By MLF Communications Staff

CLARENDON COUNTY, S.C. – During the final period of the final day of the MLF Bass Pro Tour event at Santee Cooper Lakes the chunky bass that had bit consistently all week simply shut down. At one point, the 10 pros competing in the Championship Round went 45 minutes without boating a scorable bass. They combined to catch just 18 fish, none breaking the 4-pound mark, during the final frame.

The one angler who managed to manufacture consistent action – Jacob Wheeler of Harrison, Tennessee. Wheeler accounted for five of those bass, which combined to weigh 14 pounds, 2 ounces. That boosted his final-day total to 47-4, lifting him past Dean Rojas of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, by 5 pounds for his seventh career Bass Pro Tour victory.

Bucking conventional Santee Cooper tactics by fishing offshore with a jighead minnow, Wheeler did what he’s done for the past six years, seemingly willing bites into existence. He started the third period 2-8 back of Rojas but promptly took the lead with a 3-12 largemouth. A little more than an hour later, with everyone else at a standstill, he boated three fish over 2-pounds in about 10 minutes. After Rojas closed within 2-6 in the final 30 minutes, Wheeler ran across Lake Marion to hit one more spot, where he added a 2-10 to all but seal the victory.

“I stuck to my game plan this whole week and I stayed out offshore and I tried to fish isolated stuff," Wheeler said. “It really came down to just keeping my head down and keeping my rotation going. I tried to make other tactics work, but those last two periods really came down to throwing that Freeloader, locking it in my hand. I’ve got so much confidence in it; I know it’s going to generate the bites if they are going to bite at all.”

Both Wheeler and Rojas, who pulled away from the rest of the pack Sunday, largely ignored the fishery’s innumerable cypress trees, with Wheeler fishing offshore and Rojas skipping boat docks.

Wheeler said he had 30 to 40 spots that he cycled through during the event, mostly located in the middle and lower sections of Lake Marion. He primarily targeted brushpiles but also found a few productive locations that featured stumps or hard spots on the bottom.

“I didn’t feel like it was the winning pattern,” Wheeler said. “But I basically was able to find enough stuff that I could keep to myself and rotate on myself and really manage that it ended up being that way. And it was a combination of the right bait, the right area, the right stuff.”

While most of the field focused on cypress trees or submerged vegetation, Wheeler wasn’t the only angler in the Championship Round fishing offshore. Justin Lucas stacked up 42-6 on six bass doing virtually the same thing during the Knockout Round.

What separated Wheeler was his ability to generate strikes amid the tough, postfrontal conditions that greeted the field on Sunday.

His final-period flurry will likely be remembered as the winning moment, but surviving the first period might have been more important for Wheeler. The morning brought chilly, windy conditions that made fishing offshore difficult. Seeing that fish were tucked tighter to the bottom, Wheeler pulled out a jig and used it to catch his first bass of the day, a 5-10. Without that fish, his biggest of the day, he would’ve fallen 10 ounces shy of Rojas’ total.

“I just felt like the fish were on the bottom,” he said. “When the wind blows, a lot of times, those fish will suck down to the bottom. Basically, all I was using ActiveTarget for then was just making the right casts.”

As the wind died down and the water warmed, Wheeler turned to the Rapala CrushCity Freeloader, a soft-plastic pintail minnow of his own design. The Freeloader has become a confidence bait for Wheeler — no surprise considering he’d already won one Bass Pro Tour event, last year on Lake Guntersville, with it.

He came into the week unsure whether it would be effective in Santee Cooper’s shallow, off-color water. But as the event progressed, he found that bass that would eat a jerkbait earlier in the week could still be enticed by a Freeloader — even Sunday afternoon, when no one else in the field could get bit consistently.

“The water’s starting to clean up a little bit, the fish were definitely really fickle,” he said. “When the water was a little bit dirtier, you could catch ‘em on a spinnerbait, you could catch ‘em on a jerkbait; it was a lot better. And then as the water slowly cleared, it became a deal where I had to change up. And that was the key.”

Wheeler’s latest triumph adds to an already sterling Bass Pro Tour resume. He’s now amassed seven wins and 29 Top-10 finishes in 43 BPT events — both easily the most among his peers on tour. He’s already claimed two Angler of the Year titles and is back in the driver’s seat to add a third.

So, has all that success gotten old yet? Not a chance.

“My little girl, she’s sort of like me, she always likes to win,” Wheeler said with a laugh. “And she told me, ‘Daddy, you don’t let (roommates) DC and Adrian win this week. You’ve got to bring home the trophy.’ So, we’re bringing home the trophy, darling.”

Reigning Angler of the Year Matt Becker of Ten Mile, Tennessee, won Sunday’s Berkley Big Bass Award, with a largemouth registering 8 pounds even in the first period. Berkley awards $1,000 to the angler who weighs the heaviest bass each day and a $3,000 bonus to the angler who weighs the heaviest bass of the tournament. David Dudley of Lynchburg, Virginia, earned the $3,000 award for the overall largest bass of the event with his 9-11 largemouth that was weighed on Day 4 of competition.

Championship Round

(Figure at far right indicates weight of angler's heaviest fish for the round)

1. Jacob Wheeler -- 47-04 (15) -- 5-10

2. Dean Rojas -- 42-04 (17) -- 3-06

3. Jesse Wiggins -- 29-14 (9) -- 6-09

4. Matt Becker -- 19-10 (4) -- 8-00

5. Dylan Hays -- 18-12 (5) -- 5-14

6. Casey Ashley -- 16-08 (6) -- 3-06

7. Dave Lefebre -- 15-05 (5) -- 4-09

8. Cole Floyd -- 11-05 (5) -- 2-10

9. James Watson -- 7-13 (3) -- 3-02

10. Justin Lucas -- 4-08 (1) -- 4-08