By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Matt Arey's progression to the upper echelon of the FLW Tour ranks wasn't quite as quick as that of his good buddy and fellow Shelby, N.C. resident Bryan Thrift. He spent a couple of years each as an entry-fee donor and a middle-of-the-road competitor before making his first Forrest Wood Cup as a pro in 2011, and then cracking the Top 10 in points this year.
The thrashings he endured back in 2007-08 were not completely void of redemptive value – he learned something from every non-money finish and continued to become a more versatile angler as time went on. Consistency is now his stock in trade, as he finished 9th in this year's Angler of the Year race without cracking the Top 20 at any of the six events.
"I've kind of changed the way I approach tournaments, and that's due to experience," he said. "The biggest thing at this level is you're fishing multi-day events, so you have to be able to manage your fish and exploit what you find.
"Most times you've got to find more than one group of fish to sustain yourself. It's not like a BFL or a local tournament where you're just trying to get five big bites. You've got to get those bites every day. And now, instead of just going through a group with a spinnerbait or a crankbait and trying to make them bite that, I've got eight or nine different things I can try to see if I can maximize what's there."
Stuck in the 20s
Counting the Cup at Georgia's Lake Lanier, the 31-year-old Arey finished in either 23rd or 24th place four times in seven 2012 outings. He also had a 33rd and a 37th, with just one stinker (a 74th at Table Rock) mixed in.
He knows he finished about as high in the points as possible this year with no Top-20 showings on his ledger. He'll need to fish some weekends in order to improve his final AOY standing again in 2013.
"I'll take a Top 10 in the points every year, but I am kind of frustrated that I never made a Top-20 cut," he said. "Just a few ounces here and there were the difference between me fishing that third day as opposed to not, and if you don't make it to the third day you don't get the chance to move up.
"I'm not going to blame lost fish – everybody has some of those and overall, my execution was good. I think my decisions just need to be a little bit sharper."
One venue where he usually makes excellent decisions is Beaver Lake. He was 157th there during his rookie campaign (part of a nightmarish streak of four consecutive showings of 124th or worse), but has cashed a check on every visit since and has twice landed in the No. 5 spot. Those 5ths represent his career-best finishes to date.
"It's a lake I kind of mesh with and I'm comfortable at, and I like being able to fish for three different species (largemouths, smallmouths and spotted bass)," he said. "It's kind of funny, though, because it's not like it's been the same thing every time we've been there: One year it was 8 to 12 feet high and muddy and we were fishing in people's yards, then 2 years ago it was pre-spawn and we were catching them on jerkbaits in 40-degree clear water, and then last year was a sight-fishing deal.
"It's a good-size lake with a lot of variety of structure and cover, but it doesn't have a lot of docks. I'm always more comfortable fishing natural cover rather than manmade. With manmade stuff, everybody can see it and understand what's there. Natural cover, a lot of times you have to pick it a part and do a good job of reading your electronics."
New Incentive to Excel
The Tour will offer Arey only six opportunities to compete in 2013, so he also plans to fish the PAA Tournament Series along with a BFL or two. His finish in this year's AOY race got him into the Toyota Texas Bass Classic for the first time, and though he didn't fare particularly well in that event (32nd out of 50 anglers), he loved it and badly wants to go back.
"It was hands-down one of the best, most well-run tournaments I've ever fished," said Arey, who watched his pal Thrift cop the trophy with a monstrous final-day bag. "It was a lot of fun and the crowds were just insane. I'm looking forward to having two chances to re-qualify."
An even bigger incentive to perform well next year is the new addition to his family – he and wife Emily welcomed their first child (a girl they named Reese) in September.
"It changes your attitude in life and gives you that drive to do that much better. It's amazing – it's a different adventure every day and they grow so fast. Everybody tells me to enjoy this time because it won't seem like long before she's graduating from college.
"You don't realize what parents feel until you are one yourself."
> Arey will be sporting new wraps in 2013 as Kissel Kraft Rods, a custom builder out of Georgia, will adorn his truck and Wackem Crazy Baits will cover his boat. "They're products I used this year and the deals have been expanded," he said. "It's a perfect fit because those companies are growing fast, but not a lot of people know about them yet."
> Of the six Tour events next year, Oklahoma's Grand Lake in June is the one he's most looking forward to. "I've never been there, but I've heard it's got a lot of variety. You should be able to fish both shallow and offshore at that time of year."