By Todd Ceisner
It’s been roughly 7 1/2 months since Jacob Wheeler’s life changed forever (for the good).
To him, though, it still seems like yesterday that a torrent of confetti was raining down on him at the Gwinnett Center in suburban Atlanta as he was handed the Forrest Wood Cup, a giant check for $500,000 and thrust into the spotlight as one of the bright, young faces of pro bass fishing.
A lot has changed since last August when he tamed Lake Lanier and, at 21, became the youngest Cup winner in history. He’s since moved out of his parents’ home in suburban Indianapolis and into a house he purchased, a bachelor/fishing pad replete with all the creature comforts a 20-something needs these days (big-screen TV, surround sound and a 3-car garage that makes tackle tinkering and organization a breeze). It’s only a 10-minute ride to his old neighborhood, too.
Demands on his time are much greater and more frequent with seminars – he was a presenter at last month’s Bass University class outside of Philadelphia – and other sponsor appearances so time management has become a big part of his life as well.
At the same time, he’s tried to maintain some of his old routines like making time to fish local club tournaments with longtime friends and mentors around Indy when he can.
The other noticeable difference about Wheeler is that since his triumph at Lanier, he’s been on some kind of roll in pro events as well. In three FLW Tour events since the Cup, he’s been rock solid with a 3rd at the Sam Rayburn Reservoir Open last fall, a 21st at the Lake Okeechobee season opener in February and an 11th at Smith Lake last month. Dating back to last year’s Kentucky Lake Tour Major, he’s finished outside the Top 21 just once in seven events, counting the Okeechobee EverStart from earlier this year when he took 12th.
“I think it’s gone really well,” he said. “I couldn’t really ask for too much more. There were a couple of times where I missed the cut by a couple of ounces, but overall, it’s gone really well. Momentum is such a big thing in this sport – it’s confidence and momentum. Those are two biggest things, for sure, and to carry that over with the momentum from last year it’s been going fairly well. You never want to feel satisfied, though.”
While winning a half-million dollars has allowed Wheeler financial freedom he never had before, he’s made sure his newfound fame and fortune haven’t been an impediment to those he’s close to. He grew up fishing buddy tournaments around Indiana and still gets a kick out of being around the people that nurtured his love for the sport.
A couple weekends ago, he and pal Bryan Johnson won a club event at Geist Reservoir with a 30.48-pound stringer – yes, a 30-pound bag in mid-March in Indiana. He believes it’s one of only a small handful of 30-pound stringers ever caught in the Hoosier State.
“There are a couple special lakes here in Indiana where this time of year it can happen – the possibility of a 27- or 28- or 30-pound bag,” he said. “The Friday before the tournament, I was breaking through ice at the ramp to get to open water. That’s some fine, cold-water bassin’ right there. It’s something I’ve fished since I was 15 so it’s kind of a tradition.”
It’s a routine he intends to keep as long as his schedule allows.
“I used to fish a lot of tournaments with them and they don’t get to fish with me very often any more,” he said. “It’s just a couple tournaments a year that I get to fish and those are the ones they look forward to the most. I don’t want to not fish them with them and ruin their fun just because a couple guys don’t want me to fish them.
“It’s more important to me for those guys to have that time since they work all week. It’s a big deal for them. They’ve made a huge difference in my life and it’s a way for me to pay them back.”
Heading into the FLW Tour season, Wheeler knew a good start would be imperative to keep his momentum going. And after Okeechobee got the best of him last year (73rd), he committed himself to not getting beat again by the Big O. He spent a couple weeks in central Florida leading up to the Okeechobee EverStart to get a better feel for how the lake had morphed since last winter.
“Starting at Okeechobee, that one can kill you,” he said. “A few really good fishermen had a real tough tournament down there. It’s all about getting one big bite throughout the day. The guys who made the Top 50 were the ones who got a big bite and capitalized on it. I knew, going into this year, that tournament was going to be a difficult one. I was determined to do well.
“Okeechobee changes every year so you have to stay up on it and it seems to be dominated by locals more than any other lake out there. I really respect (Randall) Tharp and how he goes down there every year and puts his time in and does really well. I didn’t want to be outworked. I’m determined to not be outworked, so I spent some time down there.”
It paid off as he finished 12th in the EverStart and 21st in the Tour event a few weeks later.
“It wasn’t fishing like the normal Okeechobee,” he said. “During the EverStart, it was pretty good, but it wasn’t great. You saw a couple 30-pound bags, but it wasn’t like the previous year. All around the north shore, the flipping bite had really tailed off. It had gotten so much pressure and there wasn’t that much stuff to flip so you really had to make some decisions. It fished so differently.”
From there, it was on to Smith Lake, a stark contrast from Okeechobee’s grassy shallows. Wheeler opted against a scouting trip and utilized his practice to learn the lake. With some much water to look at, he chose to focus all of his prep time in Ryan’s Creek, a 30-mile long creek arm that offered him a variety of options.
He threw a shaky-head, a crankbait and a jerkbait en route to an 11th-place showing.
“I figured if I spent all of my time in practice in there I’d have a milk run with multiple patterns going on in that creek so I could make adjustments throughout the tournament,” he said. “There were enough fish in every arm to do fairly well. Fishing the conditions was a big thing in that tournament, for sure.”