By Todd Ceisner
Frequent fun-fishing trips to Lake Chickamauga over the past several years and an understanding of how the lake was likely to fish during the first BASSFest seemed to give Jacob Wheeler an edge over the competition last week.
He figured the lake was going to fish small with the obvious offshore community holes attracting a lot of attention. He's never been a fan of fishing in crowds so he zeroed in on locating some "off-the-wall" places that likely wouldn't see much, if any, fishing pressure.
Some of his closest friends live near the lake and he's a frequent visitor to the area, which allows him to spend time on the lake that has quickly gained a reputation as one of the best big-bass fisheries in the country.
After catching a solid 22-06 stringer on day 1, he backed it up with a tournament-best 29-13 on day 2 to take over the lead. After a day off, he overcame a four-fish day on Saturday and rebounded with a 22-01 effort on the final day to beat Kevin VanDam by more than 5 1/2 pounds.
Making his triumphant debut against the Elite Series field even more impressive was he did it while battling a case of mononucleosis. He said he'd been feeling lousy during the tournament and finally went to get checked out Monday and that's when doctors made the diagnosis.
The Tennessee River hadn't been kind to him in previous tournaments. He was 92nd at the Chickamauga FLW Tour last June and came into last week on the heels of a 96th-place showing at the Pickwick Lake FLW Tour, but he made sure to not head down the wrong path this time around.
"I made a bad decision at Pickwick and had a really bad first day," he said. "I learned from that mistake and if you can learn from those mistakes, you're going to be better off regardless."
He was very calculated about when he fished certain areas because he knew from past experience, certain conditions had to be right in order for fish to stack up on those places. He even went so far as to lay off an area early on in the tournament out of fear that spectators or locals would move in on the spot after he left and pick it clean.
"I knew how it fished after last year and knowing how small it fished, to me it was all about finding off-the-wall stuff," he said. "That's what you have to do. Look at (Greg) Hackney at Pickwick last week and how he won fishing a shallow ledge."
His bait selection varied each day, but the constant was a 6-inch swimbait. He mixed in a crankbait early in the tournament and caught some weigh fish on a vibrating jig as well as a bucktail jig.
"Especially in these offshore events and on the smaller TVA lakes, it's all about off-the-wall stuff," he said.
Here's how Wheeler cracked the Chickamauga code.
Much of practice for Wheeler, like many of his competitors, was spent idling and looking at his electronics in an effort to find as many schools of fish offshore as possible. While there were a lot of fish found and caught shallow, either off docks or out of emerging grass, during the event, the prevailing wisdom was that the winning fish were out off the bank and away from shoreline targets.
He already knew of many of the popular community holes that jump off the map and digital charts. His objective, ultimately, was to find those isolated areas where he could pick off a couple good bites a day. Not only would he probably have those spots to himself, it would save him the hassle of having to fish alongside other anglers on river ledges, where current flow is an important factor.
"I enjoy fishing off the bank, but I despise fishing in crowds," he said. "I don't do confrontation at all. I hate it and I would rather fish for five fish on a spot rather than fish a school of 100 fish with five guys. It's the only thing I hate about ledge events."
One place in particular that produced several of his biggest fish during the tournament he never made a cast on in practice. He simply didn't want to be seen there, let alone setting the hook.
"I idled over it three times and I knew there was a certain time when the current got right on it," he said. "There wouldn't be a lot of them there, but it was something subtle."
He described it as a small depression on a flat and it was deep enough that it created a bit of a current break so the bass could slide in and out depending on the strength of the current.
"The shad would group there and it's just a place that had them," he said. "I knew nobody would find it. I'd literally stop 500 yards short of it and then idle over it and never turn around and go back.
"People are looking and they're not stupid. If you're idling a ledge and they see you turn around four or five times, they're going to know you saw something. I knew what was there, but I just wanted to check it. I knew how they set up there and they were big ones."
> Day 1: 5, 22-06
> Day 2: 5, 29-13
> Day 3: 4, 16-02
> Day 4: 5, 22-01
> Total = 19, 90-06
With a cloud-filled sky, a good breeze and a fair amount of current, the offshore crankbait bite on day 1 was productive for Wheeler as he caught his three best fish on a Rapala DT-20.
