No matter how you get to the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit, you’re only a rookie once. This year, 28 pros are taking a crack at a professional career for the first time.
In 2020, Kyle Hall took down Polaris Rookie of the Year honors with a stellar finish to the season, beating out other first-timers like Cole Floyd and Jimmy Washam. The competition for the 2021 title is likely to be very stout, as there are some extraordinarily accomplished new anglers on this year’s roster. Historically, winning Rookie of the Year is a very strong indicator of a successful career to come, and there could be new stars throughout this year’s crop of rookies.
Here’s a brief rundown of who’s who.
Qualifying out of the Western Division of the Toyota Series, Shannon Abbott has done well in the US Open on Lake Mead and banked a pair of Top-20 finishes in Toyota Series competitions in 2020. Abbott isn’t loaded with eastern experience, but he’s certainly done well out west, and on some tough fisheries to boot. Though he’s not a “can’t miss” western pro in the mold of Brent Ehrler or Cody Meyer, he might well surprise.
The reigning Angler of the Year in the Western Division, Tai Au won two events in 2020, the first on Lake Havasu and the second on Clear Lake. Though he hasn’t fished the full Toyota Series schedule often, he has typically done well when he does and he certainly had a stupendous 2020. Finishing 52nd in the Toyota Series Championship is a mark in his favor as well, and he’s certainly one to watch now that he’s in the big leagues.
Qualifying out of the Southern Division, Jason Blair finished 10th in points this season with a second-place finish at the St. Johns River. At the Toyota Series Championship, Blair finished 87th, and he’s slim on experience outside of Florida. So, while you probably don’t want to count him out at Okeechobee, Blair has some challenges ahead of him as the season moves north.
Mark Blevins is another Florida boy taking a big swing in 2021. He’s booked a Top 10 at the Phoenix Bass Fishing League (BFL) level and led for AOY after two events in the Southern Division in 2020, but he’s short on experience outside of the Sunshine State. We’ve seen plenty of Florida-only pros take it national with early success, with folks like Brandon McMillan and Laramy Strickland leading the way, but it can be a tough row to hoe.
Finishing fourth in the Southeastern Division in 2020, Josh Bragg has a pretty healthy history on Alabama waters. He’s got a BFL win to his credit on Eufaula and a knack for ending up in the Top 10 in just about every derby on Neely Henry. Suffice to say, Bragg fits the prototype of a southern angler primed for success as a pro.
One of a number of rookies who had truly outstanding 2020 seasons, Josh Butler wrecked shop across the southeast. On the season-long side of things, Butler finished third in AOY in the Toyota Series Southeastern Division (with two Top-10 finishes) and won AOY in the BFL Choo Choo Division. Butler also won twice on the BFL level, locking up the Choo Choo Division Super Tournament on Guntersville and then winning the Regional on Cherokee.
Butler has a reputation as a stellar offshore angler, so the 2020 schedule could test him, but he also has a very solid base of success.
The most jacked of the incoming rookies, Michael Caruso has a fantastic record out west, with three Top-10 AOY finishes in the Western Division and a wad of Top 10s, particularly on Havasu. As an additional mark in his favor, Caruso booked a Top 10 in the Toyota Series Championship on Cumberland last fall, and finished 21st back in 2018. He’s the rare western angler with a decent bit of eastern success already under his belt.
An undeniably exciting addition to the field, Justin Cooper fished for Northwestern State in college and has finished in the top five in the Cowboy Division standings three times. In 2020, he knocked out a second-place AOY finish in the Southwestern Division to qualify for the top level. Obviously, Cooper would be better off with some Rayburn home cooking like the last two years, but he’s still got a decent variety of experience. Though he may need to pick up a spinning rod more than he likes, Cooper could do well on tour.
In 2015, Trevor Fitzgerald was one of the brightest stars of triple-A fishing and was on the verge of a pro career after a stellar showing in the Toyota Series Championship on the Ohio River. In the spring of 2016, Fitzgerald faced some personal and legal consequences that forced him to put his pro career on hold.
Fast forward four years, Fitzgerald is now back at the top level and undoubtedly a top contender for ROY. In 2020, he won the Toyota Series event on the St. Johns River and the Southern Division AOY title to boot. Fitzgerald doesn’t have loads of history outside of the southeast, but he’s been consistently exceptional fishing against very tough competition there.
