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Trey McKinney: A History Of Making History

The 19-year-old St. Croix Pro and Elite Series rookie caught 131 pounds last week to become the youngest ever Bassmaster Elite Series Champion, but this isn't the first time he's done things others have not.

Park Falls, WI — They say everything is bigger in Texas. At 27,000 acres, Lake Fork – dubbed the crown jewel of Texas Parks and Wildlife – has been relentlessly managed in recent years as a trophy largemouth factory, growing and supporting big numbers of even bigger green bass. The results of these efforts proved out over the course of the past four days, when 103 of the world’s top bass anglers displayed their skills while making historic catches at the 2024 Aftco Bassmaster Elite at Lake Fork – the second stop on the 2024 Aftco Bassmaster Elite Series tournament trail.

At 19 years and one week of age, St. Croix pro Trey McKinney of Carbondale, Illinois has become the youngest angler to win a Bassmaster Elite event. The history-making tournament in Yantis, Texas saw all manner of records set — including a list of top-ten finishers that each earned Century Belts by weighing over 100 pounds of bass over the four days of competition. What’s more, five anglers in this top ten were Elite Series rookies, including McKinney, who ended the tournament with 130-15, one of the top-five heaviest tournament bags ever weighed in Bassmaster competition and less than two pounds light of the all-time record. Elite Series angler, Justin Hamner, also made B.A.S.S. history by catching the heaviest bass ever filmed on Bass LIVE — an 11-7 giant caught at mid-day on Sunday on a jerk bait.

The historic Lake Fork catches were bolstered by strong pre-spawn conditions that had concentrations of the biggest bass in the lake pushing — somewhat predictably — toward shoreline spawning areas. Competitors had success livescoping fish in key, mid-depth staging and transition areas with a mix of swimming jigs, large swimbaits, smaller soft-plastic minnow baits, and jerk baits, as well as structure fishing with jigs, and finesse presentations in shallow-water spawning areas. Temperatures warmed on the third and fourth days of competition, and many anglers — including McKinney — abandoned their deep-water presentations and followed the spawners into shallower water.

McKinney fished most of the first three days of the tournament in 20 to 30 feet of water, using his Lowrance ActiveTarget sonar to catch giant bags of bass weighing 33-11, 33-10, and 30-0, respectively. He was primarily throwing a Strike King Z Toosoft plastic on 10-pound Seaguar Tatsu line with the all-new St. Croix PHYSYX 7’1” PHXC71MF casting rod, though he fished a variety of baits and an assortment of St. Croix PHYSYX, Legend Tournament BassLegend X, and Victory rods througout the competition.

Trey McKinney

Shane Durrance / B.A.S.S. Photo.

The field was narrowed to ten anglers on Championship Sunday, and McKinney believed he could catch the 31 to 32 pounds he thought he’d need to win the tournament in the same general spots he’d been fishing, but likely a bit shallower and closer to the bank.

“They were moving off the timber and toward the bank late on Saturday, so I knew I’d need to follow them on the last day,” McKinney said. “But when I rolled up on my spot Sunday morning, there were a lot of local anglers in there so I had to take a minute and make a call. I managed to catch 28 pounds in some shallow areas, but I knew it wasn’t going to be enough. I started feeling the pressure, but the Lord had a plan. I remembered a spot I’d found in a shallow cove just on the back side of the launch area that was holding a bunch of good fish in practice, so that’s where I went.”

Trey McKinney

Shane Durrance / B.A.S.S. Photo.

When McKinney came off plane and fired up his ActiveTarget in his last-chance spot, he breathed a sigh of relief. “They were loaded up in there,” he said. “I wound up catching one more that weighed 7-6 and put me over 33 pounds with about 30 minutes left,” said McKinney, who caught most of his bass on Championship Sunday using a Strike King KVD Ocho stickbait with 8-pound Seaguar Tatsu line on a St. Croix 7-foot medium-heavy Legend X XLS70MHF spinning rod.

At the final weigh-in, McKinney’s four-day total of 130-15 was enough to best second-place finisher, Tyler Rivet, by 5-6.

Those who have followed McKinney to this point know that he credits his faith in God and love for his family for his ongoing successes. He praised both of them at the final weigh-in from Lake Fork where his mom and dad joined him on stage as he hoisted the blue championship trophy above his head. Viewers and fans also heard McKinney thank his coach, mentor, and friend, Rick Cheatham. “I’m so grateful to Rick. He’s taken me through the lows and the highs,” McKinney told Bassmaster Elite Emcee, Dave Mercer.

Cheatham was not at the weigh-in in Texas; he was in Alabama spending time with his nine-year-old grandson who is battling muscular dystrophy. He said he watched every minute of Trey’s performance on Bassmaster Live. 

“I have no words,” an emotional Cheatham told St. Croix Rod, speaking of McKinney’s win on Sunday night. “I’m simply speechless.” After a few moments, McKinney’s mentor shared his thoughts. “It’s just incredible to be a part of Trey’s journey. We’re not blood relation, but Trey is family. We’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours together. I remember when Trey was no taller than my belt, we decided to go to a fund-raising tournament for Mark Hernandez when his wife had cancer. Trey caught a limit of bass on a fluke in about 30 minutes. I already knew he was special, but that just solidified it,” Cheatham recalls.

Cheatham remembered when McKinney made history in 2018 by winning both the Junior Bassmaster Championship and the FLW Junior World Championship at age 13. “We always talked about bass fishing being like a chess game where you’ve got to have a strategic plan, but it’s the individual decisions you make that matter,” Cheatham said. “We’d always do pre-game planning together, but Trey was the one who needed to execute on the water. We went straight into the BFL when he turned 16.”

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Local tournament hammer, coach, friend, and mentor, Rick Cheatham has played a primary role in McKinney’s history-making successes on the water for over a decade.

McKinney continued to prove that he could make really good decisions. “Whether his decisions were right or wrong, Trey always learned from them,” Cheatham said. “I think he finished in the top 10 at every BFL we fished except one, and he won his first boat on Chickamauga that year at 16. We went on to win two more boats together. We did some Toyota events the following year when he was 17, then he decided he was ready for the Bassmaster Opens the following year, which was last season. We thought maybe it would take two or three years to qualify for the Elites through the Opens, but Trey seems to always exceed expectations. He finished third last season in the Opens, and here he is just two events into his first Bassmaster Elite season with a history-making win and sitting at the top of both Rookie of the Year and Angler of the Year standings. I couldn’t be any prouder of who Trey is as an angler and as a person.”

Seven more Bassmaster Elite events remain in the 2024 season. The next is the Lowrance Bassmaster Elite at Harris Chain in Leesburg, Florida, April 11-14. Follow all the action at bassmaster.com. Follow Trey McKinney and his continuing journey on Facebook and Instagram @treymckinneyfishing. Enter to win a pair of St. Croix’s all-new PHYSYX rods HERE.

About St. Croix Rod

Headquartered in Park Falls, Wisconsin, St. Croix has been proudly crafting the “Best Rods on Earth” for 75 years.  Combining state-of-the-art manufacturing processes with skilled craftsmanship, St. Croix is the only major producer to still build rods entirely from design through manufacturing.  The company remains family-owned and operates duplicate manufacturing facilities in Park Falls and Fresnillo, Mexico.  With popular trademarked series such as Legend®, Legend Xtreme®, Avid®, Premier®, Imperial®, Triumph® and Mojo, St. Croix is revered by all types of anglers from around the world.

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