By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Jacob Wheeler opened the Table Rock Lake MLF Bass Pro Tour (Version II) with a dominant performance in the Group A Shotgun Round. The numbers he posted 5 days later in the Championship Round weren't nearly as eye-popping, but they were considerably more than he needed to post his first tour-level victory in more than 2 years.
Wheeler, the 5th-place finisher in the prior Table Rock event, caught 56 scorable fish for an even 84 pounds in the final round to outdistance runner-up Brandon Palaniuk by nearly 15 pounds. He moved to the top of the leaderboard late in the second period and was never seriously threatened during the remainder of the day.
His final totals for his four days on the water at the big Ozarks impoundment in Missouri were 213 fish for 315-09.
"It's unbelievable," he said shortly after leaving the launch ramp. "Anytime you win, you can't take it for granted. I've been close a couple times this and I'd been fishing well and doing everything I could, but I was just getting edged out by a little and it was tough to swallow.
"There was a lot of emotion and I was tearing up a little (moments after the final lines-out call). I work as hard as I can at this and to have it finally come together, it's a really good feeling that I can't describe."
Palaniuk finished with 69-02 on 39 fish. Cody Meyer was 3rd with 67-06 (43), Dustin Connell 4th with 66-10 (44) and Adrian Avena 5th with 57-08 (36).
The bottom half of the top 10 consisted of Ott DeFoe with 54-05 (30), Scott Suggs with 51-14 (31), Fred Roumbanis with 49-12 (31), Jesse Wiggins with 41-14 (27) and Kevin VanDam with 23-02 (14).
The tournament, originally scheduled for Grand Lake but moved due to severe flooding in Oklahoma, was the seventh of eight regular-season events on the first-year circuit's schedule. The finale will play out at the end of the month at Lake Winnebago in Neenah, Wis.
Wheeler started the day by exploiting the final remnants of the shad spawn, then ran to a few offshore locales that were unproductive. The key moment occurred when he pulled up on a place that he felt had been relatively unpressured throughout the event and spotted a submerged cedar tree on his depthfinder, the top of which was teeming with bass.
"I didn't even know that tree was there," he said. "I backed off and started throwing the Storm 360 swimbait and it was (a bite) every cast for a while, and then I caught some more on a dropshot. After that I just started making my rotation.
Brandon Palaniuk finished as the runner-up after catching 69 pounds in the Championship Round.
"We've fished these offshore places so much and I needed to get on something fresh. The majority of the fish I caught today were off what I call sneaky places that I'd kind of been saving, but if I hadn't found that cedar tree I might not have had enough."
Palaniuk wasn't overjoyed by his finish, but it gained him some valuable points. He came into the derby at No. 31 on the Angler of the Year list and only the top 30 will qualify for the season-ending Redcrest Championship.
"I'd feel worse if it was super-close because I had a couple of missed opportunities today and those start haunting you," he said. "I did a lot of running around in the afternoon, but in the morning I didn't do as much and that's where I feel like I kind of went wrong.
"I kind of got hung up in the transition when the fish go from schooling to getting locked on the structure and they were spread out and roaming around everywhere."
Meyer, who advanced to the finals via a huge third-period rally in Tuesday's Knockout Round, had no complaints about the way his day transpired.
"I feel good," he said. "I would've loved to have won, but after last night, pulling up on that one spot and catching what I did, I was just so fortunate to be here. Being 20 pounds out with an hour to go and then making it was just unbelievable.
"I started on that same spot and they were blowing up again, but I missed quite a few. I definitely had some opportunities, but I couldn't have won. To finish 3rd with the stuff I had, I'm pretty dang happy."
Avena said he caught about 80 percent of his fish in the third period during his three previous competition days, which started and noon and concluded at 8 p.m. With a switch back to a more traditional timeframe (7 a.m. to 3 p.m.) for the final day, he was at a big disadvantage.
"I'm not saying I would've won if we'd kept it the same, but I would've caught a lot more weight than I did. I tried to figure it out in the morning but I really couldn't get anything going. The deal I was doing was offshore brush and I needed the sun to get high to get the fish positioned on it."
Full details of Wheeler's winning pattern, as well as those of the other top finishers, will be published in the coming days.
1. Jacob Wheeler -- 56, 84-00
2. Brandon Palaniuk -- 39, 69-02
3. Cody Meyer -- 43, 67-06
4. Dustin Connell -- 44, 66-10
5. Adrian Avena -- 36, 57-08
6. Ott DeFoe -- 30, 54-05
7. Scott Suggs -- 31, 51-14
8. Fred Roumbanis -- 31, 49-12
9. Jesse Wiggins -- 27, 41-14
10. Kevin VanDam -- 14, 23-02