Jacob Wheeler Wins BASS Cherokee Lake

Jacob Wheeler's Winning Pattern, Baits & Gear

The way Jacob Wheeler looks at it, experience isn't on his side during his initial season on the Bassmaster Elite Series. But youthful energy is, and he plans to use that to full advantage. "I don't have as much knowledge as Kevin VanDam, Edwin Evers or Greg Hackney," he said. "I know a lot for age 26, but I still have a lot to learn. "The one thing I do have is youth, and I'll try to use that to outweigh my lack of experience. That just means working harder and putting more time in. I don't want to be outworked." He labored extremely hard in preparation for the season opener at Tennessee's Cherokee Lake, and it resulted in his third career tour-level victory - an impressive number for an angler of any age, but especially for one who entered life in the 1990s. Try this one on: Wheeler was still about a month from being born when fellow Elite competitor Rick Clunn collected his fourth Bassmaster Classic crown. He was phenomenally consistent at Cherokee, compiling four sacks that varied by only 1 1/4 pounds from the lightest to the heaviest. He caught the best of those - 18-03 - on the final day to claim the trophy, edging out rookies Jamie Hartman and Jesse Wiggins by less than a pound with a 69-13 total.

Wheeler made two pre-practice visits to Cherokee before it went off-limits - one in mid December and the other in early January. He stayed for a week each time. "The reason for that is it was pretty much the only place on the schedule where the fish were going to stay in the same pattern from pre-practice through the tournament," he said. "Very seldom does pre-practice make that much of a difference, but those fish went into their winter pattern when it really cooled down in December and they won't come out of it until about March. "They might not be in the exact same places, but their overall pattern isn't going to change." On both visits he spent the vast majority of his time graphing the lower portion of the lake. By the time he was finished, he'd amassed about 1,600 waypoints. "I marked every place that looked really good - some obvious and some not. If you're just running down the lake and not studying that (Navionics) map, you're not going to see a lot of the subtle changes that could be really important. "I marked rocky places, foundations, road beds that came through a ditch, you name it. I had a different (icons) for rocks that had fish on them and rocks that didn't. For places that were really good, I used a stop sign for like, 'you have to fish here.''' He figures that he investigated about a thousand of his waypoints when he returned for official practice, focusing on the first 11 miles from the dam upstream. Unlike much of the field, he got a bunch of quality bites in practice. "When I told (fellow competitors Adrian Avena and Mark Daniels Jr.) that I got 20 bites on the last day, they were like, 'Dang, you're kidding! You're going to win this thing.' I was like, 'No, I've got a few places, but we'll see."

Competition:

The tournament was pretty much an extension of practice for Wheeler as he bounced around among about 15 places each day to catch 17-pound-plus stringers of smallmouths from 25 to 35 feet of water. He caught most of them on a VMC Neon Moon Eye jig with a small fluke-style trailer, picked up a few on the new Storm 360GT swimbait and added a few more on a Rapala Jigging Rap ice jig. On each day he caught at least two of his weigh-in fish near the dam between 2 o'clock and 3:30. "I don't know if it was current doing it or what, but that's when those fish turned on," he said. "I tried mixing it up a little and on 2 of the days I started the day down toward the dam, but I never could really catch them. "But they always pulled up down there in the afternoon, and when they did they were coming to feed." The only glitch in his program occurred on day 3, when one of his batteries went dead and left him without a trolling motor. Being familiar with the rule allowing anglers to fish from a competitor's boat, he called Daniels, Avena, Andy Montgomery and rookie Dustin Connell to see if he could hitch a ride for the rest of the day. When none answered immediately, he ran a few miles down the lake and found Connell. Wheeler and the B.A.S.S. cameraman accompanying him hopped aboard Connell's boat and Connell's marshal drove Wheeler's boat back to the launch for repairs. The anglers returned to Wheeler's fish - a school that Wheeler described as "a mega-wad," and he upgraded twice prior to the end of the day. The final day got off to a bit of a slow start for him, but a planned move at mid-day resulted in a 12-minute flurry that saw him boat a pair of 4-pounders and three other fish that exceeded 3. He made his last cull for about half a pound when he caught another 4 from near the dam in the closing minutes of the day.

Winning Pattern:

Wheeler said it was critical for him to keep the Moon Eye jig about 2 feet above the heads of the fish (which he could see on his depthfinder). "Smallmouth like to come up to eat, so I'd put it over their head and shake it," he said. "If you dropped it below them, they wouldn't even think about touching it. If it was above them and they were acting funny but not biting, I'd bring it up another foot and sometimes they'd come up and get it. "I'd say it was about 50/50 getting them to bite. Some would come up and slap it or tick it and it was so frustrating that you'd just want to kick your graph." He threw the swimbait at times when the fish seemed averse to a vertical presentation. He had to reel it extremely slow and just off the bottom to entice a bite. He employed the Jigging Rap in a quest to "fire up" schools and ended up weighing one of the handful of fish he caught on it.

