When our coverage crew set sail on Lake Lanier to cover the Forrest Wood Cup, the common focus was down lake where most of the fishermen were located and where the tournament was one just two years earlier. The majority of the anglers were targeting deep-seated spotted bass with a drop shot and an array of other baits. Very few had turned left out of Laurel Park and headed up the Chattahoochee River.
However, one of the anglers who did was the eventual Cup champion, Jacob Wheeler. Wheeler went way north, to the point where the vast, winding Chattahoochee turned into a babbling stream littered with laydowns and submerged rocks. A hazardous wonderland, that produced the majority of an astounding 21-pound, 15-ounce bag on day one for Wheeler, and had him in a commanding lead.
On day two, I followed Wheeler out of the gate to see just what had set him so far ahead of the field and what it was he had figured out that the rest of the field had missed. After seeing the main body of water that is Lake Lanier, you realize that this part of the Chattahoochee fishes like an entirely different body of water.
Trading five feet of visibility on the south end of the lake for a foot of visibility at the most up river, was only one of the major differences. Wheeler was also targeting fish in a mere 1 to 5 feet of water, whereas anglers down lake were fishing as deep as 50 feet. And finesse presentations that were the main weapon of anglers down south, weren’t even on the deck of Wheeler’s Ranger boat. Instead his deck was loaded with power-fishing tools; topwaters, flipping baits, and chatterbaits.
It didn’t take long to realize that his day-one weight was no fluke. Wheeler had intentionally set himself on a collision course with big fish. As I watched him fish on day two, I was impressed with how thorough his presentation was. Wheeler made his way along the river, which was drastically reduced in area due to a water level that was 8 feet lower than normal, and picked apart every single piece of cover.
If he was on the right side of river and he saw a single stick on the left side, he’d kick his trolling motor up on high and cut across the 30 to 50 yards of open water to pitch to the one stick, and then spin the boat back around and head to the bank that he had been working. Making sure all the while to keep the growing crowd of spectators and media boats behind him.
He also managed to keep his composure when he realized that other anglers, including Jay Yelas who had also practiced fishing the river and found the larger fish, were fishing a large portion of the river run that he was targeting. In the wake of Yelas catching 18-04 on day two, it would have been easy for Wheeler to get caught up in self-pity and blame his 11-12 day two weight on too much fishing pressure.
However, his response was far from that. He stuck to his game plan and re-established a large part of his lead on day three with a solid 14-07, the largest limit of day three. Although his driver’s license puts him at 21, and his status as an FLW pro is “rookie”, my evaluation of his ability on the water to keep a level-head and handle every situation with maturity landed him somewhere around a 40- to 50-year-old seasoned veteran.
One important aspect of Wheeler’s tournament that didn’t get as much attention during our on the water coverage was his afternoon pattern. At the end of each day, for about 2 to 4 hours, Wheeler would run back down river past Laurel Park and bounce around several small pockets targeting bream beds with prop baits.
This pattern was responsible for at east two of the fish that he weighed in every day of the tournament including two 4-pounders that were part of his monster bag on day one. Although some anglers had found this same bite, and others spent time way up the Chattahoochee and the similar Chestatee River, Wheeler was the only one to marry the two patterns and capture the best of both worlds.
It was an impressive and well-deserved win for Wheeler. He handled the entire event as if he were destined to win it from the start. He never got flustered, never second guessed his game plan and executed flawlessly. I’ll go ahead and step out on a limb here and say that this will not be the last time I write the name, Jacob Wheeler.