Mercury pro Jacob Wheeler showed off his skills and killer instinct again at Lake Guntersville with his win at Toro Stage Four Presented by Bass Cat. But Wheeler’s win wasn’t simply another forward-facing-sonar beatdown – his 9-pound victory over Jacob Wall actually started prior to Guntersville by fishing on his home lake, Chickamauga, in Tennessee.
Wheeler was fishing a yet-to-be-released lure that he helped design with Rapala – the Freeloader – and observed a few conditions that you only achieve with plenty of time on the water.
Chickamauga was Wheeler’s proving ground for the Freeloader. Like Guntersville, Chickamauga is a heavily pressured Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) lake with similar current and structure, so he correctly figured that if the Freeloader worked on his home lake, it should work at Guntersville.
“I didn’t necessarily think the Freeloader was going to be the only deal for me on Guntersville,” Wheeler said. “I did know it was and is special, and knew it would get bites when other lures wouldn’t. On the TVA lakes, there are no more secrets. When I moved to Chick, I had 10 or 15 sneaky places I could roll up in the summer and catch fish. Now, everyone knows everything. The anglers are very educated.”
On his last day before leaving for Guntersville, Wheeler caught a few big fish on Chickamauga, which further stoked his confidence that the Freeloader would be a key tool at Stage Four.
“That was the start of it,” Wheeler confirmed. “Fishing on Chick, my mindset was that this bait will work. It gave me an understanding of the bait, but there’s more to it than just the lure. I had to see if it would catch big bass on Guntersville at a variety of depths. So during practice, I found 20 or more locations to fish. Of course, I fished the community holes, the obvious places, but also some smaller sneaky spots, too.
“The key was being able to catch fish at the community holes quickly, then move to other locations. During practice, I caught a bass and it spit up a threadfin shad. I could match the hatch perfectly with the Freeloader. I knew the bait was going to be bad to the bone.”
Wheeler focused on various depths by using various-sized VMC swim jigs with screw locks, which allowed him to quickly adjust.
“On Day 1, my first bite was a 4-pound, 15-ounce bass,” Wheeler said. “I slowly progressed and got my limit that day, all on the Freeloader. I knew if I could get up quick inside the cut early in the day, I’d have more practice time. I quickly realized the fish were coming out to the locations I was fishing by the day. Once I realized these fish were moving in like this, I needed to get fish quickly and efficiently to have enough weight to stay in the cut and then practice the rest of the time.”
Wheeler breezed through the Qualifying Round knowing he had the right lure but was still cautiously optimistic knowing that other anglers in the field could easily bust 25- to 30-pound days on Guntersville as well. During the Knockout Round, Wheeler found some big schools of fish on some major community holes – obvious points, pockets and channel ledges. He fished hard and went into the final day with a 5-pound lead and with confidence because he had a few spots in his back pocket he hadn’t fished throughout the tournament.
“On the final day, I went through a rotation of multiple spots,” Wheeler said. “I saved four spots for the final day that I never fished during the event. I knew I could catch them there, maybe 18 to 20 pounds on backup stuff. I started at a community place and caught a 2-pounder. I figured that’s how it was going to be, I thrashed them there the day before.
Wheeler started his progression, but at each spot he moved to, he’d find them already occupied by locals. He connected with a 3-pounder on a community spot, but then figured it was time to move to his backup locations to see if he could seal the deal. He quickly added 5 ½ pounds, but then slung and ear on his propeller, causing an emergency prop change that took him out of the game for a short period of time.
As the second period started, key fish in Wheeler’s five-fish limit appeared and the end was near for the rest of the field. He caught a 4-15 a few minutes into the period to boost his limit to 16-12, and then went on a three-fish run that added a 4-14, a 4-5 and a 6-2 to SCORETRACKER® to boost him over the 24-pound mark. A 5-2 midway through the third period put the final nail in the coffin, bringing his two-day total to 54-15.
“Catching my limits early to be able to practice, the Freeloader, and the screw-lock VMC jig that allowed me to preserve my limited supply of those baits made all the difference,” Wheeler said.