By Todd Ceisner
In years past, tournaments at Wheeler Lake would see a good congregation of boats along a stretch known as the Decatur Flats. Sure, the dams at both ends of the lake were magnets for anglers as well, but there was at least some predictability to where some of the better fish would be caught.
The only real sure thing in last week’s Wheeler Lake FLW Tour Open was eventual winner Mark Rose, who found a glut of offshore fish. The rest of the Top-5 finishers were scattered from the Wheeler Dam to the Guntersville Dam and throughout the creeks in between.
Their best fish fell for a wide assortment of baits from hefty jigs to buzzbaits and shallow-running crankbaits, which was fitting for the conditions and time of year.
Here’s how the rest of Rose’s closest challengers went about their business.
2nd: Luke Clausen
> Day 1: 5, 15-15
> Day 2: 5, 15-14
> Day 3: 5, 15-02
> Day 4: 5, 11-13
> Total = 20, 58-12
Even after the tournament wrapped up Sunday, Luke Clausen still felt like he hadn’t figured much out, but over the 4-day event he duped enough fish into biting to secure his best finish of the year.
“With the lack of bites I was getting, I knew if I tried leaning on one thing too hard, I was looking at a disastrous situation at some point,” he said. “When the fishing’s that tough, if you don’t mix it up all the time, for me anyway, it seems like you’re setting yourself up so when you have a change in conditions, you can’t catch hardly anything.”
He followed the classic junk-fishing pattern but focused most of his time around the mouths of creeks, hoping to intercept the bigger fish staging for their feeding migration to shallow water. He threw everything from square-bill cranks to a finesse worm and caught every fish out of 4 feet of water or less. The majority of his better fish came while flipping a Z-Man Palmetto BugZ in the river portion of the lake.
“Every day was just a big challenge,” he said.
Case in point: On day 4, the water, which had risen after some heavy rains during practice, had receded a good 8 inches and the clarity began to improve. That changed his approach – again.
“Pretty soon, I was throwing a topwater way out off the bank trying to find them and I caught a nice one,” he said. “Then, I fished a place I hadn’t fished before just because it had some color in it and I caught a 4-pounder. Everything was so situational.”
> Crankbait/vibration bait gear: 7’ medium-action Megabass Tomahawk casting rod, unnamed casting reel, 17-pound Gamma Copolymer line, Megabass Knuckle 60 square-bill crankbait (Megabass sexy shad) or Megabass Vibration X (Ito Tennessee shad).
> Finesse worm gear: 6’8” medium-action Megabass Orochi spinning rod, unnamed spinning reel, 10-pound Tuf-Line XP braided line (main line), 8-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line (leader), 1/8-ounce Z-Man Shaky HeadZ jig (green-pumpkin), 7” Z-Man Finesse WormZ (green-pumkin).
> Flipping gear: 7’4” heavy-action Megabass Destroyer Black Jungle casting rod, unnamed casting reel, 20-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, unnamed 3/8-ounce tungsten weight, 5/0 unnamed flipping hook, Z-Man Palmetto BugZ (green-pumpkin).
> Spinnerbait/buzzbait gear: 6’10” Megabass Orochi XX spinnerbait rod, unnamed casting reel, 17- and 20-pound Gamma Co-polymer line, 1/2-ounce War Eagle Custom Lures Extreme Series spinnerbait (blue herring) or 3/8-ounce War Eagle Custom Lures buzzbait (white).
> Main factor in his success – “Keeping an open mind and realizing that as soon as you think you have something figured out and things are going well, you have to keep hunting and keep grinding away at it.”
> Performance edge – “My Mercury Pro XS, supported by a T-H Marine jackplate, along with my Power-Poles. That motor is unstoppable and efficient. I got on plane countless times a day in 2 feet of water with that combination and plenty of fuel to do it from the time I started until when I checked in. The Power-Poles made it possible to stop silently and pick off at least one extra fish a day rather than drifting by or fighting the current or wind in the shallow water.”
Blake Nick capitalized on a spot he'd known about for years.