He also mixed in the swimbait and came away with 22-06, one of 14 bags of 20 pounds or more and enough to come away in 7th place.
He followed that up with a giant stringer that saw him take a 6 1/2-pound lead into the off day. The crankbait bite faded off and he was able to put some good fish in the boat on a 3/8-ounce hair jig along with the swimbait.
His big-fish hole kicked out an 8-15 and a 7 1/2-pounder that made up more than half of his sack. He had his best places to himself, by design, on day 2 and overcame a glitch with his front electronics that forced him to watch the screen from the cockpit, throw marker buoys, then target areas that way.
Following the off day Friday, he struggled to generate bites on Saturday as he came in with four fish for 16-02, which was good enough to keep him out front, but only by a pound.
Wheeler took control of the tournament on day 2 when he caught 29-13 despite having an issue with his front electronics.
He avoided fishing his best spot from the first 2 days in hope of saving it for Sunday. He had a 7-07 kicker that saved his day and likely his tournament, and had a couple opportunities to finish his limit, but both times the fish came unbuttoned.
“Thinking back, maybe I should have started there,” he said.
It turned out to be the right decision because the spot he let rest produced a solid 17 1/2-pound limit for him right off the bat on Sunday and allowed him to fish relaxed and mostly stress-free the rest of the day.
While his big-fish hole that had produced five giants for him didn't kick out any bass, he upgraded three times after 1:30 to get to 22 pounds, which was more than enough to protect his lead as Matt Herren fell off the pace.
"The last day was all about the swimbait and the vibrating jig," he said.
He threw the vibrating jig around scattered stumps on a flat.
Winning Pattern Notes
> Wheeler also paid keen attention to brush piles and small rock piles, again areas that weren't holding big schools, but the fish that were there were good-sized bass.
"I had three places that nobody else knew about and that was a huge key," he said. "Not only did I have all of the community holes, I also had those subtle little areas. I rotated through some brush piles. Nobody was messing with them and I knew those rock piles or brush would hold one or two fish. I'd go to them and make five or six casts and if I didn't get a bite, I'd move on to the next one. I'd do that after I fished the schools I had.
"I think I caught two fish on day 1 doing that and of the 19 I weighed in, I probably caught three total off those places," he added. "It was a big deal to have those places when everybody else was on the same stuff. The thing about fishing the ledges here was everybody was so worried about leaving those places because they couldn't get back on them later. I didn't have to worry about that."
> Wheeler said he had several places that had grass on them, but ultimately didn't fish them. He also fished some docks, but didn't catch any weigh fish there.
"I stayed deep the whole time," he said, adding his deepest fish were caught in about 20 feet of water.
Winning Gear Notes
> Swimbait gear: 7'11" heavy-action Okuma Scott Martin TCS casting rod, Okuma Helios TCS casting reel (6.6:1 gear ratio), 14-pound Sufix Invisiline Castable Fluorocarbon line, 3/4-oz. VMC Ike Approved swimbait jighead (white), 6" Basstrix paddletail swimbait (Tennessee shad).
> Wheeler said the line size was vital to achieving the proper rate of fall and keeping the bait in the strike zone. "Twelve- pound was too light and 17 or 20 was too heavy," he said.
> Vibrating jig gear: 7'3" heavy-action Okuma Scott Martin TCS casting rod, same reel, 17-pound Sufix Invisiline Castable Fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. unnamed vibrating jig (white), 4.5" Lake Fork Tackle Boot Tail Magic Shad (pearl).
> He didn't get bit on a crankbait in practice, but caught three solid fish on consecutive casts with the DT-20 on day 1 of the tournament. "I got them fired up on the swimbait and then came back with crankbait," he said.
> He also caught some key keepers on a 3/8-oz. white hair jig.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "Without a doubt it was having places that weren't getting pressured. I had multiple places to run to like that and knowing the lake really helped me."
> Performance edge – "That Sufix 14-pound fluorocarbon. It was the key to getting bites on the swimbait. You just don't get bites throwing baits on line that's too heavy or too light."
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