By BassFan Staff
There he sat on stage in the east Tennessee heat, poised to claim his first victory in more than 3 years. All that stood between Kevin VanDam and a 21st career win was a flat-brim-wearing 20-something from Indianapolis competing in his first Bassmaster Elite Series event.
Jacob Wheeler grew up watching VanDam dominate the pro ranks of bass fishing and become a household name in the fishing industry.
"I always looked at him as the guy I always wanted to beat if I ever got the chance," Wheeler said. "He's so confident in his ability, but yet so genuine. He's a great example for kids because he always takes time for everybody. I don't know how he does it."
So today, Wheeler stood shoulder to shoulder with VanDam on stage as the final two contenders at the inaugural BASSFest at Lake Chickamauga – VanDam looking to recapture his winning magic, Wheeler looking to take another sizable step forward in his already dazzling young career.
With a solid 22-01 stringer today, the precocious 23-year-old Wheeler, one of 33 competitors from the Bassmaster Opens in the field this week, put the finishing touches on his triumphant return to Lake Chickamauga as he captured the victory with 90-06 over 4 days. He took home a $125,000 payday and earned a spot in next year's Bassmaster Classic at Lake Hartwell. Not bad for someone who finished 92nd at the Chickamauga FLW Tour last June.
"It hasn't soaked in yet," he said after having a Father's Day dinner with his family in Dayton, Tenn. "These events don't soak in for months. I'm still in the moment. It feels like I won, but at the same time if I didn't have the trophy strapped into the back seat, I'd have to go to sleep and wake up tomorrow and make sure it's real.
"For me to win my first Elite Series event and have that great of a showing, it's a huge résumé builder and a big boost for my career."
VanDam, who like Wheeler weighed in just four fish on Saturday, rebounded today with a final day-best 23-08 to close with 84-12. It's his fifth career runner-up finish in the Elite Series.
Matt Herren, who started the day just a pound back of Wheeler, mustered 16-11 and dropped to 3rd with 83-15. Gerald Swindle caught 18-15 to sew up his second straight top-5 finish with 74-10 while Brett Hite closed with 17-00 to rise to 5th with 71-05.
Here's a look at how the rest of the finalists finished up:
6. Greg Hackney: 70-08
7. Casey Ashley: 69-15
8. Terry Scroggins: 69-07
9. Luke Clausen: 68-01
10. Russ Lane: 66-13
11. Jason Williamson: 64-14
12. Hank Cherry: 61-10
For the second straight day, anglers fished under high skies and with very little wind, but there was ample current to keep some offshore fish in feeding mode at certain times of the day. Because there wasn't an abundance of schools, many of the finalists mixed shallow-water patterns with deep-water tactics. The grass bite was solid throughout much of the event, but it was ultimately won offshore.
While the non-points format this week had many competitors approach the tournament much like they would the Classic, it'll be back to business as usual at the Delaware River Elite Series when the schedule resumes Aug. 7-10 in Philadelphia, Pa.
Morning Flurry Paved Way for Wheeler
> Day 4: 5, 22-01 (19, 90-06)
After he won the Forrest Wood Cup in 2012, Wheeler looked into purchasing a house near Lake Chickamauga and moving to Tennessee. He ultimately opted to buy a place in his hometown of Indianapolis, but the area around Chickamauga has always been special to him.
Wheeler had a great morning to get the ball rolling on his win.
"I still plan on moving down here one day," he said. "A lot of my best friends are down here and when I have time just to hang out, I come down here and fish and hang out with them. Being out there today and being able to win here, it felt like a second home."
It also helped that he had a dynamite morning, catching 17 1/2 pounds by 9 o'clock, to relieve the pressure of carrying a slim lead into the final day.
"The place I fished this morning I'd been saving for today," he said. "I fished it on days 1 and 2 and stayed off it yesterday so it had 2 days without any fishing pressure. It's just something really discreet that I found a long time ago when the water was down. The fish just seem to get there in the morning."
He figured he could catch a couple to cool his nerves, but he didn't expect to leave there with nearly 18 pounds.
