By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Jacob Wheeler went into last week's Bass Pro Tour event at Lake Guntersville thinking that his chances for a third straight Angler of the Year title had gone by the wayside with his 75th-place finish in the previous points event at Lake Murray.
Now, with three Northern-venue slugfests remaining on the schedule, he isn't so sure.
"I look at the points and I'm 73 behind Ott," said Wheeler, who picked up his unprecedented sixth BPT victory with a dominant performance over the final 2 days at Guntersville. "Ott would have to stumble, but it's definitely not insurmountable.
"Those last three tournaments are going to take a lot of weight and it's very easy to mess up if you don't get those bigger bites you need every day – there's a fine line between having a great event and finishing outside the cut. If we had three grinders left then I'd say Ott's got it, but because (those events are) going to be so dependent on the bigger bites, it could go either way."
Wheeler, who's sat atop the BassFan World Rankings for nearly 4 calendar years, weighed 54-15 combined in the Knockout and Championship rounds to claim victory by 9 1/2 pounds over runner-up Jacob Wall. He caught the majority of his fish on a secretive soft-plastic swimbait he designed for Rapala that will be introduced next month at ICAST.
It was his first victory since 2021 – a campaign that saw him triumph three times.
"Winning an event every year is always the goal – it's a challenging goal and maybe sometimes it's not realistic," he said. "It had only been a year and a half, but I did start to wonder if I was losing my edge or if I was overthinking things at times.
"I had a tough event in the last tournament and that gave me a little more pep in my step. If you look back at my record, after I've had my worst tournaments, my next one has usually been pretty solid."
Wheeler caught a lot of 4-to 6-pound fish at Guntersville.
He did a lot of offshore graphing during his 2 practice days. Many of those places had no (or very few) fish on them at that point, but hefty largemouths showed up on some of them during the tournament.
In the 2-day Qualifying Round, he fished hard for only about the first period and a half each day en route to compiling 20-15 and 22-08 stringers, which left him 2nd among the 40 anglers in Group B. Consequently, he had a lot of time to keep tabs on other spots he'd looked at and discover new ones as the tournament progressed.
"That gave me such an advantage," he said. "I'd marked some places that looked good but had zero or maybe one to three bass, but by the end of the tournament they had 10 to 20. Those fish were so fresh that not even the locals were on them yet – they'd gotten there that day or the day before.
"By the end of the tournament, I had 26 schools, which is almost double what I had after practice. If the tournament had been two weeks later, all of those locations would've been found and all of those fish would've been getting heavy pressure."
He caught fish from water as shallow as 8 feet and as deep as 35. Some of his best places were adjacent to grass lines or actual holes in the grass and others were hard-bottomed shell beds.
The new bait, called the Freeloader, is a 4 1/4-inch shad-imitator. He designed it to not only be fished on a jighead, but also as a bladed-jig and spinnerbait trailer.
"On a jighead it has a very unique action – I can't say what it is, but it's very subtle," he said.
He used the green shad color under bright skies and the darker gizzard shad when clouds were prevalent. The baits were attached to a VMC Hybrid Swimbait Jig (3/16- or 3/8-ounce, depending on depth). He threw them on his signature series 7' medium-action Duckett Fishing rod with a Shimano Vanford 2500 spinning reel spooled with 8-pound Sufix NanoBraid line with a 10-pound Sufix Advance fluorocarbon leader.
"The NanoBraid was the unsung hero of the week," he said. "I've learned over the years that lighter braid results in better action on the bait. A lot of times we over-obsess about the leader, but braid has a lot of drag and with wind current, heavier braid negatively impacts bait action. Fish look at it and say 'Hey, that ain't real.'
"I'd estimate that with that small-diameter braid, I got 20 percent more bites than somebody who was using 20-pound braid."
> Wheeler said his poor finish at Murray was the result of having too many things going on. "I pride myself on being a super-versatile angler, but in that tournament versatility actually hurt," he said. "I tried to do too much; if I'd committed to one thing I would've ended up in a better position. I got into some bad areas and got behind the 8-ball trying to make up and I never could get out of that hole."