Hailing from Italy and taking a run at a pro career in the US, Jacopo Gallelli had nothing but success in 2020. Fishing the full season in both the Southwestern and Southern Divisions of the Toyota Series, Gallelli knocked out a Top 10 in each and double-qualified for the Pro Circuit. In 2018, Gallelli finished 141st in the Toyota Series Championship as an International Division qualifier. He’ll start 2021 as one of the most interesting rookies on tour.
Though Grant Galloway’s hair isn’t as good as it was when he fished for Mississippi State, he’s still an interesting Pro Circuit prospect. With almost 60 MLF events already under his belt, Galloway did well in college and has put some serious time in at the BFL level. After cracking them in the Central Division of the Toyota Series in 2020, Galloway is taking it to the next level.
Back in the day, co-angler experience on the FLW Tour was a common point in favor of prospective rookies. Now, Lawson Hibdon is one of the few rookies with significant experience at the top level as a co-angler, having fished nine FLW Tour events on the co-angler side from 2011 to 2015.
Looking to carry on the family tradition, Lawson will join his father Dion as a pro and will be the third generation to fish at the top level. Qualifying out of the Plains Division, Lawson has seen plenty of success in the Ozarks, and his family is certainly loaded with history in the rest of the country. It’s going to be hard for him to top his elders’ success, but they’ve admittedly set a very high bar.
Probably the hottest pro prospect since Cole Floyd, Cody Huff has had a blazing college career, already fished in the Bassmaster Classic and won two Toyota Series events in 2020. Qualifying out of the Southwestern Division, there’s really nothing you can’t say about Huff that’s exciting. For instance, one of his mentors is the legendary Rick Clunn, and he’s also firmly on the leading edge of the LiveScope revolution. Grae Buck picked Huff to win the Polaris Rookie of the Year award, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him do a lot more. After all, were it not for the meddlesome Jacob Wheeler, Floyd himself would have won a Pro Circuit Super Tournament in 2020.
Making the jump to the top level in 2021, Clabion Johns has a long history with MLF. Having competed for years at the BFL level, Johns fished a full slate of Toyota Series Southeastern Division events for the first time in 2020 and came through with sailing colors. Johns has a Top-5 finish in the All-American and quite a few other good showings, but his best success has come on Eufaula. In 2019, Johns took down a BFL win there, and in 2020 he earned a Top 10 in the Toyota Series stop on the famed fishery.
Formerly a guide on Lake Biwa in Japan, Takayuki Koike is the second interesting international prospect headed to the Pro Circuit this year. Koike only caught one bass in the Toyota Series Championship this year, but the rest of his MLF career is nothing but success. Fishing for the first time in 2020, Koike finished fourth in the Toyota Series Central Division (and cranked out a Top 10 along the way) to handily qualify for the next level. Though he’ll undoubtedly be tested by new waters in 2021, there’s plenty of history of Japanese anglers adapting well to the pro level.
Son to MLF Bass Pro Tour pro Chris Lane, Cal Lane is remarkable for his youth, having eschewed college to fish. Qualifying by the skin of his teeth in the Southeastern Division in 2020, Lane proved his ability with a sixth-place finish in the standings and a 13th-place finish in the Choo Choo Division standings to boot. Lane’s accomplishments thus far don’t measure up to some of the other rookies hitting the trail this year, but he’s got a great pedigree and very precocious skills.
Banking an AOY title and a win in the Toyota Series Plains Division, Jason Lieblong had a really good 2020. Historically, Lieblong has crushed around home, with a pair of Toyota Series wins on Dardanelle to show for it. Taking it on the road at the top level will be a difficult task, and he may have to stretch his comfort zone a bit, but he has enough regional success that you can’t count him out.
The father of Corey Neece, Jim Neece Jr. is joining his son on tour after a stellar year in the Toyota Series Central Division that included a win over a stacked field on Lake Chickamauga. Neece has fished and worked for MLF for a long time, but his stats don’t guarantee success on tour. Still, he’s got experience on his side. Corey has shown some flashes as a pro, and the two could certainly be a formidable duo if the chips fall right. Also, if you were wondering, Jim does wear a hat.
