By now, everyone knows Jacob Wheeler. A decade ago, Wheeler exploded onto the pro bass scene with a BFL All-American win, quickly followed by a Forrest Wood Cup title. In each case, he was the youngest angler in history to win those events.
Fast forward to 2021 and Wheeler has become the winningest BPT angler after a quick stint collecting trophies at B.A.S.S.. Truly, Wheeler’s on track to becoming one of the most victorious competitors of all time.
It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Wheeler’s next goal has nothing to do with tournament titles. Instead, he wants to give back. “Trophies are great,” he mentioned, “but who have you helped?”
On Sept. 24-25, Wheeler and wife Alicia will begin giving back through their Wheeler Fishing Foundation, with the formation of the first College Bass Shootout tournament on Lake Chickamauga. The event’s purpose is simple: to give college anglers the chance to further their placement, and possible careers, within the sport.
The event is capped at 100 teams, and only two teams may come from a single college fishing program. There are no entry fees and the top prize is $10,000.
“The entire field filled up in six hours,” said Alicia. “We teased it on Jacob’s social media. Response was incredible.”
Immediately, I found the no entry fee angle interesting.
“College kids aren’t exactly cash rich,” Wheeler added.
A heavy sponsor base helped push the prize structure through. Magellan Outdoors took on the title-sponsor role. Realtree Fishing leads the big bass prize. Duckett Fishing is the presenting sponsor. Corporate folks and prominent marine dealers will be on hand. A banquet kicks things off the evening prior.
According to Wheeler, all of this helps introduce the participants to the world of big league bass.
“I wanted to give these kids the experience of a big event.”
With the banquet setting also comes the ability for Wheeler to speak. “I plan to talk to them about life. This (age) is a great point in these kids’ lives to make a decision. I want to talk with them about the mistakes I made and the things I did right. And I don’t want to sugar-coat things.”
Additional speakers set for the banquet include Boyd Duckett and Justin Martin of Duck Dynasty fame.
Wheeler went on to explain how important it is to have a mentor, and how few kids do. “Joe Thomas was my mentor; he helped me in so many ways,” Wheeler mentioned of the well-known Ohio pro. Few young anglers are knowledgeable about the business side of the sport. “I want to let them know what they’re in for,” Wheeler added. Specifically, he mentioned brand-building, an area where he and his team obviously excel.
“Everybody knows what you have to do to get there (the top of the sport), but they don’t realize what to do once they’re there,” he added. “It’s sponsorships and partnerships. Understanding how that works. It’s conversations like, ‘Hey, this is what a going rate (for sponsorship) is.’ There’s nothing out there like that, and it’s mind boggling to me.”
Whenever I speak with Wheeler about these types of issues, the more I’m keyed in to his initial pro career struggles. Sure, the guy came out of the gate with unparalleled success and prize money, but he struggled a bit with direction.
“It all happened so fast, I had a hard time making the right decisions,” Wheeler said. Getting it all out in the open is the best way Wheeler knows to help these young anglers out, while offering some decent cash at a weekend derby. “It’s about being around the right people and not being afraid to ask the tough questions.”
Jacob Wheeler is 30 years old. That’s a pretty young guy to be interested in giving back. “You realize life’s not about money. And there’s something about this sport that’s special,” he said.
True. And as a big fan, I can say there’s been few opportunities for hopeful pros to learn from those successful in the business. Wheeler is out to change that.
Like any 30-year-old, he’s looking long term. A second tournament, or third? Most likely, he said. Perhaps new ways to qualify, to allows more anglers in the mix. Or even a starter league or affiliation with a larger organization. I don’t doubt the Wheelers' abilities to make it happen.
Six hours, full field. Soon an event will be in the books, and uncharted progress will be made in our sport. “This is the first year, so we need to sort a few things out,” Jacob concluded. “But yes, there are big plans for the future.”
And, as his tournament competitors likely attest, never underestimate Jacob Wheeler.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)