It’s official. Illinois angler Trey McKinney is the youngest to ever qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series. The 18-year-old fishing phenom finished the 2023 Bassmaster Opens season in 3rd place in the year-end points, earning him a spot on the big stage next year.

While many bass fishing fans became aware of McKinney for the first time this year after his great finishes in the Opens, it’s been a meteoric rise for the young angler. He’s won everywhere he’s fished and has done so with the help of his faith, a great support system, plenty of time on the water and a natural ability that many believe will be what takes him to bass fishing superstardom in the next few years.

Rising the ranks

While the 2023 Bassmaster Open season was the coming out party for McKinney and the first time many had heard of him, he’s been successful at every level. He won the 2018 TBF FLW Junior World Championship, the 2018 Junior Bassmaster National Championship, and several other titles before being old enough to drive.

Another significant milestone for McKinney was competing with his mentor and fishing coach, Rick Cheatham, in the U.S.A. Bassin, Next Generation series, a separate division for teams consisting of one adult angler and one junior angler. The Indiana-based team circuit has divisions in nearly 19 states, and Next Generation teams vie for entry into the Next Generation Classic.

McKinney and Cheatham won that championship event for three consecutive years from 2018-2020, which made them ineligible to compete in that division the following year. After that success, they moved to the adult division and won the tournament and prize boat at the 2021 Bass Cat Classic. In total, the duo have won three boats fishing together in tournaments.

U.S.A. Bassin national tournament director Kevin Yeary knew McKinney was special right away. “We’re proud as heck for him. He was one of our kids and now look at him,” said Yeary. “We’ve also had pro anglers like Jacob Wheeler and Cole Floyd fishing with us when they were younger. Trey is destined to have a great career as a professional bass angler like those two and we are happy to be a small springboard for some of his success.”

After that success, McKinney took on Major League Fishing’s Bass Fishing League, winning four events, two Illini Division Angler of the Year titles, and a berth into the 2023 BFL All-American. That success gave him the confidence needed to jump to the next level, the Bassmaster Opens.

An incredible support system

To achieve his goal of qualifying for the Elite Series, McKinney had several big milestones, and it all started with an incredible support system, namely his parents, including his mother, Kim, as well as his coach and fishing mentor, Rick Cheatham.

Kim McKinney is a very proud mother and knows it’s taken a lot of sacrifice from many people to get her son to this point in his career.

“To me, it’s a God thing because so many doors have been opened for us and for Trey,” she said. “It’s been an amazing journey with all of the people that we have met along the way. His support and the people who have believed in him from the get-go, like Seaguar, St. Croix Rods, and Strike King, have all been a blessing and are now like family to us. It’s taken all of us to keep him going and growing as an angler.”

Cheatham began fishing with Trey when he was 11 years old and knew right away he had natural instincts. “The first time we fished together, I knew he had an incredible sense for fishing and for things like detecting a bite at such a young age,” he said. “I’ve been in the boat with many people over the years, and one thing about Trey is that he understands the nuances and how to trigger a fish to bite better than anyone I’ve ever seen. It’s been unreal to see him grow as an angler and to make it to the Elite Series and know that he has the confidence and skills to be successful at the next level.”

Seaguar is proud to have been associated with him as a sponsored angler, as he has helped work the Bassmaster Classic and ICAST booths for the past several years since winning his Junior titles in 2018.

“We always knew Trey was different and he had incredible determination and the support system to make it happen,” recalled Seaguar’s Brian Evans. “We’ve worked with Trey for a few years now and couldn’t be more proud to see him take the next step. We knew it was only a matter of time before he reached the top level of professional bass fishing.”

That time has come, and McKinney will be on the Elite Series roster next year as a rookie, the youngest ever on the professional circuit.

Roy’s words of wisdom

Before McKinney became the youngest ever to qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series, it was fellow Seaguar pro-Bradley Roy who held that distinction. In 2010, when Roy was just 19, he embarked on a professional bass fishing career that is still going strong on Major League Fishing’s Bass Pro Tour.

Roy recalled qualifying at such a young age and said it was a blessing and a disadvantage at the same time. “On one hand, you are going against great competition with years and years of experience,” he said. “The only way I could combat that was with my work ethic. That’s what it takes for young anglers like Trey to succeed.”

Having recently hosted his 10th annual Bradley Roy Covercraft High School Open, Roy also sees a great benefit for McKinney and other aspiring anglers. “Being a young angler is also a blessing,” he said. “You can fish freely and focus on building your skills until your experience catches up.”

That’s what young Trey plans to do this season and if his track record of success at the lower levels of fishing is any indication, he’ll soon be competing for titles on the Bassmaster Elite Series.