PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. – In the history of the FLW Tour and Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit Presented by Fuel Me, only Andy Morgan (2013, 2014) and David Dudley (2011, 2012) had won back-to-back Angler of the Year titles prior to the emergence of Michael Neal. Now, after finishing 15th at Covercraft Stop 6 Presented by Wiley X at Lake Champlain, Neal has locked up his second title in back-to-back fashion, becoming the third pro to win AOY in consecutive years and the sixth pro to win multiple AOY titles.
Neal’s win is also notable because of how extreme it was. Winning at Sam Rayburn to start the year off, he made the Top 10 four times, but also caught just one bass on Day 2 at Pickwick Lake to finish 105th. It’s the first time since Denny Brauer won AOY in 1998 that a pro has earned the points title with a finish below 100th on their ledger.
Trophy in hand, after sweating some and pretending to sweat some during weigh-in, Neal was more than appreciative of his newly secured place in history.
“Just to be mentioned in the same category as two of the guys I grew up fishing against and always looked up to … it’s surreal,” said Neal, who competes on the Bass Pro Tour against Morgan and Dudley. “To be fishing against the same guys and have an accolade like that, that a bunch of guys at the age of 30 never had the opportunity to do, I’ve been very fortunate to be where I’m at.”
Raised around pro fishing in East Tennessee, Neal has seemingly been destined for stardom for a long time. Now, he feels he’s living up to his potential.
“It feels like I finally got to the point in my career where I feel I should be,” Neal said. “For the first part of my career there were a lot of close calls. It feels like now I’ve got the confidence in myself and my abilities to get the job done.”
Neal has been on a tear for the last two years, and he credits confidence and time on the water for his success.
“Early in my career, I questioned it some, I think everybody is going to question it some,” he said. “But, you’ve got to have the confidence without the arrogance to believe you can do it. That’s a very fine line; but if you’re not confident and pull up to the best hole in the lake you’re not going to catch them.
“I’ve just made it a point now to go out and fish my strengths, and fishing both tours, spending a lot of time on the water – there’s no replacement for that.”
Neal put together a sterling season overall, finishing first at Sam Rayburn, 10th at the Harris Chain, 105th at Pickwick, third at Guntersville, fourth at the James River and 15th at Champlain. Outside of Pickwick, it was a truly spectacular season, but it almost went too easily. In 2021, Neal had a moment or two every tournament where something lucky or special happened, when a pattern clicked into place or he made a perfect decision. This year, he struggled to come up with a standout moment other than his win at Rayburn.
“I didn’t have much, but I caught two big ones the first day,” Neal said. “I was lucky enough the second day to catch enough where I was going to be okay, and I could go practice. Then, I caught a couple big ones (later in the day on a jerkbait) and it set me up to win the tournament. Last year, every tournament I could look back and tell you one of those moments, this year, there’s not any.”
Of course, on the bad side was his second day at Pickwick, when he brought just one fish to the scale in an event that largely featured excellent fishing.
“One of my favorite lakes was the one that let me down so bad,” he said. “That was the one time in the last two years I can remember doing something that I knew I shouldn’t do, or that I don’t do. I ran up the river on Pickwick and fished the bank. On the Tennessee River, they live offshore, they spawn offshore, everything. For some reason, I gave up on it and it bit me. I didn’t give it enough time, I could have put the trolling motor down at the ramp and caught more than I did that day. In Angler of the Year stuff, typically you’re not going to have a chance if you don’t weigh a limit one of the days, let alone catch one fish.”
Neal’s Pickwick letdown didn’t end up costing him the title, though he didn’t lead AOY again until after Day 1 at Champlain – but it may prove instructive for others. One of the best offshore anglers in the game, Neal abandoned the ledges and bars that he’s made so much money on over the years.
“You’ve got guys like Andy Morgan and (Randall) Tharp that strictly power fish up shallow, and only so many fish live up there, and that’s in a 40-boat-a-day Bass Pro Tour event,” Neal said. “That’s what I’m going to do if I have to, but I’m going to fish my way as often as I can. If you don’t fish your way, just like what happened at Pickwick, you’re not going to do well, because you’re not fishing in your element.”
Going into the 2023 season, winning another Angler of the Year title will be at the top of the list for Neal. And with regular season wins under his belt, he’s good on that front. But, a major championship still eludes him, despite some close calls in the Forrest Wood Cup and REDCREST.
“I want to win a TITLE,” Neal said. “Angler of the Year is great, and a tournament win is great; I’ve done those and would love to do them 10 times over. But, now, the one thing that’s missing is a TITLE championship.”
At just 30 years old, recently married and fishing incredibly well, that goal seems pretty attainable for the Dayton, Tennessee, angler.
“I feel like I’ve got at least another 10 to 15 good years, prime years,” Neal said. “Whatever happens after that, happens.”