By MLF Communications Staff
JEFFERSON COUNTY, Tenn. –Michael Neal of Dayton, Tenn. caught 11 scorable bass Wednesday – his best five weighing 16 pounds, 14 ounces – to win the Knockout Round and advance to the final day of competition at the MLF Bass Pro Tour event on Cherokee Lake.
After taking over the lead in the first period, the back-to-back MLF Pro Circuit Angler of the Year (AOY) rose to the top of a stacked field going into Thursday’s Championship Round. Among the star-studded field of pros competing in the Championship Round are four past Bass Pro Tour winners, three Bass Pro Tour rookies and four Tennessee natives, including four-time BPTwinner Ott DeFoe of Blaine, Tenn., and reigning two-time BPT AOY Jacob Wheeler of Harrison, Tenn.
Neal’s tally gives him a 7-ounce cushion over second-place pro Dakota Ebare of Brookeland, Texas, who ended the day with a five-bass-limit weighing 16-07. Keith Poche of Pike Road, Ala., sits in third place with a limit weighing 160-4, while DeFoe advanced in fourth with 16-02. Justin Lucas of Guntersville, Ala. weighed in five bass totaling 16 pounds even to round out the Top 5.
The final 10 anglers are now set and competition resumes Thursday morning with the Championship Round. Weight carries over from the Knockout Round and the angler with the heaviest two-day total will win the top prize of $100,000.
Neal dropped to sixth place in the first period before rising to first and was able to hold the top spot throughout the day, despite never upgrading his fish in the final period. That did, however, let the field close in on him.
“This is definitely where you want to be at the end of the day, in first, but I feel like I haven’t figured out enough to come back out and duplicate it,” said Neal. “One area is really all you, need though, especially in a five-fish tournament, so hopefully it’s as good to us tomorrow as it’s been today. But if it’s not, I’ll go down swinging.”
With four pros within 14 ounces going into the Championship Round and only 3 pounds separating the Top 10, all 10 survivors are still in contention for the win.
“I just have to regroup and stay positive for tomorrow, that’s going to be the main thing,” said Neal. “With everyone bunched up right here at the end, and stacked up at the top, it’s anybody’s ball game. Pretty much whoever catches the biggest bag tomorrow will win, no matter what place you ended in today.
“Things are going to change a little bit. We had clouds and rain today, but tomorrow’s going to be really warm and sunny, so that might hurt some guys and help others,” Neal continued. “I just hope I’m one of the ones it helps.”
Neal said he hopes the warmer temperatures and sunshine will push the fish a little deeper, out toward bait where he caught them in practice on Cherokee.
“I just have to keep an open mind and figure out how to catch another 17 pounds or so to win,” said Neal. “I had at least a shot at an 18- or 19 pound-bag with that first one I had hooked this morning and lost – but that’s how it goes, especially smallmouth fishing. You can’t catch every single one you hook.”
Chris Lane of Guntersville, Ala. caught a 4-13 largemouth on a glide bait in the first period to earn Wednesday’s $1,000 Berkley Big Bass Award. Berkley awards $1,000 to the angler who weighs the heaviest bass each day and another $3,000 bonus to the angler who weighs the heaviest bass of the tournament.
The six-day event, hosted by the Jefferson County Department of Tourism Sports Commission, showcases 80 of the top professional anglers in the world, competing for a purse of more than $805,000, including a top payout of $100,000 and valuable Angler of the Year (AOY) points in hopes of qualifying for the General Tire Heavy Hitters All-Star event and REDCREST 2024, the Bass Pro Tour championship.
The final 10 anglers will launch Thursday at 8:30 a.m. ET from the TVA Boat Launch on Renfro Road in Jefferson City. The takeout will be held at the boat launch, beginning at 5 p.m. Fans are welcome to attend all launch and takeout events and also encouraged to follow the event online throughout the day on the MLF NOW! livestream and ScoreTracker coverage at MajorLeagueFishing.com .
From 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., MLF will welcome fans of all ages to be on hand at the TVA Boat Launch to celebrate the Top 10 and crown the champion. The Championship Round anglers will be on hand at the trophy celebration to meet and greet fans, sign autographs and take selfies.
The MLF NOW! broadcast team of Chad McKee, Marty Stone and J.T. Kenney will break down the extended action from 8:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. ET. MLF NOW! is livestreamed on MajorLeagueFishing.com and the MyOutdoorTV (MOTV) app.