No matter how you get to the FLW Tour, you’re only a rookie once. This year, 34 pros are taking their talents on Tour for the first time.
In 2018, Matt Becker came from behind at the final event of the season to snatch the Rookie of the Year title from Sheldon Collings. The competition for the 2019 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.
Fishing the FLW Cup is often the pinnacle of an angler’s career, but Bradford Beavers has already done it twice. Finishing eighth and first in the Costa FLW Series Championship in 2016 and 2017, respectively, Beavers has racked up some impressive accolades at the lower levels. Though 2018 was unquestionably a down year for him in the Southeastern Division of the FLW Series, he made the top 20 in points in back-to-back years in 2016 and 2017. This past summer, he finished 10th in the Cup on Ouachita and caught an absolute giant that shocked everyone in attendance on day one. Without a doubt, Beavers seems to be as prepared as anyone for the Tour.
Born in 1999, Bailey Boutries will be just 19 years old for the beginning of his FLW Tour career. Boutries has had some modest success with FLW already, fishing as a co-angler on Tour in 2017 and finishing 26th in the standings, and finishing an impressive 20th as a pro in the Costa FLW Series Southeastern Division in 2018. Boutries got a check in every Southeastern Division tournament in 2018 and actually beat Bryan Thrift in one of them, so he’s not totally untested. Nonetheless, he hasn’t had quite the level of success as similarly aged rookies like Sheldon Collings had before he joined the Tour.
Miles Burghoff has generally always caught fish, and he’s done it all over the board in Bassmaster Opens, seven T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League (BFL) divisions, two Costa FLW Series divisions and about every collegiate event you can think of. Overall, the results look good, especially in college (he and Casey O’Donnell won a national championship with UCF), and he was the 24th best in the Bassmaster Opens Eastern Division in 2018. Burghoff has lived and fished all around the country, in Florida, California and now Tennessee, so he should be pretty well positioned to finally take on the top level of competition.
He’s been hitting the ranks of the minors hard since 2016, and after a killer 2018 season in the Costa FLW Series Southeastern Division (he finished third in AOY) it looks like Jonathan Canada is primed to make the jump. Canada made the cut and finished third in the Costa at Santee Cooper. Despite his name, Canada hasn’t really proven he can fish up north, but he’ll at least be one to reckon with when the Tour swings toward the Southeast. Even beyond that, he might do very well. It’s obvious he can put ’em in the boat.
Similarly named pros have had a lot of success on Tour before, but Jason Christy, who has moved from Arizona to Alabama to pursue pro fishing, doesn’t have a deep resume just yet. His best finish with FLW came in 2018 in the Costa FLW Series Central Division event on Barkley, where he finished 64th. It’s clear that Christy has the want-to, but he’ll have to back it up once he kicks off his career on Tour.
Randy Despino can catch ’em. Having fished mostly the Costa FLW Series Southwestern Division the last few years, Despino finished fourth in the standings in 2018 and has gotten at least one check each of the last three seasons. At the BFL level, Despino has made hay in the Cowboy Division, earning the AOY title in 2014 and putting up eight top-10 finishes since 2012. He’s going to be one of many local favorites at Sam Rayburn, and his base of experience bodes well for the rest of the year.
Denham Springs, La.
Fishing for Tarleton State in college, Dakota Ebare made the YETI FLW College Fishing National Championship twice and earned four top-10 finishes. Since then, he’s fished all around the country at the lower levels. In 2018 he fished full schedules of the Costa FLW Series Northern Division and Southwestern Division, finishing 46th close to home and 22nd in the smallmouth series. Late in December, the young pro caught a 10-pounder on Sam Rayburn, which is a lot of fun even if it may not matter much. Ebare isn’t hitting the Tour with some sort of unbelievable resume like some rookies of yore, but he’s certainly got the potential to do well.
