Michael Neal from Dayton is in the hunt as the Walmart FLW Tour kicks off on Lake Okeechobee in Florida.
Neal is fishing his first year as a "professional" in the FLW Tour, one of the largest bass tournament tours in the country. Thursday, the first of four days of competition, with a limit of bass weighing 15-7, Neal is in 22nd place out of 174 professionals.
On Facebook Thursday night, Neal said, "Had ahold of an absolute monster today and lost it. Hope to keep it up tomorrow."
Neal is pitted against well-known anglers such as Roland Martin, Scott Martin, Zell Rowland, Jimmy Houston, Larry Nixon, and Scott and Andy Morgan, also from Rhea County. Morgan finished day one in 56th place.
Rookie angler Casey Martin from New Market, Ala., finished day one in first place with 26-12.
“On my first cast, I caught a 6 1/2-pounder; the net wasn’t even out yet,” said Martin, who left a career in electrical engineering to pursue his dream of bass fishing. “The momentum just went from there."
Okeechobee is producing big. Of the 174 anglers, 157 of them brought limits to the weigh-in stand.
Friday is a critical day for Neal to move up from his 22nd-place spot. After Friday's competition, the field will be trimmed, and only the top 20 anglers advance to Saturday. On Sunday, the final day of competition, only the top 10 anglers will be fishing.
The professional tournament circuit is an expensive proposition. The entry fee for an FLW event is $4,000 plus travel expenses. First place is worth $100,000, and anglers down to 60th place will at least win back their entry fee.
Later this year, Neal will have the chance to fish with a "home court advantage" when the FLW Tour comes to Chickamauga Lake. The tournament, June 27-30, will be based out of Dayton Boat Dock, which Neal owns. The young man is also a student at Dayton's Bryan College.
Neal caught 22-12 Friday to leap ahead into sixth place, easily making the cut to fish in the top 20 Saturday. That means he is guaranteed a minimum of $12,000 in winnings.
Click here to keep tabs on the competition.
Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports.
Updated @ 10:02 p.m. on 2/8/13 to add more information about Friday's competition at the end of the tournament day.