By Todd Ceisner
Kyle Welcher is willing to bet big on himself in 2020.
It’s no different than what’s he been doing the past six years. Only this time, the action will be on the water and not at a poker table.
Welcher, a 26-year-old Alabama native, has taken a unique path to this point in his fishing career and by accepting the invitation to the 2020 Bassmaster Elite Series he earned through the Eastern Opens, he’s excited for his return to the top tier of the sport.
In 2012, he competed in five FLW Tour events as a 19-year-old – he led after day 2 before finishing ninth at Table Rock that year – but after that he pretty much vanished from the national tournament scene. He resurfaced in 2015 at the BFL level as he qualified for the 2016 BFL All-American, in which he finished 11th.
In the interim, he’s spent time at poker tables in casinos in Las Vegas and Florida, playing Texas Hold ‘Em in an effort to make enough money to finance his fishing pursuits.
“2018 was a good year,” he said, referring to his poker exploits.
“2019 was better as far as pride,” he added, referencing his success on the water.
And now he’s hoping 2020 can be the foundation for a lengthy career ahead.
“It’s all about my passion and my competitiveness,” Welcher said. “Anything I do it’s 110 percent. This is what I have always wanted to do. It’s still all I want to do. I’m getting older and if I don’t make it, I’ll have to move on. This is my last hurrah, but I hope to make it stick.
“Not catching them is the only fear,” he added. “I’m not scared to go broke. I’m willing to risk it all just to say I tried. I don’t want to be the guy at the pot tournament saying, ‘I could’ve made it.’ We’re going to find out for sure.”
Elites Over FLW Pro Circuit
Rather than compete in fishing tournaments in 2018, Welcher played poker in an effort to accumulate funds to put toward entry fees in 2019. He’s played pretty consistently since high school, he said.
“I spent five months in (Las) Vegas and two months in California playing and saving money,” he said. “It’s gone very well. I have a new Ranger boat for next season.”
He said he prefers to avoid the popular large-field tournaments in favor of single cash games because “it gives you more freedom to show up or leave at any time,” he said. The biggest pot he’s won has been $3,600.
Welcher says he agrees with those who label tournament fishing as a form of gambling, but says fishing is more of a passion for him.
“This is actually way worse,” he said. “The good thing about this, though, is you can get sponsors to help you out.”
For now, he’s doing his best to help himself. Instead of spending up to 12 hours a day around a felt-topped table or studying percentages, Welcher now devotes hours each day to lake research on Google Earth in preparation for the new season.
“You have to stay motivated to get better every day,” he said.
Welcher actually had two options for 2020 – the Elite Series or the FLW Pro Circuit, which he qualified for via a third-place finish in the Southeastern Division points.
“I’m 100 percent doing the Elites,” Welcher said. “I feel like B.A.S.S. is ahead of FLW as far as exposure and that made it an easy decision.”
Welcher also pointed to the Elite Series being less of a financial burden, at least initially, and prospective sponsors steering him that way.
“Almost every sponsor I’ve talked with has been pushing me toward the Elites,” he said. “To get to the BPT through the Pro Circuit would be a long road and none of those guys will be pushovers.”
Day 2 at James Proved Pivotal
Welcher was admittedly nervous to start the year at the Harris Chain Eastern Open, but a bit of good fortune helped him to a third-place finish.
“I found a bed fish on Tuesday that week,” he said. “It was maybe a 5-pounder, but day 1 of the tournament got cancelled. On day 2, I go to it and break it off. I come back 15 minutes later and catch it. That was theme of the season for me – when I needed a big one, I caught a big one.”
The theme didn’t play out, though, at Lake Chickamauga, where he logged a 78th in the Open. He rebounded with a 25th at the James River and an 11th at Oneida Lake.
He believes day 2 at the James is what clinched the Elite Series berth for him.
“I drove to the Chickahominy (River) both days and on day 2 the only thing I could get them to bite was pitching a dropshot in current seams under docks,” he said. “I caught a couple 3s and a 12-incher. I broke off a good one and a 2 1/2 and lost a 2 1/2.”
Faced with an hour-long ride back to weigh-in with three fish for roughly seven pounds in his livewell, he began to question his decisions.
“I get back at 1:45 and my check-in was at 2,” he said. “So I go into a backwater near the launch and catch a 4 and two 2s in the last 10 minutes. Without those three fish, I don’t qualify for the Elite Series. That was the highlight of it all in the last 15 minutes. I’ve never been so excited to weigh in almost 14 pounds. That was a long boat ride, too, because I was telling myself, ‘And you think you’re ready for the pros?’”
At Oneida, he sealed the deal flipping and frogging up shallow.
Seven years ago, Welcher showed he maybe wasn’t quite ready for the big stage with two triple-digit finishes and two other results in the 90s. He’ll join the Elite Series, he says, a more polished angler.
“In my honest opinion, I’m a lot more efficient,” he said. “The biggest difference between now and when I was 19 is back then I was hesitant to throw practice out the window and run fresh water versus 150 pros. Now, I almost prefer it. If start getting bites in practice, I’ll almost change on purpose because I don’t want to get locked in. I like to figure them out more in the tournament.”
He also feels like he’s improved at a variety of techniques, knowing versatility is a must at this level.
“Everybody is good at everything,” he said. “Everything else comes down to the mental side and decision-making.”