Fishing Bassmaster Opens since 2011, Jon Englund dipped his toes into the Costa FLW Series with some solid success in 2018. His best effort came in the very tough Southwestern Division, where he notched a top 10 at Sam Rayburn and finished 23rd overall in points. Englund doesn’t have a blistering track record, but he’s definitely well rounded. He’s competed from Florida to Champlain to the Red River.
Making the jump to the Tour level is always tough, but it’s a particular challenge for pros from out West due to the differences in the fisheries and the travel involved. Kevin Finley is taking the plunge after just one full year of competition in the Costa FLW Series Western Division in which he finished 31st in points, plus a handful of other FLW Series derbies. Finley has a sparse resume for sure, but he seems to have improved from 2017 to 2018, and if he can keep that trend up then 2019 could be good to him.
After winning the 2018 YETI FLW College Fishing National Championship on the Red River, Hunter Freeman is taking it on the road. He beat teammate Tomas Soileau in the fish-off and represented all of College Fishing in the Cup on Ouachita, but he doesn’t have much triple-A experience. That said, he’s no stranger to Sam Rayburn, so he’s at least going to be starting the season off on comfortable grounds. From there, he’ll undoubtedly be tested, but in 2016 and 2017 he and his partners finished in the top 10 in the College Fishing Open on Kentucky Lake, and collegiate fishing has taken him from Minnesota to Alabama. It won’t all be new for him.
Broken Arrow, Okla.
The last three years in the Costa FLW Series Southwestern Division have been fruitful ones for Derek Fulps. In 2016 he won on Fort Gibson. Then he picked up a check at Sam Rayburn in 2017. In 2018, his worst finish was 41st at Fort Gibson, and he wrapped up a ninth-place showing in the points. Fulps is no doubt one to watch at Grand Lake, and he ought to do well at Sam Rayburn, too. The rest of the schedule will take him out of his comfort zone, but with more than 70 events fished with FLW he’s got some solid background to build from.
Back in 2016 a 19-year-old David Gaston won AOY in the BFL Bama Division. In 2018 he fished just one Bama Division event and won the whole shooting match. The last couple years, Gaston has mostly dedicated himself to Bassmaster Opens and the Costa FLW Series with a mix of great success and some failure. Bass Rankings has him with a “generally up” trend, and he’s got enough big successes to his name that the bombs are far from the defining factor. Gaston is probably going to stub his toe a time or two on Tour, but it also wouldn’t be a shock to see him really catch them a time or two as well.
Profiles on FLWFishing.com sometimes tell a lot of the story, but Sam George is almost starting his fresh. Since 2014, George has been primarily fishing Bassmaster Opens, taking a swing at a local payday on Wheeler Lake when he gets the chance. Over on the Opens, George has done very well and never quite qualified for the Elite Series. Now, finally fishing at the top level, George is about as prepared and well rounded as someone his age can be. At just 22 years old, George seems ready for the big leagues.
Church Hill, Tenn.
If you’re looking for a derby that Brant Grimm is going all in on then you’re probably looking at Cherokee. Grimm has had some great derbies in the Volunteer Division, and he’s got a win on Cherokee, but that’s not his only experience. Grimm has also dabbled in the Costa FLW Series and fished a couple years as a co-angler on Tour. Like many who go primarily from BFL competition to the Tour level, he’s got a tough row to hoe, but at least one of the tournaments will be right in his wheelhouse.
With nearly 50 FLW events under his belt and one full year on Tour as a co-angler, Chip Harrington isn’t lacking in experience. However, he still has some big tests to take, as he’s only fished three Costa FLW Series events from the front of the boat. Harrington’s first season on Tour will undoubtedly be a tough test, but he’s seen some of the fisheries before and should have a decent gauge on the quality of competition given his year on Tour as a co-angler.
