Wheeler edges Gill for Knockout Round win, stage set for Championship Sunday shootout - Major League Fishing
Wheeler edges Gill for Knockout Round win, stage set for Championship Sunday shootout
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Wheeler edges Gill for Knockout Round win, stage set for Championship Sunday shootout

Image for Wheeler edges Gill for Knockout Round win, stage set for Championship Sunday shootout
Jacob Wheeler was the top angler in the Knockout Round with 25 bass weighing 79 pounds, 13 ounces. Photo by Garrick Dixon. Angler: Jacob Wheeler.
April 13, 2024 • Mitchell Forde • Bass Pro Tour

BYRDSTOWN, Tenn. — Each of the 10 anglers who qualified for the Championship Round on Dale Hollow Lake will start Sunday morning with zero pounds, but it sure feels like two have separated from the rest of the pack in the chase for the trophy at PowerStop Brakes Stage Three Presented by Mercury.

During a Knockout Round in which many of the 20 anglers on the water struggled to generate consistent bites, Jacob Wheeler and Drew Gill seemingly stacked weight on SCORETRACKER® at will. While it took 31 pounds, 2 ounces on the day to earn a spot in the Top 10 and a berth to the Championship Round, both Wheeler and Gill surpassed that mark within the first 90 minutes. Each eclipsed 50 pounds in Period 1 before easing off the throttle, saving as many fish as possible for what’s looking like a final-day prize fight.

Wheeler ultimately finished atop the leaderboard with 25 scorable bass for 79-13. That put him 3-7 ahead of Gill, with a sizable gap to Alton Jones Jr. in third place at 54-7. 

Still, with several of the best anglers in the game at using forward-facing sonar to find and catch schools of bass (Jones Jr., Dustin Connell, Michael NealSpencer Shuffield) among the Top 10, the only sure thing entering Championship Sunday is that whoever prevails will have to earn it. Watch the Championship Round live on MLFNOW! from 7:45 a.m. CT until 4:30 p.m. CT on MajorLeagueFishing.com and the MyOutdoorTV (MOTV) app. 

Complete results can be found here.

Wheeler looking to continue roommate rampage

Jacob Wheeler estimates it will take 100 pounds or more to win tomorrow’s Championship Round. Photo by Garrick Dixon

When Wheeler won his seventh Bass Pro Tour trophy at Stage Two on Santee Cooper, he quipped that he had to keep pace with Connell, his travel roommate and close friend who won the prior event on Toledo Bend. So, after Connell prevailed again at last month’s REDCREST championship, there was some semi-serious speculation that Wheeler would have no choice but to win at Dale Hollow.

Suddenly, the possibility appears very real. While Wheeler is more focused on trying to add to his record BPT victory tally and consolidate his lead in the Fishing Clash Angler of the Year competition, he’d be happy to continue the trend.

“It would be cool, obviously,” he said. “(Connell) won the first one, I won the second one, he won the third one. It’d be nice to win this one, for sure. Right now, the house is undefeated.”

Usually an ironclad lock to make the Championship Round (he’s now up to an astounding 31 Top 10s in 45 career BPT events), Wheeler admitted that it took him a bit longer than he expected to figure out the bass on Dale Hollow this week, especially considering that he visits the lake regularly. He started competition fishing around the bank, but by Saturday morning, he’d realized that the offshore, forward-facing sonar pattern that has dominated tournament fishing all year would once again be the way to win.

“I really anticipated this tournament to be a shallow-water tournament,” he said. “It’s April, the trees are blooming. Now, this lake right here is well known for forward-facing sonar, and half my fish have come that way this week; the other half didn’t, I wasn’t looking at my screen. But I fully believe that it’ll be won doing that.”

That’s fine by Wheeler, who’s proven himself as effective as anyone with the technology. He started Saturday morning on an offshore school of largemouth. Using a jighead minnow, he put together a furious flurry that saw him boat 17 scorable bass totaling 53-13 in less than two hours.

“I thought it was going to take 50 pounds to probably make it, and I was able to catch that pretty quickly this morning,” Wheeler said. “And so I was able to practice the rest of the day and look around and ultimately come up with a pretty solid game plan.”

Despite the fact that smallmouth accounted for the majority of the scorable bass caught by the field Saturday for the first time, 22 of Wheeler’s 25 fish were largemouth. That was by design.