Every year, there’s a rookie or two that sticks out as a major local factor for one of the events. This year, Cody Pike and the Potomac River are in the crosshairs. With successful history on the Potomac, the James and a bunch of other mid-Atlantic fisheries, Pike has built himself an impressive stats page and is less than 30 years old. In 2020, he cruised in the Eastern Division, making the Top 10 in every event. In 2018, he fished the Northern Division when it drew big numbers and was a smallmouth smash fest. Notably, he acquitted himself well away from his home waters, finishing 32nd in the points.
Coming out of the Plains Division, Kevin Riney is looking to add his name to a long list of successful Arkansas pros. Though he doesn’t have a deep history of success at the lower levels like some rookies do, Riney has enough flashes that it’s not unreasonable to see him doing well. One of the biggest points in his favor is his 12th-place finish at the Toyota Series Championship in 2020 – fishing against a huge field with a lot of pros, Riney took it on the road with ease.
One of the older rookies this year, Ricky Robinson spent much of his life raising a family and coaching his three sons in baseball. In 2020, he hit the trail, winning AOY in the Toyota Series Central Division with a pair of Top 10s and qualifying for the next level. At 55, Robinson doesn’t really fit the current youth movement in fishing, but there’s no reason to think he won’t be a factor in the year ahead.
Perhaps the opposite of Robinson, Chase Serafin is a precocious talent fresh off an AOY title in the Northern Division. Making the Top 10 in each event, Serafin was also a standout angler for Adrian College and has thus fished all over the country already. Maybe not quite on the level of Huff or Floyd, Serafin definitely falls squarely into the category of college stars you need to watch out for.
Lately, Michigan is cranking out some fantastic anglers, with Ron Nelson and Scott Dobson leading the way, and a bunch of younger pros looking to make their mark. Troy Stokes calls the Mitten State home and qualified out of the Northern Division with a pair of Top-10 finishes and was firmly in the running to win twice. Stokes also fished the All-American in 2020, finishing 27th down south at Hartwell. Though he’s not a lock for success outside of smallmouth country, Stokes is going into the season with a full head of steam, three graphs at the bow and some decent co-angler experience as well.
With two appearances in the All-American under his belt and almost 150 MLF events fished, Scott Towry has a lot of experience in the southeast that he’ll be able to apply as a pro. In 2020, Towry fished the Southeastern Division to lock up his qualification, and he booked a Top 10 en route at Neely Henry. Towry has rarely blown the doors off the competition, but he has fished well the last few years and certainly could continue that trend as a pro.
Pipped at the post for AOY in the Eastern Division by David Williams, Todd Walters has five wins with MLF under his belt, a second-place showing in the All-American and a ton of experience in the mid-Atlantic region. Walters might be shy on Florida experience, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of other Carolina pros on their path to success.
As far as Ozark headlines go, the return of the Hibdons to the top level of fishing is the main story. Still, Joe Wieberg deserves some attention, and it’d be no shock to see him excel on tour. In 2018, Wieberg knocked out a Top-10 AOY finish in the Central Division, fishing from Table Rock to Barkley and Lake of the Ozarks. In 2020, fishing the Plains Division, Wieberg finished seventh in the points, excelling in the fall competition. While the Missouri native will doubtless see some new sights in 2021, he has certainly proved he’s qualified to take a crack at the next level.
Joining Walters as a potential Carolina hammer, Jason Wilson has made money at the BFL level for a long time, particularly cleaning up in the North Carolina Division. Way back in 2010, he dipped into the Southeastern Division and finished 33rd in the points. In 2020, he finished fifth in AOY in the Eastern Division to qualify for the Pro Circuit. Also, back in 2018, Wilson banked an 11th-place finish on Murray in a South Carolina Division BFL, just in case you were wondering if he has been there before.
Yet another Michigan pro, Steve York has fished a lot of Bassmaster Opens and Toyota Series events over the last few years, and in 2020, he qualified for the Pro Circuit via the Northern Division. It wouldn’t be much of a shock to see York do well in smallmouth country as you can never count out a Michigan address for that, but his other finishes have been pretty spotty. Still, York has a good base of knowledge, and his good finishes are by no means isolated to the north or smallmouth. If he can keep his successful 2020 rolling, there are plenty of opportunities available at the pro level.