A longtime co-angler on Tour, Rex Jaeger is making the move to the front in 2019. Ranked as the 12th best co-angler on Tour over the last two years by Bass Rankings, Jaeger doesn’t just have back-of-the-boat experience, as he’s dabbled in BFL events up front, too. Jaeger’s resume could use some more bulk, but transitioning from the back to the front is one of the most time-tested ways to go, so he might be better prepared than his lack of triple-A competition would indicate.
Finishing 13th in the Costa FLW Series Western Division in 2018, Lawrence has done well every year he’s fished with FLW. Lawrence is definitely short on FLW experience in the East (save for three Costa FLW Series Championships), but he’s had some really good finishes at a variety of Western fisheries that indicates a pretty good degree of versatility. One major thing going for Lawrence is his mustache It’s instantly among or perhaps the best on Tour.
Bossier City, La.
The thing about Nick LeBrun is that he’s an ultra-hammer. In 2018 alone, LeBrun won the BFL All-American on Cross Lake, made the top 10 in the FLW Cup on Lake Ouachita and notched a pair of top-35 finishes in the Costa FLW Series Southwestern Division. Of course, LeBrun has been wrecking shop for a long time. In 2015 he and Randy Deaver finished third in the Toyota Bonus Bucks Bassmaster Team Championship on Guntersville, and LeBrun has finished in the top 10 in the points in the BFL Cowboy Division four of the last five years. LeBrun has already done big things, and it seems fair to expect them to continue.
Centurion, Gauteng Province, South Africa
This is a fun one. Qualifying for the Tour as the International Division champ at the 2017 Costa FLW Series Championship, Michael Matthee has fished just two events in America. Matthee fishes a ton in South Africa and has a lot of success to his name, but he certainly lacks experience on this side of the pond. Matthee seems like one to watch, perhaps not right away, but there’s definitely a lot of potential for the South African cabinetmaker.
After a long hiatus from fishing, Cody Murray jumped back in with both feet in 2018, finishing fourth in points in the Costa FLW Series Western Division. Ranked by Bass Rankings as the 57th best Minor Level Boater over the last 12 months, Murray is definitely hitting the Tour with a full head of steam. Back around 2007, when Murray was fishing regularly, he did well, and it looks like the talent is still there. Going from the West to the East is always a challenge, but he seems to be in plenty decent shape for the venture.
You probably remember Corey Neece and Nick Hatfield from their third-place efforts in the YETI FLW College Fishing National Championship on the Red River in June. The Tusculum College anglers got waaaaaay back into a smidge of water off the river and caught ’em great on days one and two. You might also remember Neece from when he and Hatfield beat 248 other college teams in the Southeastern Conference event on Lake Guntersville in February 2017. Outside of college, Neece has some solid success as well, including a W in a BFL on Cherokee and lots of experience in the Volunteer Division. With only a year-plus of triple-A fishing under his belt it’s sure that Neece is light on experience, but his record also says that he can really catch bass.
Berrien Springs, Mich.
It’s hard not to peg Scott Martin as the favorite anytime the Tour heads to Lake Champlain, but a rookie may give him a real run for it this year. Ron Nelson has fished the Costa FLW Series extensively since 2013. In that time he’s won three Northern Division events, including the last two on Champlain. He’s also finished 15th or better in points four times in the Southeastern Division, and never finished below ninth in the Northern Division. Among all minor-level boaters in the country, Bass Rankings has Nelson pegged as the 13th best over the last two years – better than folks like Cory Johnston and John Cox. Basically, Nelson has proven he can catch fish south or north and is always a serious contender. He’s one to watch on Tour for sure.
An instant favorite at Rayburn, Dicky Newberry is relatively old for a rookie, but he’s very accomplished. The Texas angler has a whopping 11 BFL wins to his credit as well as a Costa FLW Series victory on Rayburn. When he’s fished FLW Series events Newberry has nearly always been competitive. Though the Tour could prove to be a fairly big shift in terms of schedule and competition quality, there’s hardly anything Newberry hasn’t seen. You can almost definitely expect some big moments from the Texas legend.
