By Todd Ceisner
Just twice in Michael Neal’s FLW Tour career has he missed the money cut in back-to-back tournaments. The first instance was in 2013, his first full season on the circuit, when he posted triple-digit finishes at Lake Eufaula and Grand Lake. He still managed to finish 20th in points that year – an impressive feat considering the schedule was just six events – and went on to finish 6th at the Forrest Wood Cup.
During the next four seasons, Neal blossomed into one of the most consistent anglers on either pro circuit, cashing checks in 21 of 25 tournaments and finishing among the top 11 in points in three of those four years.
He got off to another solid start this season with a 13th-place showing at Lake Okeechobee back in January. Then came two inexplicable results – 106th at the Harris Chain of Lakes and 119th at Lake Lanier – that put him in scramble mode the rest of the way to qualify for his sixth straight Cup. He bounced back with four straight top-50s to earn a trip to Lake Ouachita, where he wound up 36th.
It wasn’t easy and as satisfying as it was to recover from two duds in a row, Neal said to even to be in that position was unacceptable.
“I should never have a finish below 100th,” he said. “That’s what I expect out of myself, much less back to back in the same year.”
Tried to Force Things
At Harris Chain, he opted to target grass edges in Lake Griffin, following the same game plan that led to a 42nd-place finish a year ago. This year, he got a sense after practice that things had changed.
“I 100 percent tried to force things to happen at Griffin,” he said. “One person out of 30 made the (day-2) cut out of Griffin so that’s where that went wrong.”
He caught a 12-11 limit on day 1 and followed it up with 9-08 on day 2, well off the pace.
“In Lake Harris, the whole lake was grass,” he said. “There were no edges to it. Griffin had edges and that’s where I wanted to be. Plus, I’d spent all of my time there in previous years.”
At Lanier two weeks later, he knew he’d have to change up everything coming from a grass-infested Florida lake to a deep, clear reservoir teeming with spotted bass.
“It was a way different style and type of fishery, but I’m usually good at those transitions,” he said.
He opted to head up one of the rivers rather than stay on the lower end. To boot, he contracted a flu bug during the off day before the tournament and began to feel the physical effects as the tournament unfolded.
“I was in the wrong place on top of getting the flu on the off day,” he said. “By the end of the tournament, my voice was gone and my energy was sapped.
“I fished up one of the rivers and was like the only person up there. I caught a ton of fish up there but they were all little. I knew on a herring lake the lower end would be where the big ones would be 99 percent of the time, but I still chose to stay up there.”
After three tournaments, he was 68th in points and began to feel the pressure of knowing he likely had to have a stellar second half to get back to the Cup.
“I knew I couldn’t miss another check at that point,” he said. “The Cup became my main focus. Every year I’ve fished a complete season I’ve made the Cup and I didn’t want that streak to end.”
Long Road Back
Neal had been in similar situations before. In 2013, he recovered nicely. Same in 2015, when he rebounded from an 82nd at Lake Eufaula with top-10 at Lake Chickamauga and a 26th at the Potomac River to close the regular season.
The four lakes that remained on the ’18 docket represented a challenging and diverse gauntlet. He survived Lake Cumberland with a 50th-place showing, then finished 34th at Smith Lake two weeks later.
“I almost screwed up again at Cumberland,” he said. “Instead of doing what I thought I needed to do, I thought smallmouth would be a bigger player than they were. I had a good first day, but only got seven bites and I knew what was coming on day 2. I barely caught a limit and weighed 9 pounds. I could’ve done better, but I’m not sure I was on top 10 fish there.
“Smith was one I was looking forward to because I’d done well in the spring there. I knew what I was going to do. I was sure they’d be a few spawning and I like to fish for the spots when they’re spawning because you don’t have to sight fish them because they’re so aggressive and it worked out.”
Next up was Kentucky Lake, which most would figure to be in Neal’s wheelhouse seeing that he lives near Chickamauga, another Tennessee River impoundment. On day 1, he managed just four keepers for 10-00, which had him buried in 99th place. His season hung in the balance.
“It had the potential to be the biggest crash and burn of my career,” he said. “On day 2, I said, ‘Forget it.’ I wasn’t going anywhere I’d been in practice. I was either going to catch ‘em or I wasn’t going to make the Cup.”
He responded with 19-04 by targeting mid-depth areas with obvious points and channel swings. His first keeper was a 5-pounder and things developed from there as he made the day-2 cut in 25th. He tacked on 19-10 on day 3 to clinch a top-10 finish then punctuated the event – and his season – with 23-05 on the final day to log a 4th-place outcome.
“As it went on, more fish started pulling out deep, but I had the shallow places I’d found in the tournament and I had the biggest community hole on the lake to myself,” he said.
He finished the year with a 31st at Lake St. Clair, where he missed the day-2 cut by three ounces.
“I quit fishing with 18 1/2 pounds on day 1,” he said. “I figured I needed enough to save for day 2 and make the Cup. When I pulled off I thought I’d still be in decent shape. Nope. On day 2, I went to catching them all day and had my first-ever 20-pound bag of smallies in a tournament.”
> With his home lake on the 2019 FLW Tour schedule, Neal is excited to have a “home game” next year, but he’s also aware of the challenges it can pose.
“Do I want to fish at home? Sure,” he said. “It’s always nice to sleep in your own bed for a tournament, but the first week of May is the toughest time of the year on that lake because everything will be in transition and if I try to get ahead of the fish or behind the fish and fish too much history, that’s the recipe for another one of those triple-digit finishes.”