HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – The Phoenix Bass Fishing League All-American doesn’t invariably highlight youth, as grassroots anglers come in all forms, but it can have an incredible kickoff effect to a young angler’s career. Back in 2011 at Cross Lake, Jacob Wheeler became the youngest ever to win the All-American, taking the title down at just 20 years old, and pro fishing appears to have worked out well for him since.
Granted, many anglers who succeed at the All-American and then go on to have pro success would have excelled anyhow – a team of mustangs would have had a hard time keeping Wheeler from the top of the sport. But these days, with gas at $4.50 a gallon and new boats running way past $70,000, early success on a big stage can go a long way toward making dreams come true.
This year, the field taking on Lake Hamilton is stocked with youth: four on the Strike King co-angler side less than 20 years old and five boaters under 25. The youngest of the bunch on the boater side are Laker Howell (20) and Tyler Smith (21), both Alabama anglers who perfectly fit the mold for an up-and-coming pro. If one of them can pull down the title, they’ll have beaten a field with some top local talent, plus the best the BFL level offers, which is pretty solid at the All-American.
The winner of last year’s Regional at Wheeler Lake, Smith hadn’t fished much outside of Alabama until 2022. But this year, he dipped out from doing electrical work in the family business to make some longer trips.
“I’m still basically working every day, and then fishing every day I’m not workin’,” Smith said. “I fished my first year of the Toyota Series this past year, and it didn’t go great, but it was my first year, I did a lot of learning, and I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.”
“It didn’t go great” is a bit of an understatement, as Smith never finished above 100th and zeroed in the one-day derby at Santee Cooper.
“Whenever I first got to Okeechobee, it wasn’t being unprepared, it was being overwhelmed. I guess I panicked a little bit, and that’s on me,” Smith admitted. “At the Harris Chain, I had my best event so far, it kinda got me rolling in to the All-American with some confidence. I needed one kicker bite on the first day, and then the second day, I got my kicker bite and I had a 1-pounder.
“It’s different having my first year fishing multi-day events,” Smith said. “It’s a different preparation, and different fishing styles; you’ve got to learn how to manage fish. I think after getting the Regional and the Toyota Series under my belt, it’s got me feeling good with some confidence rolling in.”
Smith is committed to the journey and has been prepping for a shot at the pro level since high school.
“My goal has always been that I want to be the best out there,” Smith said. “I want everybody to know my name, I want to be fishing full time on the Pro Circuit, Elites, whatever. That’s the goal, to be the best of the best. I’m just going to work my way through the chain and hopefully plan on gettin’ there.”
Starting out in ponds and on piers, Smith started to lean into the tournament process during the latter half of his high school career, fitting fishing local club events in between football, baseball and hunting.
“I fell in love with it, and I started chasing the dream about my junior year of high school, and I haven’t looked back,” Smith said. “Some of the adults back home helped me a lot. Craig Grantham was one of the biggest ones for me, he took me under his wing, took me out on the water a lot and got me out there.”
Smith said practice has been decent, but a challenge, as Day 1 of the event will be the third day of his life on Hamilton. But with 15 of the right bites, he’d get to live out a win he’s only imagined to this point.
“I’ve thought about it, but I think it’s one of those things where you don’t know how you’d react to it until it happens, and hopefully we find out Saturday afternoon,” Smith said. “As far as my fishing career goes, I think it would be a big leap to get me started in that direction, I think it’d be a huge deal.”
When your dad (Randy Howell) has won a Bassmaster Classic, shooting for a pro fishing career can happen fast. When you fish as hard and well as Howell has, it might happen really fast.
The youngest boater in the field, Howell is primed for a pro career, and has been fishing Toyota Series events like nobody’s business since 2020, with 12 on the schedule this year, not counting the Championship. As of now, it looks like he’ll qualify for the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit out of the Central Division with a little luck, and he still has the Northern Division ahead of him.
“As of right now, I’m actively getting my sponsors together as though I made the Pro Circuit,” Howell said. “This is exactly what happened to Cal Lane (in 2020). He was outside of it, but obviously there’s no way all five guys in the top five are going to say ‘yes’ to paying $35 grand in entry fee money, because not everybody can do that. So, it’s lookin’ good for the home team at the moment, but it’s an iffy deal.”
Fishing his first BFL event at 16 years old at the behest of his mom, Howell bucked the trend of a long college career. After a year at Bryan College, he turned to online community college for a marketing degree and jumped into the Toyota Series Southeastern Division to roll with Lane.
“I jumped in the first one at Eufaula and paid my entry fee, and that was like all the money I had at the time,” Howell said. “I like Eufaula, and I finished 15th and ended up getting a good chunk of change back. I was like ‘well shoot, I can do this.’”
With his dad bankrolling the rest of his season (which was the last time he’d pay entry fees for him), Howell did great, finishing 20th in the standings.
“I came so close to making the Pro Circuit the first year, it lit a fire in me. It was the goal,” Howell said. “Last season, I sucked, there’s no getting around that. I think that built the fire for this year. When I came out at the first tournament of the year at Okeechobee, I wanted to win so bad that it wasn’t funny.”
Fishing a ton of events and making money in between guiding, Howell has just about set himself on cruise control toward a pro career. In fact, back in 2021, the All-American wasn’t really on his radar until he made the Regional at the St. Johns River.
“I didn’t have it in my mind to make this last year, I was trying to fish as many tournaments as I possibly could,” Howell said. “In between the Toyotas, I had some extra money I’d use for the BFLs. The only tournament I practiced for was Guntersville last year, and I did the worst in that one. I was using these tournaments to get better at making on-the-fly decisions, and somehow I made the Regional.”
Howell practiced for the Regional and made the All-American, and the gravity of the opportunity hit him once he had a chance to look past the Toyota Series.
“It’s all I’ve thought about since I got here,” Howell said. “I didn’t know how big of a historic deal this tournament actually was. I had no idea I was ever going to be here, that’s why it’s so cool to get to fish this thing. My dad fished it back in ’94, it was the Red Man All-American then, Wheeler won this tournament. Anyone that wins this, this is the tournament that kickstarts your pro career. This is what solidifies you in the world of fishing.”