By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

Drew Benton isn’t sure how much longer he’ll be able to keep putting in regular hours as a longshoreman at the docks in Panama City, Fla. His fishing career is fixing to get a little bit busier once the calendar flips to 2016, so if he has to step away from the job he’s held since after high school, so be it, he says.

He put in plenty of long hours on the water this year as he pursued – and clinched – a berth in the Elite Series for next year and he’ll be among the latest crop of FLW Tour anglers to cross over to B.A.S.S.’ top circuit.

“I wanted to fish the Elites from day 1,” Benton said. “It just worked out that in 2012, I was one place short of qualifying, so I fished the Tour after that. I guess you could say that worked out, too, because I won my first event. I guess it was meant to happen that way.”

But his qualification this year was far from a slam dunk, especially considering the stiff competition he faced in the Bassmaster Southern Opens this season.

His average finish of 16.67 typically would have put him in the mix for Angler of the Year honors, but this year his three results (23rd, 5th, 22nd) had him slotted 4th in points, behind Brandon McMillan, Trevor Fitzgerald and Clent Davis.

“Usually, if you average a Top-30 you’ll have a shot (at AOY), but not this year,” he said. “This had to be one of the hardest years to qualify.”

Safe at Home

After cashing checks in four of six FLW Tour events this season, his focus shifted to the final Southern Open at Lake Seminole, a venue he’d spent plenty of time at over the course of his fishing career.

“My main goal for the year was to qualify,” he said. “I knew the last tournament would be close to home (Lake Seminole) where I have some history so I wanted to get out to a good start and give myself a chance at Seminole.”

He’d finished 23rd at Lake Toho in January and followed that with a 5th at the Alabama River, so he had plenty at stake when the scene shifted to Bainbridge, Ga., in October.

“I wouldn’t say I felt a lot of pressure, but it was my goal for the year,” he added. “If anything, it was nerve wracking.”

Benton said he had two options at Seminole – targeting largemouth in the grass on the main lake or chase shoal bass up the Chattahoochee River.

“I told my wife I thought I could qualify (for the Elites) if I run up the river, but I can’t win the tournament doing that,” he said. “She said to run up the river.”

Benton wound up starting day 1 fishing for largemouths, but that plan quickly fizzled.

“I went to a spot where I’d gotten seven bites the day before and I didn’t catch anything there,” he said. “So I ran 37 miles above where we took off from and it was a lot tougher just from all of the boat traffic and pressure. I ended up almost not catching a limit. I caught just enough to keep me in the Top 30.”

He opted to head back up the river on day 2 and bagged 10-07 to notch a 22nd-place finish.

“I played it safe, which is something you never want to do that on your home lake,” he said. “I’ve been in that spot before and I know it’s not smart to go for the win every time. Sometimes, you have to do what you have to do.”

Once he realized he’d amassed enough points to sew up an Elite Series spot, he could feel the pressure lifted off his shoulders

“It was more just relief,” he said. “I was ready to make the move. It’s all downhill from there.
Once that happened, it took a lot of pressure off of me for next year. My sponsors had made a commitment to step up if I’d qualified.”

Dream Scenario

Looking ahead to next year, Benton can envision a sequence of events where the first five or six Elite Series events could be won out of shallow water. As a Florida angler, that fits right in Benton’s wheelhouse.

“I feel like the first three events could be sight-fishing events and if that’s the case, that could be fun,” he said. “It’s really a shallow-water fisherman’s dream schedule. What more could I ask for?”

As far as his three years spent competing on the FLW Tour, Benton couldn’t have asked for a better way to get his footing in the world of high-stakes bass fishing. He’s one of a small number of competitors to register a win in his first Tour event and he was mostly satisfied with how he performed this season, despite two triple-digit finishes that included a DQ at Beaver Lake.

“The FLW Tour is a really good way to get your wet fishing high-stakes tournaments,” he said. “It gives you a chance to get the jitters out in high-level fishing. I know I won’t be as nervous having had those experiences.

“Yeah, I’m a rookie, but I won’t be the same rookie from 2013. It’s amazing how far you come when you’re on the vast bodies of water we go to. I’ve learned as much as possible from guys I fished against. I still have a long ways to go, but I feel like I’m ready.”