Looking Ahead: What We Expect This Season - Major League Fishing
Looking Ahead: What We Expect This Season
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Looking Ahead: What We Expect This Season

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January 19, 2022 • MLF • Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit

This year the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit heads to seven great fisheries with more than 150 standout anglers. There’s ample opportunity for history to be made, and plenty of mystery ahead of the season. Could we see a 40-pound bag at Sam Rayburn to start the season? Will Michael Neal go back-to-back for AOY? Will zeroed weights on the final day add excitement?

To answer those questions (and more), we gathered a group of willing pundits from both sides of the camera to make some picks. From the web and magazine team, Justin Onslow, Jody White, Brandon Rowan and Kyle Wood went out on a limb. From the MLF NOW! crew, Marty Stone, Chad McKee and JT Kenney all made picks. Plus, weighmaster Chris Jones, Tackle Warehouse TITLE champ Jimmy Washam and fellow pro Alex Davis joined the fun.

The 2021 Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit Angler of the Year was Michael Neal’s first big title.

Who Wins Angler of the Year?

In 2021, Neal took top honors after battling Skeet Reese down to the wire. With two events on the Tennessee River in 2022, Neal could be the favorite again, but a full season of John Cox has our pundits dreaming and the field is chock-full of anglers that could make a run.

Justin OnslowChris Jones Jody WhiteMarty StoneBrandon Rowan
Dakota EbareJohn CoxJohn CoxRandall TharpJustin Lucas
Kyle WoodJT Kenney Chad McKeeJimmy WashamAlex Davis
Michael NealBobby LaneJustin LucasSpencer ShuffieldJohn Cox

Prediction analysis: Justin Onslow

There’s hardly a bad choice here. The Pro Circuit roster is loaded with top-end talent, and there are legitimately a dozen or more anglers who should be in every AOY conversation. That said, Dakota Ebare is just primed to break through. He has 12 Top 10s in MLF competition fishing all over the place, regularly fishing more tournaments than anyone else, yet he’s narrowly missed out on so many wins (including Top 5 finishes in both Toyota Series and Pro Circuit championship events). Lack of wins aside, Ebare is consistent – and consistently good – enough to finally get over the hump sooner or later. I think it’ll happen this year. 

Clabion Johns won the Polaris Rookie of the Year title in 2021 and this year he’s competing on the Bass Pro Tour.

This Year’s Polaris Rookie of the Year Will Be…

Guaranteed not to be a repeat, the Polaris Rookie of the Year race should be exciting this season. With no clear favorite and 23 highly accomplished rookies coming on board, pundits could go in a lot of directions. This year’s crop of rookies is impressive, with a bunch of Toyota Series success among them, some star power and plenty of youth.

Justin OnslowChris Jones Jody WhiteMarty StoneBrandon Rowan
Keith CarsonAndrew LobergNick HatfieldAndy NewcombPhillip Dutra
Kyle WoodJT Kenney Chad McKeeJimmy WashamAlex Davis
Keith CarsonBlake HallLance OligschlaegerSteve LopezKeith Carson

Prediction analysis: Marty Stone

I think it comes down between Andy Newcomb and River Lee. Both of these guys have tough Toyota Series divisions to come out of, but I am going to give the edge to Newcomb. First, he’s from Camdenton, Missouri. There was once an old brick mason that came from there named Denny Brauer – the fishing thing worked out for him.  Secondly, I have been hearing about Newcomb for over two years.  I think he has a few more events, so he gets the experience edge – slightly. Of course, Lee is the real deal.  Anyone with the last name Lee is automatically a notch above.  Second, he competed in one of the toughest divisions – the kid is a superstar in the making!

Terry Bolton’s first FLW Tour win came at Sam Rayburn and was one for the ages.

Who Will Get Their First Win?

