 total.
To put Chris’s performance in perspective a bit, Cory won the Bassmaster Open out of Clayton with an even 78 pounds shortly after the Massena event. Weighing just an ounce less, Chris had to run about 140 miles more each day just to get to and from the lake.
McKinney Wins AOY at 16 Years Old
With a bevy of high school accomplishments to his name, Trey McKinney looked spectacular fishing against adults in solo competition this year. Fishing the Phoenix Bass Fishing League Illini Division, the precocious angler won the Super Tournament, earned three other Top 10s and won AOY. Now, McKinney may not be destined for stardom, but Jacob Wheeler has never won a BFL AOY, so it’s not like he’s off to a bad start.
Wheeler Dominates the Bass Pro Tour
As the best in the world, Jacob Wheeler being amazing at fishing isn’t really news at this point. But winning three events and the Bass Pro Tour AOY is nothing to sneeze at. Winning at Lake Travis, the St. Lawrence River and Champlain, Wheeler set some impressive records along the way, including most weight caught during a single competition day (165-1), the highest two-day weight (222-1) and the highest Championship Round weight (129). Fittingly, he took home the AOY title as well, which was amazingly his first. With an AOY, a Forrest Wood Cup, and a bevy of other wins, it’s safe to say Wheeler’s spot in the Hall of Fame is locked up.
New College Record Set at Chickamauga
The Carson-Newman University duo of Ben Cully and Hayden Gaddis weighed 18 pounds even to win the Abu Garcia College Fishing Presented by YETI event at Lake Chickamauga, but that wasn’t the entire story. The final event of the Southeastern Conference season, a full field of 278 teams battled it out on the Tennessee River in October. The field broke the record for the largest collegiate fishing tournament of all time. The previous record was set in March of 2018, when 276 teams competed in a Southeastern Conference event at Lake Guntersville.
Crow Makes it Happen at Home
Fishing below the Wilson Dam, Brent Crow of Hartselle, Alabama, came out swinging on the final day of the Toyota Series Championship on Pickwick Lake. Tallying 23-1 before 9 a.m., Crow moved from 10th to first with a 52-2 total. Fans and observers knew Crow was a threat on the final day, but nobody really expected to see that quantity and quality of smallmouth hit the scale. Suffice to say, the morning was about as epic as it gets.
For the win, Crow earned $247,500 with the MLF Phoenix Bonus and other contingency money for a total payout of nearly a quarter-million dollars. The Toyota Series Championship is the Mecca for triple-A angling, and this one sure didn’t disappoint. For the second year running, local knowledge played big and let someone shy of the pro ranks take home a massive payday.
The 2022 season starts soon – with a College Fishing Southeastern Conference event at the Harris Chain getting tip-off honors the first week of January. From there, the Phoenix Bass Fishing League starts rolling at Rayburn (keep an eye on that one) and major competition kicks off at the end of the month with the first stop of the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit at Rayburn and a Toyota Series Southern Division event on Okeechobee.
This year could be pedestrian, but it’s unlikely. Maybe a new technique will blow our minds as LiveScope did in 2020, or maybe we’ll get a new bait like when the Magnum Spoon hit back in 2014. Even if we don’t figure out a bold new way to catch bass, we’ll surely see excellence. With super-talented anglers fishing at all levels of MLF competition, any given weekend could be a shocker.