"I didn't think that would happen, but it happened in a big way," he said. "To have that quick of a morning was huge. It took the pressure off my chest. I fished pretty freely all week other than Saturday. It just set the tempo for the day and everything flowed from there."
He totaled 15 keepers today, many of which were 2- to 3-pounders.
He upgraded around 1:30 with a 4-pounder, then added a 4 1/4 and a 5-pounder to go from 19 1/4 pounds to 22.
"I didn't know what everyone else had, but I felt a whole lot better with that last 5-pounder because I knew Matt would need to have another day with 23 or so," he said.
Kevin VanDam had his best day of the tournament Sunday, but it wasn't enough to catch Wheeler.
2nd: Steady Current Big for VanDam
> Day 4: 5, 23-08 (19, 84-12)
VanDam had his best day of the tournament in terms of the number of fish he caught (two dozen keepers), but he still wasn't able to close the gap on Wheeler. He'll walk away from this event lamenting some missed opportunities on days 2 and 3.
"The disappointing thing to me is when you have the opportunities, it hurts a little more," he said. "It's one thing if I'd gotten blown out – and I did – and just didn't have the bites, but it just makes you think about it more when it happens. And it's not the first time. Everybody goes through it at some point."
Even though the next Elite Series event isn't until the second week of August, he's hopeful he can carry this momentum over to the Delaware River where AOY points start accumulating again.
"We throw everything out there every week and this one was a little different being a non-points event," he said. "I treated this more like a Classic. I practiced differently than I would have had points been on the line. I know what I had to do to win. It wasn't about the money and all that. It was about the automatic Classic berth and I'm disappointed I came up a little short."
He got off to a good start with a 6-pounder caught off the community hole he'd fished all tournament. He didn't stick around long, though, since the current wasn't moving all that much in the morning and the fish on that particular spot seemed to bite better with more current flow.
"I looked at what the TVA put out last night and they were going to move more than they had been," he said. "I knew it'd be good, but the challenge is you have to wait and be patient because you can't expect to just go catch them on a current-oriented spot until the water has been moving for a while. It takes some time and that's not my style.
"I left the spot I'd been sharing with Russ (Lane) and Jeff (Kriet) by 9 because there wasn't enough current yet. By noon, the water was starting to move and that's when you needed to be fishing your best stuff."
3rd: Herren Had Rough Morning
> Day 4: 5, 16-11 (20, 83-15)
Herren left the dock this morning with a legitimate shot at his first Elite Series win as he trailed Wheeler by a mere 1-pound, 1-ounce margin. His string of 20-pound days came to an end as a mechanical issue robbed him of about an hour of fishing time.
"Sure, I'm a little disappointed because the competitor in me wanted to win, but I fished a good tournament," he said. "I didn't have any mega-schools and I had to run around and mix it up. I didn't have a lot. I had three or four places and I milked them as hard as I could."
He was without power to his trolling motor for a portion of the morning and once he got back on track he noticed the water had come down a foot in the areas he was fishing.
"I guess they pulled the water really hard last night," he said. "It was substantial and it really changed the bite. The biggest thing that saved Wheeler and VanDam today was they moved current. When they dropped the water, my goose was cooked. It was fun, though."
Matt Herren couldn't connect with any big fish today and he slipped one spot in the standings.
He focused a lot of time around docks, especially today, and had some isolated offshore shell beds that produced for him on a stretch of the lake that no one else was fishing. He said he had a 5-pounder come off today, but that was the lone fish that would've helped him much. He said he caught eight keepers today.
"For what I was on and what I had, I had a really good tournament," he added. "Today was a real grind."
4th: Swindle's Hot Streak Continues
> Day 4: 5, 18-15 (20, 74-10)
Swindle focused on shallow-water patterns this week and worked his way from 38th after day 1 to a second straight Top-4 finish – the first time he's done that in the same season in his career.
"I didn’t care what happened. I just wanted to get a check and every time I got a bite, they kept showing up bigger and bigger," he said. "Today was a really tough grind. I had to swap it up a little bit."