Getting your first big win can be pretty special. Back in 2019, Terry Bolton won the opener on Sam Rayburn to finally get it done in an emotional, five-day nailbiter. In 2021, a bunch of anglers earned their first win at the top level, with Washam (at the TITLE) and Neal (Bass Pro Tour Stage Seven on St. Clair) topping the group. This year, there are some compelling candidates to take down a big W. Maybe it’ll be Mitch Crane or Matt Stefan, who have come tantalizingly close of late. Or maybe a young gun like Cole Floyd will put it all together on the final day to pull it off.

Justin OnslowChris Jones Jody WhiteMarty StoneBrandon Rowan
Matt StefanKyle HallSpencer ShuffieldGrae BuckMitch Crane
Kyle WoodJT Kenney Chad McKeeJimmy WashamAlex Davis
Cole FloydClayton BattsJustin CooperEvan BarnesAlex Davis

Prediction analysis: Kyle Wood

Though this will only be his third season fishing the Pro Circuit, Cole Floyd seems like a good bet to secure a win in 2022. Over his last two seasons, the Ohio pro has banked four Top 10s, with three of them coming last year when he really seemed to get in the groove. This year, fishing both the Bass Pro Tour and Pro Circuit should only offer him a chance to keep that momentum rolling with more time on the water. The other thing he’s got going for him is that he’s a versatile angler, though he excels when he can dissect shallow cover and he’ll have plenty of options to do that this season with the schedule and a win seems likely from any of the stops.

Sam Rayburn and the Harris Chain weren’t kind to him in his rookie season, but he’s grown as an angler so it wouldn’t be a shock to see him come out swinging in those events. Attending college at Bethel University in McKenzie, Tennessee, gave Floyd plenty of opportunity to get accustomed to the Tennessee River, which includes a pair of National Championship wins on Pickwick and one on Chickamauga, so having two events on the system early in the year should also play to his strengths. From there, the James River is a shallow-water angler’s paradise, so Floyd should feel right at home despite a lack of experience on it. Finally, summer tournaments on Champlain have been won with both big bags of smallmouth and largemouth over the years, and with the abundance of grass and docks to flip, Floyd will be able to end his season fishing his strengths.

John Cox and smallmouth are a great combination, but a lot of events on the schedule in 2022 could deliver excitement.

The One We All Remember

Next on the list is the title of “best tournament,” which can go a lot of directions. Some pickers went straight to where they thought the fishing would be best. Others are excited for something new, or an event that is sure to be close. One thing is for sure – there’s something for everyone to get excited about this year.

Justin OnslowChris Jones Jody WhiteMarty StoneBrandon Rowan
Lake ChamplainSam RayburnJames RiverSt. LawrenceSam Rayburn
Kyle WoodJT Kenney Chad McKeeJimmy WashamAlex Davis
SmallmouthSt. LawrenceLake GuntersvillePickwick LakeHarris Chain

Prediction analysis: Marty Stone

The best tournament to me means the most fish and big fish. To me, it’s an event all about cumulative weight where quality matters. The James River is going to be fun to watch and it is going to shock the world how well this place fishes because of Virginia’s great F-1 stocking program on that body of water. But, because it’s tidal water, some people are just going to flat miss the bite. That brings me to Pickwick – from top to bottom the leaderboard there is going to be a lot of weight. Look for it to take 15 pounds a day to make the Top 50. That would be enough to be the best tournament, but there’s also the St. Lawrence. We’re saving the best for last! Show up with 15 pounds a day at the TITLE and you’re in danger of finishing dead last. Hopefully, Canadian waters will be open, and even if they’re not, this will be the crown in a strong schedule!

Derek Mundy has been the king of big bags lately and will be an inspiration to everyone at Sam Rayburn.

Let’s See a Megabag

With days one, two and three mattering less this year, there might not be as much incentive to go all-in on a huge bag early in the event. Then again, there is sure going to be a lot of incentive on the final day, when it’s a one-day shootout for the W. This year, truly giant bags are possible from the start to the end, and everyone on the panel thinks we’ll see at least one bag over 27 pounds.  

