By Todd Ceisner
Miles Burghoff and Patrick Walters have never met.
But if they were to sit down for breakfast at a Waffle House somewhere in the Southeast, chances are they’d have plenty to talk about. Both are former college anglers and made their way through the triple-A ranks to get to where they’re at today.
While it’s not even May 1 yet and there’s plenty of fishing left to do in the FLW Tour and Bassmaster Elite Series seasons, Burghoff and Walters, both rookies on their respective trails, find themselves in positions neither imagined being in just a few months ago.
After five Tour events, Burghoff is leading the FLW Tour Angler of the Year standings by 17 points. Walters, meanwhile, is tied for the AOY points lead on the Elite Series side with veteran Scott Canterbury with four of the nine tournaments in the books. The only rookie to win the FLW Tour AOY title was Shin Fukae in 2004. It’s been 19 years since Tim Horton won the AOY title as a rookie in B.A.S.S.’s top circuit.
They’re not alone, either. Drew Cook is currently fourth in the Elite Series AOY race while three other rookies – Tyler Woolcott, Dakota Ebare and Jon Englund – find themselves in the top 25 in the FLW Tour points.
“You could’ve imagined it, but it’s hard to envision it,” Walters said of his four-tournament run of top-25 finishes that includes two top-10s. “I truly can’t describe it. We have been blessed so far this season. The good thing is at each tournament, there have been changes I’ve wanted to make. I’m not fishing 100 percent clean yet and there’s room for improvement. I’m not liking not fishing clean, but I have to focus on getting better every day. It’s not about being worried about yesterday or tomorrow. It’s all about today and what can I get done today and then focus on tomorrow when the time comes.”
Burghoff says his success – five top-50s, including three top-30 cuts – has been a result of his preparation synergizing with a more in-the-moment tournament approach.
“I wouldn’t say I have exceeded expectations,” he said. “Not to sound arrogant, but I have been fishing well. I didn’t expect to be leading the AOY five tournaments in. My goals are more related to the process of tournament fishing – is my tackle prepared and is my equipment working perfectly? I’ve met them all and the results have followed. I knew I was a consistent angler, but I always worried whether I had what it took to contend for AOY. I still have a lot of learn but I think I have the foundation for it.”
In five tournaments this season, Burghoff has yet to finish outside the top 50. The key to his consistency so far, he says, dates back to a triple-digit finish at the Lake Toho Eastern Open in January 2018. Burghoff has extensive experience at the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, having attended the University of Central Florida, but all that history deceived him during the event and he wound up 111th.
“Before Toho, it was about history,” he said. “I had so much experience on that fishery, but the problem with experience on a grass lake is a grass flat that’s produced three years in a row isn’t always going to be a good grass flat. On a highland reservoir, a rocky point that produces every year is still going to be a rocky point.”
It was a harsh learning experience, but he came out the other side less inclined to follow preconceived notions. He finished off the Eastern Open schedule with three straight top-40 finishes.
“I was finally able to shake loose from the ball and chain of history and followed my gut,” Burghoff said.
He’s carried that over to his rookie year on the FLW Tour, which included a return trip to the Kissimmee Chain in February. This time, he opened with a 10-13 limit, then tacked on 18-07 on day 2 and finished 36th, missing the top-30 cut by 10 ounces.
“I fished an area I hadn’t fished before and that was the key to my comeback on day 2,” he said. “That just showed that my gut is normally correct. I have experience on so many fisheries now that my instincts have something to run off of. I’ve gone through periods where I can listen to my instincts and make decisions based on what I’m feeling at that moment and I’ve been able to continue that since my bomb at Toho last year. After that, I started fishing more consistently based on current conditions and was able to make relevant decisions.”
Lives to Fish
Coming off 11th- and 7th-place showings at Lake Hartwell and Winyah Bay, respectively, in his home state of South Carolina, Walters says this season has blown his expectations out of the water. He went into the season opener at the St. Johns River thinking it would be a shell-bed tournament based on his two previous events there while in college, but wound up finishing 4th by targeting spawning fish. He’d never been to Lake Lanier, the second stop, but he has a good grip on herring lakes based on his experience at Lake Murray and Hartwell. He carded a 22nd-place finish there.
“I knew going there I’d fish shallow,” he said of Lanier. “It’s what I love to do. I don’t mind fishing deep but if fish are shallow, I’ll take my chances.”
With the first four Elite Series events taking place as part of back-to-backs, Walters had plenty of time in between to be on the water and stay sharp. He thinks that’s been a major contributor to his consistency so far.
“I’m a huge believer in fishing as much as possible,” he said. “I fish five times a week when I’m at home. It keeps me in tune with the fish and myself. I’m able to stay sharp that way. It’s like a basketball player shooting free throws all day. I also do a lot of research and have a rough idea of what I want to do, then let my instincts take over. I go with some notions, but I don’t let them dictate what and where I go.”
What Lies Ahead
Over the past few years, Burghoff has competed at various levels. From college to BFL to triple-A FLW Series and Bassmaster Opens, he’s seen plenty of scenarios at a lot of lakes he was previously unfamiliar with. He did it all on purpose with an eye toward the future.
“I did that specifically to be uncomfortable and forced myself into uncomfortable situations that I have to dig out of,” he said.
He said he’s tried to not focus on where he sits in the points standings. Barring a massive meltdown at Lake Chickamauga and Lake Champlain, he’ll be among the field for the Forrest Wood Cup at Lake Hamilton in August.
“Occasionally, the pressure will come around, but it’ll be a motivating factor,” he said. “Scott Martin is 17 points behind me, so I don’t know of a better motivator going into the last two, especially Champlain since he and (David) Dudley are maybe two of the best at Champlain. I need to have two of my best tournaments of the season.”
For now, his focus remains on Chickamauga, which hosts the next FLW Tour May 2-5. While some may point to him as a potential local favorite in the event – he now resides in Hixson, Tenn. – he’s quick to point out he’s spent a total of three days fishing the lake this year.
“I don’t have a lot of tournament data to back up any kind of confidence, plus my worst finish in a multi-day tournament was there before we moved out here,” he added. “The time of year should play well to fishing the moment, though, and the history I do have.”
With five regular-season Elite Series derbies left followed by the AOY tournament, Walters knows there’s a long road ahead in his AOY title quest. That’s why he’s trying to maintain a short-term focus and not get caught up in any big-picture scenarios just yet.
“I put the same amount of pressure on myself every day from day 1,” Walters said. “I do put a lot of pressure on myself to catch them because you have to. We’re early and there’s a lot of fishing left. The points are going to change a good bit, so that doesn’t mean anything leading right now. What matters is who’s leading after the next five.
"I’m fishing smart, but I’m fishing how I like to fish – one day at a time.”