DAYTON — 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 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.
“I feel unbelievable,” said Wheeler, who at age 21 made a name for himself on the FLW tour by winning the 2013 Forrest Wood Cup. “To be the first BASSfest champion, and to do it in my first Elite Series event … 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.”
The Classic qualification means as much to him as the event win, he said.
“That’s so big, qualifying for the Classic,” Wheeler said. “That’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.”
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.
“That allowed me to chill out and relax, get in a rhythm,” he said. “I was then able to calm down, make good decisions.”
Wheeler next ran to his “swimbait hole,” 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.
“The 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,” 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.
“They all were so key,” he said. “I 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.
“The jig is something subtle. It’s 1/2 ounce with a good hook,” he said. “If 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.”
VanDam — a 20-time Bassmaster winner including four Classics, and a seven-time Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year — 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.