“I was targeting largemouth for the most part,” Wheeler said. “I’ve spent a lot of time here in the wintertime, and I know the zone those bass live in for the most part.”

As good as Wheeler’s opening period was, he’s not committed to revisiting that spot to start Sunday’s action. In typical Wheeler fashion, once he amassed enough weight that he didn’t have to worry about the cut line, he spent the final five or so hours scouting new water. He found a few new areas that piqued his interest, and as the first boat to launch, he’ll have his pick of real estate on the 28,000-acre reservoir.

“I was able to eliminate a lot of stuff,” Wheeler said of his afternoon. “Now, I still have some stuff that I need to go look at. I found some stuff late; I realized what was transpiring late. So, I’m going to have to practice tomorrow as well.”

While he might practice in the sense that he’ll continue searching for the winning fish, there will be no easing off his efforts to catch them during the Championship Round. Wheeler believes it will take at least 100 pounds to claim the trophy, maybe more.

“I think 100 pounds will probably win,” Wheeler said. “I mean, it could take even as much as 120 or more. Heck, I don’t know. Obviously, a lot of guys put some pressure on their fish, but a lot of guys are sandbagging, too.”

Gill hoping to replicate blazing start

Drew Gill boated nearly 58 pounds of scorable bass in the first period of the Knockout Round. Photo by Garrick Dixon.

Gill has experienced quite a few memorable days on the water during his meteoric ascent to the top of the sport across the past three years. But the 21-year-old has never seen anything quite like what he experienced Saturday morning.

It took less than 50 minutes for Gill to put 13 scorable bass for 39-13 on SCORETRACKER®. By the end of the first period, he was up to 57-15 — on pace to break Neal’s record of 168-11 for the best single day in Bass Pro Tour history, set on Lake St. Clair in 2021.

“It was chaos,” he said. “I mean, it was pure chaos. That was the fastest I’ve ever caught fish of that quality in any tournament ever.” 

Gill doesn’t think Neal’s record will be in serious jeopardy Sunday, but like Wheeler, he thinks it could take more than 120 pounds to stave off the rest of the field. He’s also optimistic about his chances of getting there.

Not only does Gill believe there are plenty of fish left in the school that accounted for his blistering opening period, he, too, used Saturday afternoon to explore new territory. He identified a handful of backup areas with healthy populations of fish.

“There’s like 150, 200 (bass) there,” he said of his starting spot. “So, I think there’s a realistic possibility of catching 90 pounds out of that place alone tomorrow, and I’ve got four other places in tandem with that that I think I can go catch 60, 70 (pounds) off of.” 

A Garmin LiveScope guru, it’s no secret how Gill has caught the bulk of his weight. Like most of the Top 10, he’s using forward-facing sonar to find bass and a Big Bite Baits 4-inch Jerk Minnow on spinning tackle to catch them. (Every Championship Round qualifier except Keith Poche did most of their damage on a jighead minnow Saturday.)

However, Gill isn’t just an uber-efficient ‘Scoper. The BPT rookie has already proven himself to be one of the best on tour at understanding fish movement and behavior. He’s zeroed in on a pattern that’s clearly producing, keying on offshore areas with a mix of gravel and grass plus schools of baitfish nearby, which he’s located by paying close attention to wind direction. He’ll hope to ride it to his first Bass Pro Tour win and his second national victory in the past three months.

“There’s bass all over this lake, 30 feet to zero, everywhere,” Gill explained. “You’ve got to get around the bait to get around the bass that are willing to bite. And so that’s been my primary focus this week, just trying to find a congregation of them. Staying around gravel. If I can have gravel and bait and wind, the gravel generally this time of year has a big population of fish around — the really gravelly clay stuff, because it generally has grass as well — and then the bait makes them a lot more agreeable.”

Fishing Clash Angler of the Year

Wheeler will have a chance to not only hoist his second trophy of the young season but further build his lead in the Fishing Clash Angler of the Year race. Wheeler, who won AOY in 2021 and 2022 before finishing second last year, entered Stage Three with a lead of seven points over Jesse Wiggins. Wiggins narrowly missed out on the Championship Round, finishing 13th, while reigning Angler of the Year Matt Becker failed to qualify for the Knockout Round after arriving at Dale Hollow in third place.

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.