By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Having cashed five paychecks in the final six regular-season tournaments and qualified for the Angler of the Year Championship event, Jake Whitaker considers his rookie season a success. He has a chance to sweeten it a bit this week, however, on a venue he knows well.
At No. 32 in the AOY standings, Whitaker sits 3 places behind Rookie of the Year leader Roy Hawk, but he's only 4 points in arrears. He has a shot to overtake the more experienced Hawk and also claim a Classic berth in the AOY Championship at Georgia's Lake Chatuge.
Chatuge is about a 2-hour drive from Whitaker's home in Fairview, N.C. He's competed in 15 to 20 tournaments there has fished it much more often just for fun.
"I love the lake," he said. "During the springtime it really shines, just like anywhere else, but the quality of the fish is pretty unreal. The (spotted bass) are big – all the way up to 5 and 6 pounds, and some of the largemouth are huge.
"It's a little tougher at this time of year and 15 pounds will probably be a really good bag. Some guys will get up around the 18 mark, but doing that 3 days in a row (competition takes place Thursday, Friday and Sunday) is going to be difficult."
The 26-year-old Whitaker's pro career didn't get off to the kind of start he'd hoped for as he finished 74th in the in the season opener at Lake Martin and 93rd in the subsequent event at Grand Lake. He pulled things together after that, though, and rattled off a streak of five straight money placements (top 50 or better) that was broken by a 64th last month at the St. Lawrence River.
He admitted that the notion that he might be in over his head had crept into his mind after Grand.
"Definitely – you can't but think that way," he said. "Obviously, it was not the way I wanted to start and I had some of those thoughts. I felt like I had to pick it up or else this thing wasn't going to work out.
"Fortunately, we went to Kentucky Lake right after Grand and I didn't have a lot of time to dwell on it. I got to Kentucky and made the cut there (48th) and that definitely helped out a bunch as far as confidence goes."
He followed that up with a 21st at Lake Travis and a season-best 5th at the weather-delayed Sabine River derby. The latter is a fishery he'd never laid eyes on prior to the start of the 3-day official practice period.
"(B.A.S.S.) opened it back up for pre-practice after Travis and I was one of the few who didn't go," he said. "On the first morning (of official practice) I put in a good ways from the ramp and within 30 minutes I had two 3-pounders on a frog. I knew it was going to be a tough tournament so I decided not to stick any more in there.
"When the tournament started I hunkered down in there every day and caught 9 or 10 pounds. That doesn't sound like much, but it's huge at the Sabine. I was getting six or seven bites a day and I caught the majority of them on a frog, a couple on a buzzbait and a few close to the ramp on a square-bill."
Classic the Biggest Carrot
Whitaker would love to leave Chatuge with the ROY trophy, but that won't be his primary objective for the week.
"It kind of hurts me to say this, but I want to make the Classic more," he said. "If I can put myself in position where I make the Classic, depending on where (Hawk) finishes, then I think Rookie of the Year would just be icing on the cake. I might have a little bit of an advantage, having spent so much time on the lake, but it's certainly not as much as I'd like.
"I want to win the ROY, don't get me wrong – it does have meaning to it and sponsors look at that stuff and it's definitely something to put on your résumé. But it doesn't pay anything and the Classic does (each participant is guaranteed $10,000). I want to make the Classic."
> Whitaker holds a degree in civil engineering from UNC-Charlotte and works for a machine and fabrication shop, mostly doing computer drawings. It's a position he plans to keep for a while. "Where I'm at in my career in bass fishing, I'm not established to the point where I'm making a living at it full-time," he said. "Maybe that day will come, but right now and into the near future, I want to have that other source of income."
> He said the biggest spot he's caught from Chatuge weight right around 5 pounds. He's boated numerous 5- to 7-pound largemouths.