By Todd Ceisner
Ask Jake Whitaker what excites him the most about his upcoming rookie season on the Bassmaster Elite Series and he’ll tell you it’s all about competing against some of the titans of the sport of bass fishing – guys he idolized as a kid from North Carolina.
“Just being able to fish against the guys I grew up watching on TV with my dad,” he says. “Watching those Saturday morning shows was a big deal. I know seeing (Kevin) VanDam and (Mike) Iaconelli and (Gerald) Swindle and getting to fishing against them is going to be pretty cool. I’m sure I’ll be a little star-struck at first.”
Then follow up with a query about what scares him the most heading into his first year as a professional angler and he’s quick to respond.
“The same thing,” he said with a chuckle. “The competition is so tight and you have to be on top of your game at each tournament if you want to make money. I’ll have to do the best I can and let the cookies fall where they fall.”
Don’t let Whitaker fool you, though. He’s here for a reason. The 25-year-old didn’t just luck into his Elite Series berth. After taking a shot at the Bassmaster Northern Opens in 2016 with an eye on qualifying for the Elite Series, he came back in 2017 and notched three top-40 finishes in the Northerns, highlighted by a 10th-place showing at the James River. After a 14th-place finish at Douglas Lake, he found himself 3rd in points and the recipient of an invitation to the Elite Series for 2018.
It all fit Whitaker’s unofficial master plan of giving himself a couple years – he called it a “soft deadline” – to earn an Elite Series bid. After he qualified, he figured there will be no better time than now to see how he measures up against those guys he used to watch on television.
“My main reason (for doing it) is I’m still single,” he said. “I don’t have the obligations that other guys already have. I don’t have a stable career I have to leave or disrupt. Also, just realizing that qualifying is not a guarantee year after year. This was my goal after college so when it happened, it’s like, ‘I’ve got to make this work now,’ because who’s to say I might not qualify for another 10 years? The timing has to be right for everyone.
“I gave myself a couple years to try it. If it doesn’t work out, I have my degree.”
Can You Repeat That?
The key to Whitaker’s success in the Opens in 2017 versus 2016 was simple: He said he was more comfortable in multi-day tournaments. It also helped that two of the venues (James River and Oneida) were repeats from the previous year. With Douglas Lake less than two hours from home, he knew he had to improve at the tidal-oriented James and Oneida, the diverse Central New York fishery.
“I didn’t do terrible in 2016, but it was not great,” he said. “It was my first time being at those lakes so I definitely did a lot of learning. Going back to Oneida and the James, I figured if it’s going to happen, I had to try to make it happen this year.”
He started with a 40th at Oneida, an 86-place improvement over 2016, then took 10th at the James, where he’d placed 72nd the previous year.
“The repeat venues helped a lot,” he said. “My dad also fished as a co-angler, so having him there and some of the stuff he learned, it all came together.”
The other notable difference was how he fished each event with an open mind.
“I did my research on what did well in the past and I tried to follow those, but in 2017, I said, ‘Let’s see if I can make the stuff I’m comfortable with work.”
For instance, he threw a topwater and Carolina rig and jerkbait at Oneida.
“I was able to stray from normal patterns and fished how I liked to and made it work,” he said. “I was able to fish my confidence stuff and how I like to fish.”
Whitaker is yet another product of the college bass fishing scene that has exploded in popularity over the past decade. He and partner Andrew Helms won the 2014 Bassmaster College Series national championship for UNC-Charlotte and Whitaker twice qualified for the College Classic Bracket.
“After we won the championship, we went to the Night of Champions dinner at (the 2015) Classic,” Whitaker said. “They probably don’t remember me, but it was pretty cool to get to go there.”
He hopes to give his competitors a reason to remember him this season. He’s been in high-pressure situations on unfamiliar lakes and held his own or excelled. He thinks his college fishing experience will help him adjust to the multi-day formats and going to new venues.
“I think it was a huge help,” he said. “Most of the events I fished before were one-day deals. Then to jump into the college series, if you make it until the end, it’s three days. The difference between one day and two or three days is huge. You can’t bank on five good bites in one day and expect that to carry you. You have to put together two or three solid days to do well. Just that alone will help me a bunch.”
He says his fishing style is more a product of the lakes he sharpened his skills at. He was a frequent visitor to Lake Norman and Lake Hartwell, where herring are the dominant forage base for bass.
“These fish are constantly on the move and they’re hardly ever in the same place twice,” he said. “They’re so bait-oriented. It’s a style I’ve developed that I have to keep moving. If I’m not getting bites every 15 or 20 minutes, I have to move until I find where they’re holed up.
“I’m a very fast fisherman and developed that through being on herring lakes. I say that, but I think I’m pretty good at recognizing when I need to slow down, too.”
He knows he’ll be up against a stout group of rookies this year, but he’s setting some lofty goals for himself.
“Obviously, I want to do well, but realistically if I can make five or six checks throughout the year, that will be a great year,” he said. “I want to win Rookie of the Year. There are a lot of good rookies so winning that would be a huge accomplishment.”