KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Seven new faces join the MLF Bass Pro Tour when the 2023 season gets started at B&W Trailer Hitches Stage One Presented by Grundéns: Matt Becker, Josh Butler, Mitch Crane, John Hunter, Nick LeBrun, Spencer Shuffield and Jacob Wall qualified into the Bass Pro Tour with stout performances in the 2022 Pro Circuit, all finishing in the Top 10 in the Angler of the Year standings.
Here’s a look at how each of the 2023 rookies made it, and how they’re approaching the season-opener.
Becker has previous Bass Pro Tour experience as he finished 25th at Stage One at Sam Rayburn Reservoir and 18th at Stage Four on Lake Chickamauga in 2021. He collected a win that same year in the Pro Circuit event at Lake Murray, the second win of his career.
There was no pressure for Becker in 2021 when he qualified for individual events, but now that he prepares for a full season of SCORETRACKER®, he knows that the pressure is about to be turned up a few notches.
“Back when I fished those couple of events in 2021, it was kind of relaxing,” Becker admitted. “I didn’t really have to worry about earning points for AOY, I could just go out there and fish. Now, the pressure is really going to be on because I have everything in front of me.”
Butler makes the jump to the Bass Pro Tour after two successful seasons on the Pro Circuit. The Alabama pro nearly won the Pro Circuit AOY title in 2022, notching two Top-10 finishes before losing out to Michael Neal for the AOY trophy in the final event of the season.
Starting off the 2023 season in a new circuit doesn’t worry Butler, though. He’s more concerned with how he’ll fare on a stubborn Kissimmee Chain.
“I’m not nervous by any means, I’m just anxious to get it started,” Butler stated. “Really my goal for Stage One is just to get by, because I’ve never been a good fisherman in Florida. My goal is to make the Top 40, earn some good points and be ready to fish well the rest of the year.”
The doctor will see you now. Crane – a dentist from Mississippi – looks to take a bite out of Bass Pro Tour competition after three appearances in the Pro Circuit TITLE in his three years competing on that circuit.
Crane, like Butler, is low-key about his expectations at Stage One in Florida, mainly because he doesn’t know what to expect from the Kissimmee Chain. With only two days of practice to prepare him for his first taste of Bass Pro Tour competition, Crane is focusing on minimizing any damage at Stage One.
“I’ve never been on the Kissimmee Chain before, so this will be a new experience for me,” Crane said. “Florida is really a hit-or-miss state for me. I’ve had my worst finish ever in Florida but I’ve also had some good finishes. Really, this tournament is about survival for me and not getting myself behind the eight ball to start the year.”
An eight-year tour-level veteran who has competed on the Pro Circuit, the FLW Tour and Bassmaster Elite Series, Hunter enjoyed his best year as a pro in 2022, when he finished eighth in the Pro Circuit AOY race and earned a Top-10 finish at Pickwick Lake. The Kentucky pro is still searching for the first win of his professional career but is one of the most well-rounded anglers in the field.
He has 11 Top 10s with MLF on his career resume, and has always fared well in Florida: he finished third at a 2020 Pro Circuit event on Lake Toho and ninth at a Bassmaster Open in 2019 on Toho.
A Phoenix Bass Fishing League All-American champion in 2018, LeBrun is coming off his best year as a pro in 2022. He became only the third angler in history to win back-to-back Pro Circuit/FLW Tour events with his wins last season on Guntersville and the James River.
While his name and reputation continue to grow, LeBrun hopes the Bass Pro Tour can push him to new heights. The opportunity to compete against multiple Bass Fishing Hall of Famers this season has LeBrun more than ready to get 2023 underway.
“I’m looking forward to fishing against some of the legends in the sport that I’ve never gotten to compete against before,” LeBrun said. “It’s been a lifelong goal of mine to compete against Kevin VanDam. To know that I’m checking that box this year – and I get to do it multiple times – is just an exciting feeling.”
Shuffield may technically be a rookie, but he’s no stranger to the Bass Pro Tour. The Arkansas pro got a taste of the Bass Pro Tour in 2021 when he qualified to fish two events – Stage One at Sam Rayburn Reservoir and Stage Three at the Harris Chain. Shuffield had solid finishes in both events, finishing 11th in Texas and 13th in Florida.
Fresh off a Tackle Warehouse TITLE win on the St. Lawrence River last August, Shuffield knows he has what it takes to compete against the best.
“I feel like I’m fishing against the biggest names in the sport,” Shuffield said. “Now I have a full season to see how I stack up against these guys, not just two events. I’m fishing against guys my dad (FLW Tour stalwart Ron Shuffield) fished against when he was still fishing professionally, so that’s really cool as well. My goal is to win AOY and I’m going to give it all I have.”
Wall has always been up for a new challenge, be it moving from Oregon to Alabama to help further his professional fishing career, or making the move to the Bass Pro Tour in 2023 after four years on the FLW Tour and Pro Circuit. Wall collected two Top 10s in 2022 and is ready to take his talents to new heights. With smaller fields, bigger payouts and more of the spotlight to go around, Wall is excited about what the Bass Pro Tour has to offer.
“I’m really looking forward to going up against a much smaller field than what I’m used to,” Wall explained. “I feel like it will open up opportunities for me and my sponsors to see more of the spotlight and shine a light on them and myself.”