Winning Gear:

Jig gear: 7' medium-light Okuma Helios spinning rod, Okuma Helios SX spinning reel, 8-pound Sufix Nanobraid line (main line), 6-pound Sufix Castable Invisiline (8- to 10-foot leader), 3/8-ounce VMC Moon Eye jighead (fathead), unnamed 3-inch soft-plastic trailer (transluscent pearl white).

Swimbait gear: 7' medium-action Okuma Helios casting rod, Okuma Helios TCS casting reel (6.6:1 ratio), 10-pound Sufix fluorocarbon line, 3 1/2-inch Storm 360GT (herring). He used the Jigging Rap in two sizes (5/8- and 7/8-ounce) in the Helsinki shad color.

Main factor: "The time I put in on the water, 100 percent. I put 50 hours on my motor during pre-practice. One day I was out there in the middle of a snowstorm, idling and graphing, and I found one of my main places that day."

Performance edge: "The Sufix Nanobraid is limp and it comes off the spool faster than any other line, and it's great for vertical fishing. It's all about getting down there quicker to stay on top of that fish."

Cherokee Lake Winning Pattern BassFan 2/14/17 (John Johnson)

Jamie Hartman's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Hartman, a 44-year-old former truck driver from upstate New York, said prior to the season that his financial footing was only solid enough to carry him through the first three events if he didn't earn any checks in those derbies. The picture has brightened a bit now as the $26,000 he pocketed at Cherokee was the equivalent of more than 2 1/2 of the standard paydays that accompany a Top-50 finish. He came very close to snatching the six-figure winner's check and becoming the first true rookie to win his maiden Elite tournament since Derek Remitz in 2007, as his 4-day total was just 10 ounces lighter than Wheeler's. He said intel that he gathered during a pre-practice visit was critical for him. "I came here in December and got information from local folks," he said. "I didn't find anything new when I came back for (official) practice." He ultimately relied on two places, both depressions in flats and one of which had the Holston River channel running through it. He pulled fish that he could see on his depthfinder around rocky cover in 26 to 35 of water, employing a vertical presentation with a Damiki Armor Shad fluke-style swimbait (the staple for Cherokee at this time of year) attached to a 3/8-ounce jighead. "I fished mostly for singles - sometimes there was two or three down there, but not very often. It did seem like when there were multiple fish, I'd get a bite. "The singles were hit or miss. Most times they wouldn't go, but sometimes a color change would produce a bite."

Jighead gear: 7' medium-action Cashion spinning rod, Shimano Stradic 3000 spinning reel, 15-pound Hi-Seas braided line (main line), 8-pound Hi-Seas fluorescent green fluorocarbon (10' leader), 3/8-ounce jighead, Damiki Armor Shad (various shad colors).

Main factor: "I'd have to say just persistence and making the right decisions, like changing colors, at the right times."

Performance edge: "My Lowrance graphs. I could not have done it without them."

Cherokee Lake 2-5 Patterns BassFan 2/15/17 (John Johnson)

Jesse Wiggin's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Alabama's Wiggins, who came into the event carrying the momentum from a Bassmaster Southern Open victory last month at Florida's Harris Chain of Lakes, sat atop the standings for the tournament's 2 middle days. He used a small fluke-style bait to pull the vast majority of his weigh-in fish from a single spot that he had all to himself. "I was idling a point (during practice) and just inside the point was a pocket," he said. "I idled the pocket and there was a bunch of fish." The depression where the fish were holding was about 30 yards long by 30 yards wide. It had a hard clay bottom and was devoid of rock, but it was holding a bunch of shad. In an effort to manage the area, he fished it for only about an hour on days 1-3. That was plenty of time put 17 pounds or so into his box. He hit hard for several hours on day 4, but managed only seven bites, and that prompted him to spend the afternoon in other locales. He found another one that was loaded in the final half-hour and made one cull before the fish vanished. "I thought I was fixing to win," he said, "but by the time I was finished making the cull and got back to where they were, it was like the light had been turned off. I don't know how that many fish can just disappear. "I'd have won with two more drops if they'd stayed, but that's how it goes."

Jighead gear: Unnamed 7'2" medium-action spinning rod, unnamed 2500-size spinning reel, 10-pound Seaguar Smackdown braided line (main line), 6- or 8-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon (8' leader), unnamed 3/8-ounce ball-head jig, 3" Jenko Big T Fry Daddy (dirty milk or pearl blue glitter).

