By Todd Ceisner
It may take a while for Jacob Wheeler to fully appreciate what he accomplished last week in winning the Forrest Wood Cup as a 21-year-old FLW Tour rookie.
Not only did he become the youngest angler to win the Cup in the tournament’s 17-year history, he outsmarted 45 other anglers by employing a two-pronged approach to dupe enough quality Lake Lanier bass into biting and win by 7-05, by far the largest winning margin ever.
Offshore brush piles, which were the focus of many anglers in the field, held plenty of quality fish in the 30- to 40-foot depth zone, but they were mixed in among lesser specimens and were harder to target.
Instead of playing the dropshot game and exposing himself to the myriad of recreational boaters down lake, Wheeler went shallow and caught everything out of 10 feet of water or less. He’s convinced that the lake being 8 feet lower than its typical summer pool level made it easier to work in skinny water as the fish had less cover to run to.
He focused on current breaks – wood mostly – well up the Chattahoochee River and bluegill beds down lake.
Coming into the event, a lot of pros felt a daily average of 15 to 16 pounds would give someone a strong chance of winning. As it turns out, they were spot-on (no pun intended). Wheeler averaged 15 pounds a day and closed with 60-01 to win comfortably.
Here’s how he did it.
Wheeler’s preparation wasn’t as intense as Kevin Hawk’s when he won the 2010 Cup at Lanier. Hawk had relocated temporarily to the area near Lanier and lived a spartan existence while he picked apart countless offshore brush piles with a dropshot presentation as well as a Sworming Hornet Fish Head Spin – a Lanier staple.
Wheeler knew he had to do something different this time around as the entire field had wised up to where the best piles were. He used a jet boat for 2 days during a scouting trip prior to the off-limits period to examine areas of the Chattahoochie that were inaccessible by bass boat. He found quality fish in the upper parts of the river and that told him there must also be decent ones down below.
“There were a lot of nice-sized spots up that way,” he said. “I only fished in the area I could fish with a bass boat for a couple hours during pre-practice and caught about 11 pounds. I saw some big fish there and I knew right then that there were enough fish up there to at least catch a couple limits throughout the tournament.”
Opting not to fish brush piles, for which he had plenty of waypoints, wasn’t a tough call to make. He knew there was no killer pattern to be uncovered at Lanier – it was going to be a grind, shallow or deep.
“There wasn’t any whacking ‘em,” he said. “There wasn’t any going out deep Kentucky Lake-style and throwing a jig out there and catching one every cast. I love that – I got a Top-10 at Kentucky Lake this year fishing deep – but I’m not going to go to a lake and fish deep when you’re either going to eek out five deep or five shallow. I’ll go shallow every single time.”
> Day 1: 5, 21-15
> Day 2: 5, 11-12
> Day 3: 5, 14-07
> Day 4: 5, 11-15
> Total = 20, 60-01
While Wheeler’s massive 21-15 catch on day 1 changed the whole complexion of the event, he knew similar days were unlikely as the areas in the river he was fishing were not going to replenish with new fish. So he had to work through each stretch carefully, making sure to pick apart specific pieces of wood.
“I fished every little nook and places not everyone knew about,” he said. “It was all about stumps for me. The big largemouth were on that wood. It wasn’t anything special. The fish just live there.
“The river was an area I felt like I could go to and I could flip, I could throw a topwater, I could throw a moving bait and catch five fish.”
Current and clarity were big factors for his river fish. During pre-practice, the areas he was in were literally mud water, but it didn’t take too long for it clear up.
Even under the pressure of leading the Forrest Wood Cup for three straight days, Wheeler was loose and relaxed on the water on day 4.
“On day 1, I ran up to above the Lula Road bridge,” he said. “Everything was blown out from the Lula Bridge north. A lot of fish are up past there, but it was blown so I wouldn’t have been able to catch them.
“I came back down to where the water started to clear up and transitioned from a mud to a stain. When I went to the stained water, that’s when I caught three big largemouth.”
He had his limit by 9:30 and the giant bag set the tone for the weekend, forcing everyone else to play catch-up.
His weight fell off more than 10 pounds on day 2, but he was able to unlock the bream-bed portion of his approach. He had four fish when he left the river around 12:30 and stuck two good ones on a topwater prop bait to helped him retain a 3-pound cushion on Jay Yelas entering the weekend.
He boxed a quick limit on day 3, prompting an hour-long run to fish two particular banks below the Brown’s Bridge. He caught a near-3-pounder that got rid of a squeaker that helped him take a 5-pound advantage into the final day.
With everything on the line on the final day, he played it safe and put a variety of baits to work. Not having to share water with Yelas in the river as he had on days 2 and 3 helped as well. He spent the morning in the river before heading down lake where he sealed the win with a kicker largemouth caught near a bluegill bed around 2 p.m.
“I was really methodical,” he said. “I fished slow and picked everything apart. That’s not me normally, but I knew the circumstances and I knew what I needed to catch so I was going for five bites no matter what they were. I was very methodical, but that’s normally not how I fish. It was hardcore junk-fishing.”
Winning Pattern Notes
He noted the largemouths seemed to eat bulkier baits and that he didn’t catch more than one fish off the same piece of cover.
“If it was one stump or log, that’d be the only fish there,” he added. “Fifteen or 16 of my keepers each came off separate pieces of cover.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Flipping gear: 7’1” heavy-action G. Loomis NRX casting rod, Shimano Core 100MG7 casting reel (7:1 ratio), unnamed 20-pound monofilament line, 1/4-oz. VMC tungsten weight, 4/0 VMC straight-shank hook, 4” Trigger-X Goo Bug (green-pumpkin).
> Bladed jig gear: 7’2” medium-heavy G. Loomis GLX Senko rod, Shimano Core 50MG casting reel (7:1 ratio), unnamed 20-pound monofilament line, custom-made 1/2-ounce bladed jig (blue/green/chartreuse blue).
> Prop bait gear: 6’9” medium-action G. Loomis jerkbait rod, same reel as bladed jig, unnamed 15-pound monofilament line, Rapala X-Rap Prop (yellow perch).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “The common peace I had with my family and my sister praying over me every day and God giving me that calming peace every day to be able to go out there and fish with confidence and not worrying about what happened.”
> Performance edge – “During pre-practice, I’d have Google Maps up on my cell phone in the satellite view and I could zoom in with my GPS so I knew where all the logjams were and the stumps and how they stood out. I caught a couple key fish that were out more in the middle of the river that weren’t on stuff close to the bank. They were on the stuff that you couldn’t see and nobody knew about. When it got more pressured and more pressured, I knew about that stuff.”
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