Winning the Costa FLW Series Central Division opener on Table Rock in 2018, Powell had a smoking season. He finished 19th overall in the Central Division, made another top 10 in the Southeastern Division at Seminole and finished fifth in the Southeastern points. Powell hasn’t fished a ton at the BFL level, but he’s really succeeded since hitting the triple-A level in 2015. There’s a good chance he’ll be able to translate that success over to the Tour.
Drew Ratley won a BFL as a co-angler in 2005, but other than that his experience is quite slim. Hailing from Louisiana, he’s certainly got some local knowledge of Sam Rayburn, but the rest of the season figures to be quite a challenge for him.
Fishing the big leagues for the first time will be a stiff challenge for Troy Roder. The Texas angler has fished nearly 50 events with FLW at a variety of levels, from BFL and Costa events to the back of the boat on Tour. He’ll be starting the season close to home, and he’s certainly fished around the country enough that things shouldn’t be too unfamiliar for him.
Ryan Salzman is a certifiable hammer. A guide in Alabama, Salzman qualified for the Tour via an eighth-place showing in the Costa FLW Series Central Division. Over the past few years, Salzman has always competed in the BFL Choo Choo Division, and he’s got three BFL wins to his name since 2015. Like it is for anyone, the Tour represents a step up, but Salzman has ticked off about every qualification you could ask for along the way.
Pine Bush, N.Y.
A bit like Ron Nelson, but with fewer superlatives, Slegona has toiled in the minors for a while, fishing south and north across B.A.S.S. and FLW events. In 2018, Slegona finished 10th in the Costa FLW Series Northern Division to lock up his qualification for the Tour, and he certainly appears to be ready or almost ready to rock at the next level. The last few years have produced a number of really good Tour anglers from the North, and Slegona has good odds to join them.
Jumping back into competitive fishing in a big way in 2019, Chuck Stratton has really only dabbled in it since the early 2000s. Back then, he was successful from the back of the boat, and he made the BFL All-American as a co-angler in 2003. Of course, that’s all a lot different than fishing the Tour as a pro.
With less than a handful of FLW events to his credit, Wade Strelic is taking on a big task. In addition to fishing on the East Coast for the first time, he’s going up a long way in competition quality. Though he’s fished in the U.S Open, seven Tour events will be a big change.
Just a year or so out of College Fishing, Jacob Wall is moving east to Guntersville to pursue a career as a pro. Wall finished eighth in the Costa FLW Series Western Division in 2018, so he’s got a short, but good resume and momentum on his side. Plenty of good college anglers have made the jump pretty quickly in recent years, but not many have done it from the West Coast. Wall has a chance to catch ’em and blaze a trail in the process.
Prior Lake, Minn.
Winning back-to-back derbies is pretty tough to do however you slice it, and Joel Willert accomplished that feat from the back of the boat as a co-angler on the FLW Tour in 2018. Along the way, Willert finished third overall in the points, and put together a great parting season as a co-angler. Willert also fished the Bassmaster Opens as a pro in 2018, undoubtedly gaining valuable experience. He clearly has an abundance of fish-catching talent.
Port Orange, Fla.
Fishing the full year on Tour as a co-angler in 2018, Tyler Woolcott cashed a check in all but one event. In addition to a pile of other co-angler events, Woolcott has fished a bunch in college. Though he’s lacking a bunch of triple-A experience as a boater, he’s got the kind of co-angler resume that heralds success.
Citrus Heights, Calif.
Due to his win in the TBF National Championship, Austin Wilson is fishing the 2019 Tour season as the Living the Dream angler. Wilson had a good 2018 all around, as he also did well in the FLW Cup in his first taste of competition against a field stacked with Tour pros. Wilson often shows off catches of big trout and salmon on his Instagram story, which is a real treat, but that’s probably not going to prep him for the Tour. Nonetheless, he’s certainly proven an ability to catch bass outside of California, so he might be fun to watch for a full season.