This year’s Toyota Series Championship Presented by A.R.E. was an all-around excellent event, with some interesting fishing storylines, excellent weather and as much fish catching as you can reasonably ask for in the Southern fall. Still, one of the most impressive things about the Top 10 was just how young most of the pros were. Winning the event (his second big win of the year), Kyle Hall was born in 1997 and is still 25. In second and third, Marshall Robinson and Drew Gill are respectively 19 and 20 years old, and 22-year-old Scout Echols was also born this side of 2000.
All told, the average age of the pros in the Top 10 at Lake Guntersville was a stunning 28.6, more than 7 years younger than the second-youngest ever Top 10, which averaged out to 35.8 years old in 2020. In the early 2000s, an average age in the 50s was the norm, and lately an average in the 40s is the ballpark. So, this year’s Top 10 was notable, everyone could feel it at weigh-in, but truly stunning in retrospect with the context of numbers.
Below, you can see the Top 10 pros, with their ages at the start of the event.
1. Kyle Hall – 25.6
2. Marshall Robinson – 19.2
3. Drew Gill – 20.5
4. Matt Wieteha – 30.4
5. Scout Echols – 22.1
6. Matt Becker – 30.4
7. Cole Breeden – 23.1
8. Todd Castledine – 43.5
9. Donny Bass – 42
10. Seth Davis – 33
Maybe the biggest surprise in the Top 10 is that only one of the anglers was from the Central Division. In that case, Davis set the pace with old-school Tennessee River savvy, the kind of skills that theoretically should have carried a half dozen other Alabama and Tennessee anglers into the Top 10. Instead, Wieteha and Castledine made their way with docks, the kids hammered them with forward-facing sonar, and the pre-tournament keys like punching turned into a good way for everyone but Bass and Becker to crash and burn.
Of course, it’s easy to just say forward-facing sonar is the sole reason for so much success from younger anglers. And while there’s no doubt that skill with a screen is a big part of it, that’s not the whole story.
Finishing third and coming on strong the final day, Gill is midway through his junior year in college. In that time, he’s fished for Wabash Valley Community College and Campbellsville University and qualified for six national championships across the landscape of college fishing.
Though he fished competitively for about a year in high school, the Illinois angler really dove into college fishing hard.
“I thought I was really behind – look at all these Alabama kids – they fished a whole high school career on these very primary places: the Coosa River, Eufaula, the Tennessee River. And I just fished do-nothing lakes,” Gill said. “Then, I came into my first college event, and had a top 15 at Kentucky Lake, and a top 40 at Lake Dardanelle. The next year, I started out with a Top 10 at Lake Hartwell, and was like ‘Oh my God, I can do this.’ Then I went and fished a ton of tournaments.”
For Gill, who wants to fish for a living or work around it, college fishing has allowed him to travel to a lot of places he’d never have fished otherwise.
“College fishing, if you can stay up on your grades and stay up on the travel, it’s the best thing going for young anglers,” he said. “You get it all paid for, probably half the major schools you see now are paying for everything. It’s the same thing with Cole Breeden, he was at darn near everything I was at, ACA, [Bassmaster], MLF, we were there. So, college fishing has totally changed the dynamic.”
The 2011 FLW College Fishing National Championship featured two future pros in Jordan Lee and Miles Burghoff. Now, with bigger fields and more talent, there might be a half dozen or more pros in the making in any college field. These days, Gill says the competition is stiffer than ever, and college anglers are able to learn at a tremendous rate because of how much opportunity there is to fish.
“I think the biggest part of it is seeing all these fisheries really, really fast,” Gill said. “This spring and summer I went to the Harris Chain, and Lake Norfork, and Lake Norman and Lake Guntersville and Saginaw Bay and Table Rock. You go lake to lake to lake to lake, you’re back to school for two class days, and then going somewhere else. It’s not just that you’re seeing a lot of places, it’s that you’re constantly getting refreshed – you’re not getting in a rhythm of how a lake fishes. You’re showing up, figuring it out, and then leaving to a new lake.”
The son of pro angler Marty Robinson, the younger Robinson is fishing the Tackle Warehouse Invitationals in 2023, coming in hot off a runner-up finish in the biggest Triple-A event in the game. Considering his lineage, it’s not a surprise that Robinson is on the fast track, but he’s also the product of some other recent influences in bass fishing.
“I’ve been around it my entire life,” Robinson said of pro fishing. “Back then, we were traveling for the Elites, before MLF came along. Being around it, it came natural. I guess I just had a natural love for it, and after the tournaments, we would go out, and I enjoyed that, I got to fish all these different lakes – smallmouth up north, and down in Florida.”
Robinson has been planning a career in fishing for a while now, longer and more seriously than most 19-year-olds. For Robinson, high school fishing is when his skills took off.
“Before I fished high school, when I was younger, I would go fishing pretty much every week,” Robinson said. “But, I didn’t have to focus really hard on figuring something out. We’d just go fishing and do our own thing and see what we could catch. In a high school tournament, it makes you do everything you can to figure out the fish. I fished from sixth grade until I was a senior, and it’s pretty much the same lakes each year, so you get to learn what those fish do in pretty much every month. We did it so many times, we really got to learn how the fish acted each month out of the year around the house.”
Now, he’s bypassing college fishing.
“I was going to go to college at first, I had a scholarship to go to Erskine College,” Robinson said. “But, I fished a Toyota Series at Grand Lake the year I was a senior. I had a few missed opportunities that tournament, it left me a little mad I couldn’t do any better. But, I had the opportunity to do good. It made me feel like I could do it, and it was my first big tournament ever. It made me want to do it more and going right into it, I could get a head start on the others.”