Main factor: "Just committing to looking at the graph and idling, and finding a place that had a bunch of fish."

Performance edge: "My Lowrance unit, no question."

Cherokee Lake 2-5 Patterns BassFan 2/15/17 (John Johnson)

Seth Feider's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Seth Feider has dramatically boosted his bank balance and his name recognition over the course of the last three Elite derbies, all of which have taken place on smallmouth-dominated venues (being from Minnesota, brown fish are his specialty). This was actually his lowest finish from that triad of tournaments, which included last September's AOY Championship - an event he won. He came down for pre-practice before the lake went off-limits last month, but did his exploration from a borrowed boat with sub-standard electronics and thus didn't learn much. During official practice, he used the SideScan feature on his depthfinder to identify areas with large rocks. He found six places that he deemed worthy of fishing during the tournament and uncovered two more on competition days. "It was the same deal a lot of people were fishing - clay banks with limestone rocks," he said. "It was all deep water (25 to 40 feet) and if it was solid rock, I didn't do any good. The best places had 5 to 10 feet of open ground around the rocks. "A lot of the fish I didn't see (on his graph). I'd just drop it down on the edges of the rocks and shake it down there, and they'd come out and get it." He started the tournament using 6-pound fluorocarbon line and compiled his biggest bag on a "Damiki rig" without losing anything of consequence, but then lost a bunch of fish on day 2. A conversation with eventual 10th-place finisher Ott DeFoe, who has vast experience on Cherokee, convinced him to switch to a slightly heavier rod and to spool up with braid and a fluorocarbon leader.

Jighead gear: 7' medium-heavy Daiwa Steez AGS 10 spinning rod, Daiwa Steez EX 3012 H spinning reel, 10-pound Sufix 832 braided line (main line), 6-pound Sufix Invisiline flurocarbon (12' leader), 3/8-ounce VMC Moon Eye jig, 3" minnow-style soft-plastic trailer (white). He also caught a couple of fish (one that he weighed) on a Rapala Jigging Rap ice jig.

Main factor: "Just having enough places - I could run around some and I had options. Timing was a big deal and sometimes my timing was better than others. Sometimes the fish were biting and sometimes they weren't."

Performance edge: "Definitely my Humminbird graphs - I stared at them for 7 straight days - and my new Minn Kota trolling motor with Spot-Lock."

Cherokee Lake 2-5 Patterns BassFan 2/15/17 (John Johnson)

Paul Mueller's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Mueller had by far the worst day of any of the Top-5 finishers, but rebounded to equal his career-best showing in a regular-season Elite event (he was also 5th at Toledo Bend last year). He focused his efforts on places that he deemed to be in fairly close proximity to spawning areas. "I could look on the bank and see a nice combination of rock and gravel, and even sometimes clay," he said, "and there was deep water close to the shore. They were areas that fish were staging before they come up on the banks. "I had six areas from practice, but one of them other competitors beat me to and a couple of guys who did well fished there. In the tournament I rotated through five, and they were spread out a little bit from mid-lake to the southern end. He used his Garmin Panoptix electronics to home in on the location of fish, and then he'd drop a Reins Bubbling Shaker down to them on a jighead. "Instead of letting it got to the bottom, I tried to keep it above them and constantly shake it," he said. "Sometimes they'd eat it right away and other times I'd let it sit above them and they'd slowly come up and eat it. "Every fish was different. The electronics would tell me what mood they were in and then I'd work each one accordingly." He also caught a few weigh-in fish on a small swimbait attached to an under-spin. "If they were moving fast or if it was windy and I couldn't position the boat right to get over them, I'd cast the swimbait to them. I could see where they were at with the Panoptix, and if they were maybe 30 to 40 feet away I'd cast beyond them. The key was letting it go to the bottom and then slow-rolling it."

Jighead gear: 7'2" Dobyns Champion Extreme spinning rod, unnamed 2000-size spinning real, 10-pound Gamma Torque braided line (main line), 6-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon (12' leader), hand-poured 3/8-ounce ball-head jighead (from Do-It mold), 3 1/2" Reins Bubbling shaker (bluegill, baitfish or natural pro blue). He threw the under-spin on a 7'6" Dobyns Champion Extreme rod with a Team Lew's Pro Speed spinning reel. He employed 15-pound braid with an 8-pound leader.

Main factor: "I knew I needed to catch a good bag every day after that bad first day, when the cold front moved the bait out of my areas. Once conditions got more stable, the bait moved back in and that brought the (bass) back."

Performance edge: "The Panoptix - it allows you to see everything that's happening away from the boat in real time."

Cherokee Lake 2-5 Patterns BassFan 2/15/17 (John Johnson)

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