Michael Neal was one, maybe two, fish away from edging out Dustin Connell for the REDCREST 2021 title two weeks ago. Neal mentioned after the second-place finish that he was happy with his performance on Lake Eufaula, but obviously would have loved to take home his first win on the Bass Pro Tour.
The Mercury pro may not have left Eufaula with any hardware this time around, but MLF analyst Marty Stone believes that Neal has the potential to add a Bass Pro Tour trophy or two to his mantle in the 2021 season, if he can build upon what he showed at REDCREST.
Neal cashed a $60,000 check for his second-place finish at REDCREST, but a little further down in 10th place was Bass Fishing Hall of Famer Mark Davis. REDCREST represented the 65th major-tour-level top-10 finish for the Arkansas angler and his 21st championship-level event. While Neal’s young resume isn’t quite at the Davis level, Stone believes the two share plenty of similarities.
“I’ve said from the first day I ever saw Michael Neal fish that he reminds me of a young Mark Davis,” Stone compared. “Davis has won three AOY titles and a Bassmaster Classic, so there’s worse people to be compared to. Neal’s demeanor and skillset remind me so much of Davis and I think Neal has the ability to get to that kind of level. Both give off a ‘slow and methodical’ kind of vibe, but they can both turn it on and power fish at a high speed with the best of them.”
Neal grew up in a region of the country – East Tennessee on Lake Chickamauga – that’s well-known for producing top-notch anglers who excel at certain techniques. He’s renowned as one of the best ledge fishermen in the country, but that’s far from his only angling skill.
“The great thing that Michael has going for him is that he already knows when he needs to go fast, and when he can be a little more methodical in his approach,” Stone analyzed. “He’s also proficient in almost everything. He can go from a finesse technique to working a vibrating jig to working a crankbait, all in the span of about three casts. What’s more, he’s darn good at every one of them. Not a lot of people can say that.”
Neal also knows how and when to scrap a game plan when he needs to make a cut—or two.
“REDCREST really showed what kind of angler he’s becoming and how dangerous he can be,” Stone said. “He fished brushpiles in practice and on Qualifying Day 1, then moved to the bank and caught them on Qualifying Day 2 to make the cut. Then, he moved back to the brushpiles when he knew the bank wasn’t going to win it for him in the Knockout Round. The best anglers in the game know how and when to adjust, and Neal has shown he knows how to do that.”
Another way Neal’s stoic nature pays off: his grounded temperament. The highs are never too high and the lows never too low for the Tennessee pro, and that’s a characteristic he shares with a few of the best anglers in the world.
“Neal is a lot like Jordan Lee, Jacob Wheeler and Ott DeFoe in that he stays even-keeled the whole time,” Stone confirmed. “That temperament is perfect for bass fishing. The wins are great when they come. However, it’s also important to show how you handle yourself when you’re losing or struggling. That shows the real you and what kind of person you are. The great anglers know how to keep themselves composed and I think Michael definitely has that quality.”
A new regular season of the Bass Pro Tour is set to kick-off on March 21 on Sam Rayburn Reservoir in east Texas. Every pro gets a fresh slate in the Angler of the Year race, and Neal will most certainly look to improve on his 11th-place finish in 2020.
Neal has seven shots at grabbing his first win on the Bass Pro Tour and earning enough points to capture one of the toughest titles in bass fishing – Angler of the Year. Stone believes that if Neal gets on a roll in 2021 and gains confidence, he could be tough to stop.
“Neal is really starting to come into his own and I don’t think he sees how good he can really be,” Stone said. “When he does, watch out.”