He fished docks for a while today, then moved out away from the bank and went to a shaky-head. His key bait on docks was a 3/8-ounce Booyah finesse jig with a Zoom Z Hog Jr. trailer.
5th: Hite Satisfied
> Day 4: 5, 17-00 (20, 71-05)
A combination of deep- and shallow-water patterns helped carry Hite to his fourth Top-6 finish of the year. He opened the tournament in 16th and advanced up the leaderboard each day. He was coming off a 12th-place finish at the Pickwick Lake FLW Tour last week.
"I didn't have any crazy big schools figured out," he said.
He spent most of his morning today throwing a ChatterBait and swimjig around shallow grass, but a second straight day of high skies put a damper on that. He did manage to catch a limit, including a 5-05 and two other solid keepers, before heading out deep where he threw a football jig, a 10-inch worm or a dropshot.
"I ran down the lake around noon and caught a 3 3/4 and another one that helped me cull," he added. "That bigger one I caught this morning helped me make the decision to go because I got a lot fewer bites up shallow today. Without the clouds and wind, it wasn't the best conditions for fishing shallow. I figured if I could cull out my two smallest fish I'd be satisfied and that's what I did.
"Luckily some guys stumbled a little bit and I moved up every day."
> Day 4 stats – 12 anglers, 9 limits, 3 fours.
1. Jacob Wheeler -- Indianapolis, IN -- 19, 90-06 -- $127,000
Day 1: 5, 22-06 -- Day 2: 5, 29-13 -- Day 3: 4, 16-02 -- Day 4: 5, 22-01
2. Kevin VanDam -- Kalamazoo, MI -- 19, 84-12 -- $60,000
Day 1: 5, 22-09 -- Day 2: 5, 22-14 -- Day 3: 4, 15-13 -- Day 4: 5, 23-08
3. Matt Herren -- Ashville, AL -- 20, 83-15 -- $35,000
Day 1: 5, 22-07 -- Day 2: 5, 21-07 -- Day 3: 5, 23-06 -- Day 4: 5, 16-11
4. Gerald Swindle -- Warrior, AL -- 20, 74-10 -- $32,000
Day 1: 5, 15-05 -- Day 2: 5, 22-11 -- Day 3: 5, 17-11 -- Day 4: 5, 18-15
5. Brett Hite -- Phoenix, AZ -- 20, 71-05 -- $20,000
Day 1: 5, 19-02 -- Day 2: 5, 18-15 -- Day 3: 5, 16-04 -- Day 4: 5, 17-00
6. Greg Hackney -- Gonzales, LA -- 19, 70-12 -- $18,750
Day 1: 5, 20-05 -- Day 2: 5, 24-08 -- Day 3: 5, 13-10 -- Day 4: 4, 12-05
7. Casey Ashley -- Donalds, SC -- 20, 69-15 -- $17,000
Day 1: 5, 16-01 -- Day 2: 5, 17-07 -- Day 3: 5, 21-03 -- Day 4: 5, 15-04
8. Terry Scroggins -- San Mateo, FL -- 20, 69-07 -- $16,000
Day 1: 5, 19-07 -- Day 2: 5, 17-11 -- Day 3: 5, 19-02 -- Day 4: 5, 13-03
9. Luke Clausen -- Otis Orchards, WA -- 20, 68-01 -- $15,000
Day 1: 5, 15-08 -- Day 2: 5, 16-10 -- Day 3: 5, 20-04 -- Day 4: 5, 15-11
10. Russ Lane -- Prattville, AL -- 19, 66-13 -- $14,000
Day 1: 5, 14-03 -- Day 2: 5, 20-14 -- Day 3: 5, 18-10 -- Day 4: 4, 13-02
11. Jason Williamson -- Aiken, SC -- 20, 64-14 -- $13,000
Day 1: 5, 21-03 -- Day 2: 5, 17-10 -- Day 3: 5, 14-08 -- Day 4: 5, 11-09
12. Hank Cherry Jr -- Maiden, NC -- 19, 61-10 -- $13,500
Day 1: 5, 13-13 -- Day 2: 5, 21-00 -- Day 3: 5, 18-05 -- Day 4: 4, 8-08