As he takes flight, he’ll do so with some high-level advice a phone call away, but perhaps not as involved as some might imagine.
“(My dad) taught me everything I knew, all the basics, everything around the house,” Robinson said. “He captained the high school tournaments, and we’d always go fishing on Saturdays. He taught me how to fish.
“But, the way he goes about it, he starts me off, and once I get the feel of things, he lets me go free. In the Toyota Series, he just lets me go free. So, he gave me a push and started me off, and then let me learn everything else and become my own angler.”
Hanging right with Hall through Day 2 and catching the biggest bag of the event, Castledine nearly made it work fishing docks and wolfpacking bass up shallow. At 43, the lanky Texan was the oldest pro in the Top 10, but the four-time Southwestern Division Angler of the Year isn’t bitter about change. In fact, he’s very observant, and plenty adept at LiveScope when he has to be. So, he’s not ready to say the younger anglers are only good because of technology.
In Castledine’s estimation, a lot of the success younger anglers are seeing is due to the amount of information they have ready access to.
“When we came up, as young anglers, there was no high school or college fishing,” Castledine said. “When I was in high school or college, we fished against the adults. If we had to go fish, it was other team events. When we grew up, there weren’t other guys our age, and the old guys weren’t going to teach us anything – and we liked it that way. Growing up, we learned on our own, there was a magazine to teach us how to rig up a Carolina rig, but there was no YouTube.”
Teaching himself how to fish has paid off over the years for Castledine. To this day, few can fish a Strike King Hybrid Hunter like he can, and he’s got more than a few secrets tucked away. But, that independence was born in a different era, one that moved a little slower than this fascinating modern age.
“I’ve been the biggest advocate for years, telling everyone to learn on their own, don’t learn stuff from other people. I don’t know if I’m correct on that, I’m probably not,” Castledine said. “There are some advantages to the fact that I didn’t learn from other people all those years. I learned some things I had to myself for years. Bryan Thrift is the same way – he learned stuff and he never had to share it. When I was young, it would take me weeks and weeks of trial and error to figure out when something was wrong or how to fix something. You couldn’t just look on your phone and watch a video, call another fisherman, or Instagram a guy, we didn’t even have cell phones. It’s hard to remember that’s the way it was, but it was. Most of these guys barely remember a world without LiveScope, but us older guys all remember a world without a GPS.”
For Castledine, not seeking out information has helped him a lot in his career.
“When I went to Guntersville, I talked to zero people, I only talked to people after the event, and they all laughed when I told them where it was,” he said. “Because no one from Guntersville would have told me to go fish docks. No info helps me, because I didn’t think twice about it when I started catching bass on docks.”
These days, Castledine’s no-info approach is probably more the exception than the rule. College anglers are rising in the ranks with strong networks based on teams and traveling the country, and a lot of middle-aged regional anglers are spending more than a little time watching YouTube and live fishing.
When Castledine found a dock pattern he liked, he ran with it, fishing according to his instincts and knowledge. The younger anglers did the same thing, albeit with an emphasis on technology.
“When there’s a forward-facing bite to be had, the young guys are going to be the ones to get on it the fastest,” Gill said. “Cole (Breeden), Marshall (Robinson), me and Kyle (Hall) were all fishing the same bite, in mostly the same areas. It was a specific part of the lake, if you’ve got somebody that is really adept at that technology, that’s what you’re going to look for. My mindset was ‘This is the championship, this is the hardest field of anglers I’ve ever fished against, I can’t go out there looking for the grass bite.’”
Robinson also says that forward-facing sonar has been key to his success.
“I think one of the main reasons so many younger guys are coming up and having success is all the new technology, plus the new ways to catch them,” he said. “Because with new technology comes new techniques. These young guys, they don’t have a lot of history and past knowledge in their heads. They’re not worried about fishing old school. They’re just worried about fishing up to date.
“The last five years is really when I’ve been trying to make it, and that’s when the technology came out,” Robinson said. “It was just there, and I didn’t have this past history to get in the way. I didn’t have to second guess myself; I just go out there and use my electronics.”
A few years ago, a pro might pull into a pocket and get a tickle in their brain to go flip bushes or crank the old shoreline on a rising lake. Now, a 20-year-old could come off a plane, see a few shad flick and decide to spend 10 minutes or so scoping around over a creek channel.
“I don’t need to be a master at LiveScope,” Castledine said. “I just need to be good enough at LiveScope so when it plays, I can play. I think some of these older guys get caught up in their ways, and by the time they figure it out they’re gonna be late to the party. Those young kids that all use LiveScope, this just so happened to be a LiveScope event – there are going to be times where it doesn’t play. If LiveScope does play, be good enough to Top 10. If LiveScope doesn’t play, be good enough to Top 10 without it.”
Right now, bass fishing and technology have changed pretty quickly. According to Castledine, that has given younger anglers a great opportunity.
“It’ll have its peak, and then it’s going to start to fall,” Castledine said. “When it starts to fall, you’d better be ready to change. Older guys don’t get worse at fishing, fishing just changes and they don’t change with it. I know that whatever it is, I need to learn and get good at whatever the change is. The older you get, the less you want to do that.”
With how quickly the youth are getting up to speed these days, everyone needs to be ready for the next big change. Because if chasing fish with forward-facing sonar slows down even a bit for anglers like Hall, Robinson or Gill, you can bet there will be another 20-year-old on the cutting edge of the next bite.