Wheeler back atop leaderboard after breaking 50 pounds on Santee Cooper - Major League Fishing
Wheeler back atop leaderboard after breaking 50 pounds on Santee Cooper
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Wheeler back atop leaderboard after breaking 50 pounds on Santee Cooper

Image for Wheeler back atop leaderboard after breaking 50 pounds on Santee Cooper
Jacob Wheeler leads Group B with 13 bass weighing 53-8. Angler: Jacob Wheeler.
February 21, 2024 • Mitchell Forde • Bass Pro Tour

CLARENDON COUNTY, S.C. — For the second time in as many events this season, the Bass Pro Tour is visiting a new fishery at a unique time of year, with Suzuki Stage Two Presented by Fenwick taking the 80-angler field to the Santee Cooper lakes. Once again, Jacob Wheeler wasted little time figuring it out.

Wheeler, whose six wins and 28 Top 10s in BPT competition are unmatched, is back atop the leaderboard through one day of qualifying for Group B. He boated 13 scorable bass for 53 pounds, 8 ounces Wednesday, 4-10 clear of Dean Rojas. Those two separated themselves from the rest of the pack; Brent Ehrler’s 39-0 total has him in third place.

Like most of the field, Wheeler emerged from practice on Santee Cooper a bit concerned about the dirty water and lack of bites. He rated his practice period a 4 out of 10. But, like many, his first day of competition left him pleasantly surprised. 

The 40 anglers in Group B caught a few more scorable bass (226) for a hair more total weight (721-13) than the Group A pros. A whopping 21 bass of 6 pounds or more hit the scales, headlined by Fred Roumbanis’ 8-6 Berkley Big Bass. Three of those 6-plus-pounders were landed by Wheeler, whose best five fish weighed a combined 29-8.

“Obviously, catching 29 pounds for five and catching 50-something pounds of bass is one of the best days you could ask for,” Wheeler said.

Complete results can be found here.

The bulk of Wheeler’s success happened in one location during the second period. Photo by Garrick Dixon

Running and gunning pay off for Wheeler

While a small handful of the Bass Pro Tour anglers had prior experience fishing Santee Cooper before the spawn, conventional wisdom suggested this would be the type of tournament in which pros would be best served picking one area and combing it thoroughly. The navigational hazards and sheer amount of cover where fish could be living didn’t figure to suit a run-and-gun approach.

Wheeler turned that idea on its head. Taking advantage of the lack of wind, he hit several areas, looking for spots with the same key ingredients — a combination he figured out thanks to one clue during practice then dialed in Wednesday.

“I constantly changed areas,” Wheeler said. “Because it was pretty calm today, it gave me an opportunity to run around. I didn’t stay in one area. I tried to run around and sort of look for that specific pattern, and that was what I did.”

Wheeler mostly kept coy regarding specifics but said he used a combination of forward-facing sonar and traditional, power-fishing tactics.

“I’m doing what I love to do, but I’m also sort of mixing a few things up,” he explained. “I’m looking for something very specific, and when I can find it, I’m basically running a pattern on this lake.”

Nearly half of Wheeler’s weight came from one stop. During a 90-minute stretch in Period 2, he caught six bass totaling 26-11. That included a 4-4, a 5-5 and a 6-14 — his biggest fish of the day. With the chances of catching 20-plus scorable bass in a day being slim, Wheeler said triggering big bites and landing those fish is the single biggest key to contending on Santee Cooper. SCORETRACKER® supports that assessment. Nine of the Top 10 anglers in Group B caught at least one 6-plus-pounder, accounting for 13 such fish between them.

“I had three really big bites today,” Wheeler said. “So that, to me, is everything. I knew going into this, after seeing what happened in Group A, Day 1, I had to be very calm, cool and collected and be very methodical, because it wasn’t like it was going to be fast and furious. It wasn’t a Toledo Bend. Big bites were going to be few and far between, but when you got ‘em, you better capitalize on every single one.”

Wheeler remains unsure if he’ll be able to ride his Day 1 pattern through the weekend. He predicted that, as the weather warms and the bass continue their prespawn transition, Santee Cooper will fish differently during the Knockout and Championship Rounds than it has during the first two days. 

In typical Wheeler fashion, he’s put himself in prime position to figure it out. As usual, he said he plans to take advantage of his fast start by using much of Friday to explore new water.

“To me, I utilized this day to the best of my ability, to be leading right now going into Day 2 and have a firm grasp right now,” he said. “I still gotta catch a few bass, probably, to solidify my spot in the Knockout Round, but I’m feeling really confident about that.”

Dean Rojas is one good catch away from claiming the No. 1 spot going into the second qualifying day. Photo by Phoenix Moore.

What’s next for Stage Two

Group A will return to the water Thursday to duke it out for 10 spots in the Knockout Round. Group B will then do the same Friday. The race to stay above the cut line looks like it will be a tight one, as Spencer Shuffield (25-10) currently holds a mere 8-ounce advantage over Bobby Lane for 10th place. Less than 10 pounds separate sixth place from 16th

Watch all the action unfold on the MLFNOW! live stream, which will provide coverage from 7:50 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. ET each day for the remainder of the event. 

Fishing Clash Angler of the Year

Bass Pro Tour anglers will compete throughout the 2024 season for the prestigious Fishing Clash Angler of the Year award and its $100,000 payday. Wheeler, who won the AOY title in both 2021 and 2022, will look to reclaim his crown after finishing second to Matt Becker last season. He’ll need to gain a bit of ground on his buddy Dustin Connell after Connell won Stage One, but there’s plenty of season left to do so.

Fishing Clash, an interactive 3D fishing simulation game that’s played by more than 80 million people worldwide, is the official AOY sponsor of the Bass Pro Tour, Tackle Warehouse Invitationals, Toyota Series and Phoenix Bass Fishing League. You can download Fishing Clash for free in the App Store and on Google Play, or log on to www.fishingclash.game for more information.

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