By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
When Dustin Connell won the MLF Bass Pro Tour season opener at Toledo Bend Reservoir earlier this month, he pulled within a single victory of Jacob Wheeler's circuit-leading career total. Wheeler wasted no time in reestablishing that two-trophy margin over his good friend and travel partner.
The No. 1 angler in the BassFan World Rankings for nearly five full years now, Wheeler claimed his seventh BPT triumph in the season's second event at the Santee Cooper Lakes in South Carolina. He caught 15 scorable fish that combined to weight 47-4 in the Championship Round of the six-day event, eclipsing runner-up Dean Rojas by five pounds.
The BPT is in its sixth season and Wheeler has now won at least one event in five of them. The fourth-place finisher at Toledo Bend, he's off to a superb start in pursuit of his third Angler of the Year (AOY) title in the last four campaigns.
The key to his victory at Santee Cooper in his initial competition on the venue was finding offshore locales that harbored quality fish, but weren't community holes or even places that most of his competitors would choose to devote significant time to.
"This one was a lot of fun because just about everything was pointing to heading to the bank and catching them," he said. "Other guys were doing what I was doing, but I was doing it in different areas.
"In the practice period I checked all the popular areas and there were all these guys graphing around. I knew I couldn't win in those places because they were all going to cannibalize each other. I looked for the most obscure areas that might only have a few fish, but I could manage them myself. Other than (when he was in) the community areas, I never saw another boat."
He caught about 60 percent of his fish off brushpiles, with stumps and hard-bottom places accounting for approximately 20 percent each. Some of the fish came from water as shallow as four feet and others were as deep as 10 feet.
One of the top practitioners of forward-facing sonar in the game, he naturally used the technology to his advantage.
"The cool thing is I won it on FFS, but I wouldn't have won without spending a lot of time with DownScan and SideScan – if you take that away I wouldn't have found those places. I wasn't just panning around looking for single fish out in the lake; I had to hunt up the cover that they'd be on out of the thousands of stumps and other irregularities out there."
He said that 90 percent of the fish he caught were enticed by the Rapala CrushCity Freeloader minnow imitation that he designed. The others bit a jerkbait or a jig.
The Freeloader was the ticket when fish were suspended in the water column, which was the case most of the time. The jig was effective when they were tight to the bottom, which they were early in the Championship Round, and the jerkbait, with its ability to hover in their face for longer periods, was good in water that was most heavily stained.
His gear consisted of his 7-foot medium-action signature series rod by Duckett Fishing, a Shimano Vanford 2500 spinning reel, 8-pound Sufix NanoBraid, a 10-pound Sufix fluorocarbon leader and a 3/16-ounce VMC Hybrid Swimbait Jig or an unnamed 1/8-ounce jighead.
He made only slight coloration changes with his soft-plastic baits – he used pearl white, albino pearl (best in stained water) and albino shad. He went through a considerable amount of Bait Pop Sonar Intensifier scent gel.
"I've become a bigger fan of scent recently and adding a little more to the bait when the fish are inactive," he said. "There were times when they just didn't want to commit and I think it helped."
He said his seven-point edge in the AOY race is of no consideration at the moment.
"At this time of year, I'm just really focusing on having fun," he said. "I get to do what I love to do – drop my boat in the water every day and make my passion my job.
"If I'm not enjoying it, then I feel like I don't have the right mindset."