Kyle Welcher’s biggest jackpot in bass fishing came in his biggest disappointment, but he’s hoping to take the big pot this time.
By 5 ounces, the 30-year-old from Opelika, Ala., missed out on $300,000 at the 2022 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic on Lake Hartwell. Welcher settled for the $50,000 runner-up take, his biggest B.A.S.S. paycheck to date.
Welcher is now positioned for $100,000 as Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year and the accolades as the best over an entire season. The former poker player leads the point standings after six events, but he’s well aware that title comes after nine.
“I am quote unquote, in the lead, but it’s not much of a lead at all,” said Welcher, who has accumulated 511 points, 12 more than Brandon Cobb. “Whoever is going to win has got to go have three really good finishes to close out the season.
“I want to win really, really, bad. That’s the trophy that I want more than anything. But it’s nine tournaments — you have to catch them in all nine.”
So far, so good. Welcher has made each two-day cut. He started hot with three top 20s, had a slight dip at Santee Cooper Lakes (41st) before a 25th at Lay Lake. With a seventh-place finish at the Sabine River, Welcher erased a 72-point deficit to Cobb to jump from fifth to first.
John Cox stands third with 483, with Tyler Rivet and Drew Cook rounding out the top five. The next five are Will Davis Jr., Patrick Walters, Drew Benton, Hunter Shryock and Jay Przekurat, who’s 89 points back of Welcher and the only northern angler in the Top 10.
“There’s probably seven or eight people who have a really good shot, and if it gets really crazy, maybe more than that,” Welcher said. “Somebody has got to catch them really good in the next three to win.”
The Elites head north for the final three events, starting with Lake St. Clair in late July before back-to-back August events on Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River. Much of the Top 10 have had mixed results in the mostly smallmouth events, Welcher included.
Welcher admits they are fisheries he doesn’t know very well, but he plans to get back in the groove of fishing with spinning gear by going to similar lakes in the region.
“There’s nothing different. I’m not going to change anything because of AOY,” he said. “I’m going to go out and try to win every single tournament. That’s what I’ve done ever since I’ve been on the Elites.
“Even though I have not won one, I have gone into every tournament trying to win it, and we’re going to keep doing that up north and hopefully we have some good finishes. I just need to find them in practice and make good decisions. That’s all I can do.”
In the 2020 St. Clair Elite, Welcher posted a “terrible” 63rd-place finish, but that was before he had forward-facing sonar.
“I’m not saying that’s going to make me automatically catch them, but it’s going to be completely different because I’m not going to try to catch them like I did in 2020, shallow around grass,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is I have to find them on these lakes.”
In Champlain Elites, Welcher has had mixed results, finishing 85th in 2021 after 22nd in 2020, when he stuck to his strengths of targeting largemouth.
“The other one, I made some bad decisions and wasted some time and didn’t catch them on Day 2,” he said. “I’m going to fish my strengths in that one.”
Welcher has had more downs than ups at the St. Lawrence River, taking 60th in 2020, 85th in 2021 before figuring something out to finish a respectable 24th last year.
“All that matters is this year. We’re optimistic, and hopefully I’m going to find something to throw at there,” he said. “It’s the same thing as St. Clair. You catch 30 3-pounders, you had a good day as far as fishing but a terrible day as far as the tournament.”
While Cobb is not out of the race, he stumbled badly at Sabine, finishing 91st to lose his 49-point AOY lead. Welcher said he hopes to avoid a drop but realizes it’s a possibility.
“Nobody out here is above a bad tournament. Every single one of us, it can happen,” he said. “I would love to stay consistent, but the reality in this sport is any tournament can be a bad one. Any tournament can be a really, really good one. I’m going to just try to stay even; control what you can control.”
Last year at St. Lawrence, Przekurat and Cory Johnston both earned Century Club belts, averaging more than 25 pounds a day. The entire field caught limits every day there, so ounces can be the difference in making the cut, and a pound or two can equal 20 to 30 places.
Welcher knows finding larger bass is key, like the 6-12 he landed last year at St. Lawrence to take the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the event.
“It’s no secret when we go up north,” he said. “It’s finding those better-than-average-size fish. Stay around them and keep setting hooks. Any cast can be a 4 1/2- to 5-pounder. It’s who can find the best quality and string it together over three or four days.”
Last season was Welcher’s worst. He started slow in the two Florida events before coming a close second to Jason Christie in the Classic. He only made three cuts to finish 69th in AOY, just a year removed from being 22nd in AOY after 10th in his rookie season of 2020.
“I really don’t have an answer” for the subpar year, he said. “My practice has been the same. I’ve done everything the same. This year, what I thought after practice was going to work, has worked.
“Seemed like last year, it didn’t work. It seemed like I spent every single tournament scrambling around. This year, everything that I found has worked through the tournament.”
Winning in poker helped Welcher bankroll his fishing career, and he said his approach at the tables should work on the water.
“The skill in poker comes down to minimizing your losses and maximizing your wins,” he said. “You have to understand your position at each event. I’m trying to do that in fishing — I try to maximize the ups, but sometimes I still have a bad one.”
There’s hope he can avoid going bust in the final three events and take what he considers the biggest jackpot in tournament fishing.
“The AOY would be the one I’m most proud of,” he said. “It may not happen this year. I’ll be super excited if it came this year.”
In any case, Kyle Welcher is going all in.