Here’s what our pickers think is on tap when it comes to single-day awesomeness:

Justin OnslowChris Jones Jody White
Sam Rayburn, 29-9Sam Rayburn, 34-9Harris Chain, 28-7
Marty StoneKyle WoodChad McKee
Sam Rayburn, 38-12Sam Rayburn, 35-7Harris Chain, 27-10
Jimmy WashamJT Kenney Alex Davis
Harris Chain, 28-0Harris Chain, 30-15Harris Chain, 27-7

Prediction analysis: Justin Onslow

Three years ago, the Pro Circuit started the season at Rayburn with a 91-3 win from Terry Bolton. A year later, it took just 65-15 for John Cox to open the season with a win at Big Sam. I think it’s safe to expect a result somewhere in the middle this year when the Pro Circuit opens the season in Texas on Jan. 27. So much of how Rayburn fishes is dependent on weather and water levels (which aren’t easy to predict ahead of time). The Harris Chain should kick out some big bags. Same for Pickwick and Guntersville. But the ceiling for big bags at Rayburn is just so high that it’s hard to be confident in picking anywhere else to produce the biggest one-day bag of the season. 

Salewske, Washam … Who’s Next?

The third Tackle Warehouse TITLE heads up north again, and so far all the winners have been from the South and West. Will a smallmouth expert take it down at the St. Lawrence River? Will Washam go back-to-back? It’s gonna be a blast either way because you really can’t have a bad time at the St. Lawrence.

Here’s who our panel thinks will be the next TITLE champ:

Justin OnslowChris Jones Jody WhiteMarty StoneBrandon Rowan
Ron NelsonRon NelsonScott DobsonJustin LucasJacopo Gallelli
Kyle WoodJT Kenney Chad McKeeJimmy WashamAlex Davis
Matt StefanJustin LucasJohn CoxJimmy WashamScott Dobson

Prediction analysis: Jody White

There are a few things working against Scott Dobson in this one. The first is that it seems likely to be a deep tournament, and we know he’s unlikely to be fishing deep. The second is that the boundaries haven’t been decided yet, and there’s a non-zero chance the rules will prevent him from running to his preferred waters.

Still, Dobber is an unreal smallmouth angler, and arguably the best when it comes to shallow ones. Add in the fact that the only thing that matters is the final day, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the field more adept at catching the five biggest. The deep gang isn’t going to give it to him, and if he ends up making a long run that will certainly be a risk, but he seems overdue to win a big smallie derby at the top level.

Rookie Justin Cooper (and his orange shorts) made the TITLE in 2021.

How Many Rookies Will Make the TITLE?

In each of the last two years, no rookies have made the Top 10 at the TITLE. While that seems bound to change eventually, just making the year-end championship is a great accomplishment for a rookie. Year over year, showing up to fish for a guaranteed paycheck at the championship is a key measure of pro success, and doing it in year one is a big thing. So, our pundits put their thinking caps on to try to figure out how many rookies will be at the St. Lawrence. History says one thing, but some of the crew are high on this year’s class.  

Here’s how many rookies everyone thinks will make the TITLE:

Justin OnslowChris Jones Jody WhiteMarty StoneBrandon Rowan
Kyle WoodJT Kenney Chad McKeeJimmy WashamAlex Davis
4 or 5101154

Prediction analysis: Kyle Wood

With a slightly smaller rookie class than in years past I think there will be four, maybe five, rookies that qualify for the Tackle Warehouse TITLE this season. Looking back to 2020, four rookies made it to Sturgeon Bay. Last year had a strong rookie class and seven rookies made it to the TITLE on the Mississippi River. On paper, Keith Carson, Andrew Loberg, Andy Newcomb and Nick Hatfield seem like early favorites to qualify for the TITLE based on their résumés and fishing styles. That’s not saying other rookies won’t rise to the occasion, but the field for this season is stout and with many of the rookies lacking experience outside of their home waters, it’s hard to think more than five rookies will make the big show given how trying a freshman season on the Pro Circuit can be.

