By Todd Ceisner
It’s fairly common for the Bullet 21XRS bass boat Michael Neal drives to approach 80 miles per hour when it’s properly balanced. In a tournament scenario when every second matters, that can give Neal a big advantage over his competitors.
But located in between the driver’s and passenger seat just above the cooler which serves as a step up to the back deck is a decal that belies everything about a sleek and speedy bass boat. That’s where you’ll find a 6-inch tall sticker of Eeyore, the famously sluggish and glum donkey sidekick of Winnie the Pooh.
The sticker was placed there while Neal’s boat was being wrapped before the season at the behest of Jake Freeman, the owner of 5x3 Fishing, an apparel company that serves as one of Neal’s main sponsors. Freeman felt it was an appropriate, yet light-hearted representation of Neal’s general demeanor.
“He wasn't happy about it at all,” Freeman said. “As the season progressed and he started doing really well it became more of a good luck charm. I asked him one day how he felt about it and he said he had embraced Eeyore and knew that was his personality in real life.”
Neal admits he wasn’t a fan of the sticker at first, but grew to accept it over the course of the season.
“I wanted to take it off,” he said. “It’s pink and purple – it’s the most unmanly thing you could put on the boat. I wanted it gone.
“I do get excited. I guess I don’t show it like other people.”
Neal had plenty to be excited about during the 2016 season. He posted four top-20 finishes, including a trio of top-4s. Among those were runner-up outcomes at Pickwick Lake and the Forrest Wood Cup. He also added another top-10 at the Lake Norman FLW Tour Invitational last month.
“I consider my season a success,” Neal said. “The event that I see as a failure was the only one where I didn’t get a check at Hartwell.”
That’s where he finished 77th, by far his worst showing of the year. Had he registered a top-25 finish there, he may have toppled fellow Dayton, Tenn., resident Andy Morgan in the race for the Angler of the Year. Instead, he wound up 8th in points.
“That tournament cost me a shot at AOY,” he added. “It wasn’t a tournament that I can look back on and say, ‘I should’ve done this or that.’ I just didn’t figure it out and for that reason, I consider it a failure.”
With the FLW Tour Invitational at Norris Lake this week, Neal is wrapping up his fifth full season at the FLW Tour level. At 25, he’s considered among the best young anglers in the sport. He’s amassed eight top-10s in full-field Tour events and Cups, including runner-up finishes in each of the last two Tour stops at Pickwick.
This Eeyore sticker was an annoyance at first for Neal, but he later warmed to it.
While coming close at the Cup was certainly a disappointment, the loss at Pickwick was tougher to stomach. He trailed roommate Buddy Gross by more than 14 1/2 pounds entering the final day, a deficit few thought anyone could overcome.
Gross managed only two fish on day 4 while Neal waged an internal battle about whether to fish to win or catch enough to hold on for 2nd. Ultimately, Neal kicked himself for not sticking with what had worked all week. He fell 3 pounds short of Gross.
“The door was left wide open for me to do well,” he said. “I went into salvage mode at 9:30 in the morning and wound up catching three of the fish I weighed in in the last 30 minutes. That makes me question if I would’ve stuck with what I knew I needed to be doing, could I have caught five big ones and pulled it out?”
At Wheeler, John Cox stole the show with his ability to wiggle his aluminum boat into the far reaches of Cotaco Creek. Neal felt he was around good enough fish to win, but didn’t execute.
“I had the bites, but never hooked them,” he said. “I had the bites to blow it out, but those don’t count. I was around the winning fish.”
Still, he’ll look back on the season as a major shot in the arm for his confidence, which waned after a so-so 2015 season.
“The whole year got my confidence back up,” he said. “Last year, I didn’t have the confidence I’d had before. This year, I started strong at Okeechobee like I have in the past and (the Cup) sealed the year and made it complete.”
He’s hopeful it’ll translate to bigger and better things in 2017 when the season kicks off on the Tennessee River, at Lake Guntersville in February.
“To me, momentum is a big deal,” he said. “Some people don’t believe in it, but I do.”
Senses His Time Is Coming
With all of the success he’s had early in his career, Neal naturally gets asked plenty about when he’s going to win his first big tournament. He’d love to know, too.
He remembers a conversation he had with fellow Tour angler Randy Haynes, who had multiple wins at the FLW Series level before he posted his first Tour win at Lake Eufaula in 2013.
“He told me, ‘It’s just gonna happen,’” Neal recalled. “When it’s your time, something goofy will happen and you’ll get a feeling that you haven’t gotten before.”
Neal knows the feeling from two of his BFL victories.
“In both of them, something off the wall happened,” he said. “At the one in March, I caught an 8-pounder during the slickest, hottest part of the day at a time when it’s tough when it’s dead slick and sunny. The other one was in May and I boat-flipped a 6-pounder in the boat on 15-pound line. I remember telling my co-angler, ‘It’s over.’”
He hopes to have a similar experience at some point at the Tour level. He’s pretty satisfied with the arc his career has followed so far, but he’d like to add a punctuation mark to it soon.
“I’m not going to be picky,” he said when asked if he’d prefer his first win to come near home. “I really don’t care. Sure, I’d like it to be close to home where everybody can come watch, but if it’s in New York, that’s fine with me, too. The sooner the better, though.”