JACOB WHEELER: The Freeloader made Guntersville a special win - Major League Fishing
JACOB WHEELER: The Freeloader made Guntersville a special win
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JACOB WHEELER: The Freeloader made Guntersville a special win

Image for JACOB WHEELER: The Freeloader made Guntersville a special win
Mercury pro Jacob Wheeler won Stage Four using a bait of his own design. Photo by Garrick Dixon. Angler: Jacob Wheeler.
June 2, 2023 • Jacob Wheeler • Angler Columns

All of my Bass Pro Tour wins have a special meaning for one reason or another. My first win on Lake Eufaula in 2020 was special because it was my first. My third win at Lake Travis in 2021 was special because it came down to a nail-biter with Bobby Lane, and I won in the final minutes by just 2 ounces! My fifth win at Lake Champlain was super special because it capped off a dream season where I won three Bass Pro Tour events in a single season, which propelled me to my first Angler of the Year title.

Recently, my sixth win at Lake Guntersville was special for a very unique reason – I actually designed the bait that I used to win the tournament.

In fishing, I’ve always been fascinated by guys who pour their own jigs, tie their own skirts or paint their own lures – basically honing their own weapon to certain specs that no one else has. It’s impressive to me. I know that in fly fishing for trout, anglers will spend hours tying unique flies, making their own version of what a nymph should look like. The satisfaction that comes with catching a fish on something you created is pretty powerful.

I didn’t fully understand that until my Lake Guntersville win. 

Finding success on a self-made bait brings a whole new level of satisfaction for Wheeler. Photo by Garrick Dixon

Something unique

The short of the long in my case is that I’ve been working with Rapala over the past couple of years to design my own line of soft plastics. One of the goals I had in mind was to design single soft plastics that can serve two purposes, in an effort to shed some of the large volumes of plastics we carry around as tournament anglers. Sometimes it seems we’re basically carrying doubles of the same thing, and with some modification, we could make it one lure that served dual purposes. 

The soft plastic bait I used at Guntersville – officially named the Freeloader – was designed to serve dual roles: one as a vibrating jig or spinnerbait trailer and the other as a Damiki-style bait on a jighead, made to cast to suspended fish. Essentially, one lure that can serve two functions very well. 

Over the past year, I’ve gone through several renditions of this lure, spending hours testing it in the pool to find the perfect size, profile and action that looked just right. In my mind, I could see exactly how I wanted this lure to behave, both on a vibrating jig and on a jighead. After several changes in the concept phase and then several more tweaks in the final production stage, I finally got it to the perfect action I wanted – exactly how I envisioned it in my head, especially for suspended fish. 

While some have already claimed that it’s just another Damiki rig or that I copied it from another company, I can assure you neither one of those is the case. It’s not a Damiki rig because that style of bait is fished vertically. I made this bait to cast and reel like a boot-tail swimbait, but I wanted to impart action to the bait on my own by shaking it. When people finally get to see one up close at ICAST, they’ll realize it’s an original design – there’s nothing out there like it.  

Wheeler knew he had something special during his practice run with the Freeloader. Photo by Phoenix Moore

From field testing to winning

Several weeks ago, the final rendition of the Freeloader was sent to me to try. Since bass were already postspawn at my home lake of Chickamauga, I rigged one onto a VMC Hard Ball Jighead, slid it under the deck and headed to the lake. 

My first stop was on nearby a popular ledge that receives a lot of pressure. I began rolling through some of my usual ledge lures – a big spoon, a hair jig, a jerkbait, etc. After about 25 minutes without a bite, I pulled the Freeloader out, made a cast, let it fall toward the fish and began shaking it over them. Within seconds, a 2 1/2-pounder shot up out of the school and crushed it. When that happened, chills went down my spine.

On the very next cast, the same exact thing happened – another 2 1/2-pounder inhaled it. To say I was shaking with excitement is probably an exaggeration, but my brain was buzzing with the possibilities. Since there were some other boats in the area, I immediately put it back under the deck and headed in. 

The next day, which was the day before I left for Guntersville, I decided to give the Freeloader the ultimate test. Perhaps the bites I got the day before were just coincidence and I wanted to double-check.

With that, I headed to the biggest community hole on Chickamauga. Again, I fished around for about 30 minutes, trying the normal ledge stuff and I could hear the bass laughing at my offerings that they’ve seen a 100 times. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I pulled the Freeloader out and let her rip. The first cast produced a 6 1/2-pounder; the next cast was 4 1/2-pounder – then I knew in my gut I had something special. 

I couldn’t sleep the next couple of nights before the Bass Pro Tour on Guntersville began. I just knew that Freeloader had an action that those Guntersville bass had never seen. And now the rest is history.

I caught every bass I weighed except for one on the Freeloader from some of Guntersville’s most pressured community holes. Pulling up to places where bass have seen literally thousands of lures and to watch them respond so positively to my new cricket was magical. It’s pretty neat to have a vision of how a bait should look in the water to a fish, and have it brought to fruition by the group at Rapala and then win $100,000 on it.

Considering how all that came to together so perfectly makes this win a pretty special one.