3rd: Blake Nick
> Day 1: 5, 17-15
> Day 2: 5, 16-09
> Day 3: 5, 12-15
> Day 4: 5, 9-11
> Total = 20, 57-02
Blake Nick was the top finisher among the 21 Alabamians who competed at Wheeler. He did it by working a jig across a deep flat that had some scattered timber on it.
“It’s one of those places you’re not going to find on your GPS,” he said. “There’s no big contour change or anything, but there’s a lot of isolated wood scattered out on an 18-foot flat. There was a sandbar rise on the lower end and then coming off the bank was a slow-dropping slope and over time the river has washed a bunch of wood up against that underwater slope.”
He’d known about the area for several years and checked it before the off-limits period and found a good concentration of fish. In practice, he spent time near the Guntersville Dam and by Decatur, but couldn’t find anything to steer him away from his best area, which was toward the Wheeler Dam.
“I knew what kind of fish were there and I knew that’s probably where I needed to be,” he said.
While his weights fell off through the event, he was able adjust when needed and recorded his second Top-3 finish of the year.
“They’d just get out there on the isolated stuff or they’d pull up on the timber,” he said. “I figured I’d catch them out of the timber, but they were all out on the flat just milling around. The baitfish were a big thing and it was real active in the morning and that’s when I caught them.
“You couldn’t pattern that. It was just a good spot. Weather or no weather, the fish were there. I just had to go in there and figure out how to catch them. It’s definitely one of the best places on the lake and I think Mark had a similar area.”
> Football jig gear: 7’3” medium-heavy Abu Garcia Vendetta casting rod, Shimano Chronarch casting reel (7.0:1 ratio), 10- and 12-pound Sunline FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 3/4-ounce Buckeye Lures football jig (peanut butter & jelly), Zoom Creepy Crawler trailer (green-pumpkin).
> He also caught a few weigh fish with a Zoom Trick Worm (pink) rigged on a 1/2-ounce football jig.
> He felt the key to getting fish to eat his jig was downsizing his line because the fish were real finicky. “That was one of the keys to catching what I did,” he said. “My co-anglers caught one fish combined on days 1 and 2 and they were doing the same thing I was, but with 17-pound line. I downsized everything. I used a real short trailer on the jig and gave them a real little profile.”
> Main factor in his success – “My history on the lake and putting myself in position to be around the right kind of fish. I knew there were a couple places that had healthy fish populations by both dams. It just comes from fishing the lake before and knowing my way around.”
> Performance edge – “Downsizing my line and my trailer because there aren’t too many guys who’ll throw a 3/4-ounce jig on 10-pound fluorocarbon.”
Shane Long pulled some big fish out of an eddy pocket by the Guntersville Dam.
4th: Shane Long
> Day 1: 5, 12-02
> Day 2: 5, 17-04
> Day 3: 5, 13-03
> Day 4: 5, 12-07
> Total = 20, 55-00
Shane Long tried to get on a deep-water bite in the main lake for an entire day during practice, but just couldn’t put anything together that he felt would last him several days.
“The fish had obviously moved into the mouths of the creeks because that’s where Rose and Nick were at,” he said.
What he did find were some fish holding in an eddy pocket by the Guntersville Dam along with some fish in some shallow river grass that seemed to turn on after the heavy rains in practice. The shallow bite went away pretty quickly once the tournament started, leaving him to work over the fish down near the dam.
“I started the tournament in 2 feet of water, throwing a swimjig back in pockets,” he said “I’d get bit, but I wasn’t catching the quality. My intention was to catch five doing that and go up to the dam and try to catch a big fish.”
He wound up weighing one fish out of the grass on day 1 and the rest of his keepers came from the upper end of the lake. The majority of them fell for a finesse worm on a dropshot rig while he boated several others on a football jig that he dragged across the bottom more as a search tool.
“I’d be watching my electronics and if I’d see a little rise or a dip next to the current, I’d throw my jig out there and try to feel around what the bottom was and once in a while, one of those little depressions would be a rock pile and that was where most of the bites came from – whenever the current was rolling over little depressions,” he said.
