Jacob Wheeler chose the road less traveled. It led straight to victory Sunday in the inaugural Bassmaster BASSfest event.
The 23-year-old from Indianapolis, Ind., amassed 90 pounds, 6 ounces over four days of competition on Chickamauga Lake. His margin of victory was 5 pounds and 10 ounces over arguably the best angler on the planet, Bassmaster Elite Series pro Kevin VanDam, who stepped up from third place to finish as the runner-up.
After leading for two days, Wheeler added a pad of 22-1 Sunday to clinch the win. He took home $125,000 and a qualification for the 2015 world championship, the Bassmaster Classic.
â€œI feel unbelievable,â€ said Wheeler, who at age 21 made a name for himself on the FLW tour by winning the 2013 Forrest Wood Cup. â€œTo be the first BASSfest champion, and to do it in my first Elite Series event â€¦ I mean, these (Elite) guys are the best in the world. I couldn’t feel more humbled. The stars lined up for me this week.â€
The Classic qualification means as much to him as the event win, he said.
â€œThat’s so big, qualifying for the Classic,â€ Wheeler said. â€œThat’s the event you want to be in for your career to advance. I’ve wanted to qualify for a Classic since I was 10 years old.â€
BASSfest was a rare opportunity for Wheeler to earn a Classic berth. He was one of 33 who came up through the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens Series presented by Allstate to be a BASSfest qualifier. Not being a Bassmaster Elite Series pro, Wheeler’s only other Classic avenue besides BASSfest would have been to win an Open event. To claim his BASSfest-won Classic entry, Wheeler must complete the 2014 season of the Northern Open, the division he’s currently enrolled in.
Wheeler came to Chickamauga with a cache of productive spots off the beaten path. They were the product of fishing Chickamauga in all seasons and often with a Tennessee buddy he met when competing in the 2008 Bassmaster Junior World Championship in New York.
Several of Wheeler’s key spots were revealed to him when the lake’s levels had fallen enough to see structure and cover.
The upshot of his lake knowledge was being able to break away, and not feeling forced to share water on community holes and well-known ledges of the riverine fishery.
Sunday, Wheeler resumed his planned rotation of spots, both deep and shallow, beginning with one ledge he’d laid off Saturday to decoy spectators away from it so he could rely on it for winning bass.
His decision was golden. He landed 17 1/2 pounds by 9 a.m. Sunday. It was the early limit he had hoped for.
â€œThat allowed me to chill out and relax, get in a rhythm,â€ he said. â€œI was then able to calm down, make good decisions.â€
He knew Elite pro Matt Herren was on his tail. And, he said, with superpro VanDam behind him, any mistakes could prove fatal.
Wheeler next ran to his â€œswimbait hole,â€ a secondary ledge with a hard-shell bottom. This was the magic spot that has produced his 8-15 and two 7 1/2s earlier in the competition. There, he added two to his catch total and culled up.
â€œThe key to getting those fish to bite was coming in on top the ledge, casting out, letting the bait fall in 20 feet of water, and bringing it up the ledge into 15, and they would eat it when it got to the top,â€ he said.
A 4 1/2 was his final keeper of the day that made a difference. It gave him a 2-plus pound cull.
He landed 14 keepers Sunday to cull to his best five bass for his 22-1 weight.
Of all the techniques and lures he used to win BASSfest, Wheeler could not pinpoint one as most important.
â€œThey all were so key,â€ he said. â€œI caught the majority of my fish on a swimbait, but some of the bigger ones were on a hair jig, a few on a worm and some on a crankbait.
The lures were a 6-inch Basstrix swimbait in the Tennessee shad color rigged on a 3/4-ounce VMC Ike Approved swimbait head, a Rapala DT20 in disco shad and a homemade hair jig.
â€œThe jig is something subtle. It’s 1/2 ounce with a good hook,â€ he said. â€œIf the fish won’t bite anything else, sometimes they’ll eat the hair jig if they’ve been feeding on gizzard shad. The hair flattens out in the water to look like a big gizzard shad.â€
Wheeler offered a special Father’s Day salute to his father, who taught him to love fishing.
â€œWithout my dad, I know I wouldn’t be here,â€ the young angler said.
VanDam â€” a 20-time Bassmaster winner including four Classics, and a seven-time Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year â€” moved up from third place to finish in second place at 84-12.
VanDam’s final-day weight of 23-8 made a run at Wheeler. He began the day with more than 7 pounds to make up.
â€œAnyone can have a monster day here,â€ he said. â€œI did get into a couple of flurries today, but it was not enough.â€
VanDam couldn’t help but look back at lost fish and Saturday’s disappointment at coming to the scales without a full five-bass limit.
â€œYesterday I could catch only four fish,â€ he said. â€œIt’s killing me now.â€
Finishing in third place at 83-15 was Herren of Ashville, Ala. He had been just 1-1 behind Wheeler at the beginning of the final round.
â€œI fished a perfect game plan,â€ Herren said.
It included hitting deep-water ledges as well as shallow places. Sunday he was on a dock pattern, picking up isolated bass holding near or under the structures. Several lost bass in the 5-pound class hurt his finish.
Gerald Swindle of Warrior, Ala., finished fourth to post his second consecutive Top 5 Elite Series finish. His final weight was 74-10.
Fifth place was taken by Brett Hite of Phoenix, Ariz., who won the first Elite event of 2014 on Lake Seminole. His weight was 71-5.