Skeet Reese tallied 82-14 at Okeechobee in 2021, which was narrowly the highest winning total of the season.

Biggest Four-Day Weight

This one will require a little math and some more thinking than in year’s past, but we’re not letting totals get away. This year, nobody thinks we’ll have a new member of the Century Club, but if the pickers are right, we’ll have a lot of totals in the 90s, which could be a pretty tremendous time.

Here’s where and what we think will go down:

Justin OnslowChris Jones Jody White
Harris Chain, 88-3Sam Rayburn, 92-3St. Lawrence, 90-1
Kyle WoodJT Kenney Jimmy Washam
Harris Chain, 93-10Harris Chain, 99-10St. Lawrence, 91-0
Marty StoneChad McKeeAlex Davis
Pickwick Lake, 86-0Lake Guntersville, 81-5Harris Chain, 77-0

Prediction analysis: Justin Onslow

I’m hedging my bet here. I still think Rayburn will produce the biggest one-day weight of any tournament this season, but I think the Harris Chain has the potential to be more consistent for more anglers across more consecutive days of competition. At Rayburn, you pretty much need to find the right ingredients to light things up for four days. The same could be said for Pickwick and Guntersville given the potential for some odd timing for those derbies – if the weather is off or the current isn’t just right or it’s simply too early or too late in the spawning phase, less than 80 pounds over four days isn’t out of the question. But, barring something truly out of the blue, I think someone will put together 85-plus at the Harris Chain.

The Top 10 at the TITLE was a pretty illustrious group in 2021.

Who Makes the Most Top 10s?

In 2021, Skeet Reese banked four Top 10s (counting the TITLE) and Michael Neal “only” had two. Of course, Neal still won AOY, based mostly on an incredible level of consistency down the stretch. So, picking who makes the most Top 10s isn’t for sure just re-picking AOY.

Here’s who we think will be duking it out on the final day the most often:

Justin OnslowChris Jones Jody WhiteMarty StoneBrandon Rowan
Dakota EbareJohn CoxJohn CoxJustin LucasJohn Cox
Kyle WoodJT Kenney Chad McKeeJimmy WashamAlex Davis
John CoxJohn CoxCole FloydMark RoseMichael Neal

Prediction analysis: Justin Onslow

If I’m going to pick him to win AOY, I better pick him to turn in the most Top 10s, too. Dakota Ebare should do well at Pickwick and Guntersville (as he usually does), he’s been solid up north the last few seasons and Harris Chain shouldn’t be an issue. The true test might be how he does out of the gate in his home state of Texas after finishing 60th and 121st in 2019 and 2020, respectively, at Rayburn. Give me Ebare to Top 10 at Pickwick, Guntersville and Champlain with a couple Top 30s mixed in. 

A bout with COVID and three triple-digit finishes gave Big Mac the worst showing of his career in 2021. Will he bounce back this year?

Comeback Angler of the Year

Not an official title, our crew went in a number of directions on this one. Some picked pros coming off good years to have great years. Others dug deep, anticipating the kinds of performances that could save a career. Some even went further, to highlight an angler that is back on tour after a long absence, not really a rookie, but someone to watch out for nonetheless.

Justin OnslowChris Jones Jody WhiteMarty StoneBrandon Rowan
Ron NelsonMatt BeckerSpencer ShuffieldJeff ReynoldsBrett Hite
Kyle WoodJT Kenney Chad McKeeJimmy WashamAlex Davis
Grant Galloway Darrell DavisTyler StewartBrandon McMillanTim Frederick

Prediction analysis: Marty Stone

Jeff Reynolds has been away from national competition since 2009 (his last year on the Elite Series). When he left the sport, I felt like the sport lost a superstar in the making. Fast forward 13 years later and after a lot of success in local and regional events he has earned his way back to the national level. I feel like he is more seasoned than ever and has the mental makeup to handle a national-level win; not to mention “back in the day” he has been to most of the stops on this year’s schedule.