When he was dropshotting, he targeted areas just off the current so he could achieve a more vertical presentation.
“As long as my line wasn’t moving downriver with the current, I knew it’d be in one of those little slack-water areas and that seemed to be the strike zone,” he said.
> Dropshot gear: 7’ medium-action Falcon T7 spinning rod, Lew's Speed Spin Series spinning reel, 8-pound Seaguar InvisX fluorocarbon line, No. 2 Roboworm Rebarb light-wire hook, 6" Luck “E” Strike Finesse Worm (pumpkin/dark green/black), unnamed 1/4-ounce dropshot weight.
> Jig gear: 7’3” heavy-action Falcon Cara Amistad casting rod, Lew's Tournament Speed Spool casting reel (6.4:1 ratio), 15-pound Seaguar InvisX fluorocarbon line, 5/8-ounce Luck “E” Strike football jig (green-pumpkin), Luck “E” Strike twin-tail grub trailer (green-pumpkin).
> Main factor in his success – “The decision to stay at the Guntersville Dam and stick it out. I knew the qualify of fish was there. I usually like to run and gun, but I made myself stay and fish it all day and wait for them to turn on. On days 3 and 4, I didn’t have a fish at 10:30, but by noon I’d have 12 or 13 pounds.”
> Performance edge – “My Ranger Z521. It got really bad rough and I was making a 45-minute run in calm water and I did not realize (on day 3) that it would be as rough as it was. There were 4- and 5-footers out there for several miles before takeoff and I only left myself a few extra minutes to get back. That boat just plowed right through that stuff.”
Brett Hite found his fish holding around docks in creek arms.
5th: Brett Hite
> Day 1: 5, 13-08
> Day 2: 5, 14-15
> Day 3: 5, 9-12
> Day 4: 5, 13-03
> Total = 20, 51-06
Brett Hite got onto what he felt would be a pretty weather-proof pattern on the second day of practice and it held up all week. He targeted fish in and around docks in Wheeler’s numerous creek arms and tempted them with the combination of a square-bill crankbait and bladed swi jig. The reaction baits helped him average nearly 13 pounds a day and kept him in the Top 10 all week.
“I found them on Monday, which was the day we had the 5 inches of rain and I figured if I could catch them around docks when it was pouring rain and real overcast, then during the tournament when we had bright, bluebird skies I knew that the bite should get better because it would position those fish around the docks better,” he said. “It worked out because I didn’t get any good, quality bites elsewhere.”
Mixing up baits and presentations was a major key to his success.
“It’d seem like I go through a stretch of docks and they’d want one thing at one time and then the next thing they wouldn’t touch it,” he said. “There were a lot of gizzard shad where I was fishing and lot of sunfish under the docks, so I tried to mimic those two.”
With the water dropping on the final day, he found the bass had repositioned tight to the ends of the docks in 3 to 7 feet.
> Crankbait gear: 7’4” medium-heavy Evergreen prototype casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo Premier casting reel (6.4:1 ratio), 12-pound Sunline FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, Evergreen Combat Crank 120 (shad).
> Swimjig gear: Same rod and reel, 20-pound Sunline FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 3/8-ounce Phenix Brett Hite Signature Series Power Swim Jig (dark green-pumpkin with black blade and green shad with silver blade), 3 1/2” Yamamoto Swimbait trailer (white or green-pumpkin).
> On the final day, he flipped a green-pumpkin Yamamoto Flapping Hawg around some timber he found off the ends of some docks and picked up a couple keepers that way.
> Main factor in his success – “Picking an area and sticking to it was probably one of the best decisions I made instead of running around. Also, I was able to conserve the fish. On the first and second day, after I had pretty good stringers, I laid off my juice and went looking for some more water. I think that helped me in the long run.”
> Performance edge – “My Minn Kota trolling motor. I put that thing through the ringer (last) week just fishing real shallow and grinding up mud, rocks and stumps all week. In the last 3 years, I’ve not had one thing go wrong with my Minn Kota. I have to give them props.”
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