Wheeler leads after hot start on James River - Major League Fishing

Wheeler leads after hot start on James River

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Jacob Wheeler took a massive lead on the first day of qualifying at Stage Six with 33 bass weighing 78 pounds, 8 ounces. Photo by Phoenix Moore. Angler: Jacob Wheeler.
June 25, 2024 • Mitchell Forde • Bass Pro Tour

RICHMOND, Va. — The heat wave that greeted the Bass Pro Tour field upon its arrival to the James River for practice prior to General Tire Stage Six Presented by O’Reilly Auto Parts relented during the opening day of competition, but only barely, with temperatures still climbing into the low 90s. The fishing, meanwhile, was just as hot.

Of the 39 pros who took to the water for the first day of qualifying in Group A, 27 stacked at least 20 pounds on SCORETRACKER® and 11 hit the 40-pound mark. It took 40 pounds, 6 ounces to claim a spot inside the cut line – the third-heaviest 10th-place total for an opening day of qualifying all season, narrowly trailing only the first two days of Stage Three at Dale Hollow.

And yet, despite that torrid pace, Jacob Wheeler still managed to put plenty of distance between himself and the rest of the field. Wheeler stacked up 78-8 on 33 scorable bass, 30-15 ahead of Skeet Reese in second. Behind Wheeler, the weights are tightly bunched, with just 2-9 separating Reese from seventh place.

Full results can be found here.

Wheeler surprises himself

Wheeler is more than 38 pounds clear of the cut line, giving him ample opportunity to spend the second day of qualifying planning ahead for the Knockout Round. Photo by Phoenix Moore

Seeing Wheeler’s name atop SCORETRACKER® might not come as a surprise to anyone. A two-time winner this season, he’s made the Knockout Round in six of seven events and the Championship Round in five of them. But based on his practice, Wheeler said he didn’t anticipate such a strong start.

“I did not expect that at all,” he said. “You’d get a bite here, a bite there in practice, and then when you really lean on things, you start to realize what you have. Some places I thought were going to be really good, they were horrible, and I didn’t catch anything. And then other places that I thought were like ‘ehh’ were really good.”

Wheeler made it a point to cover water Tuesday. He caught fish in multiple areas using “five completely different techniques.” While that might sound random, it’s not; he’s matching the technique to the area to the tide. 

The mouth of the Chickahominy River, a popular James tributary, experienced low tide (typically regarded as the best bite) around the end of the first period on Day 1. Wheeler’s most productive stretch came shortly thereafter. Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., he racked up more than 60 pounds on 24 scorable bass.

“There’s bite windows on this body of water, and the tide dictates that,” Wheeler explained. “There’s bite windows at high tide, there’s bite windows at incoming, outgoing. And so it’s just slowly dialing that in, and today, everything collided and worked out well.”

As impressive as Wheeler’s opening day was, he knows he’ll need to adapt as the tournament progresses. Even though he didn’t have much trouble accessing the spots he wanted to hit Tuesday, fishing pressure could impact the bite, with much of the field crowded in and around the Chickahominy. More important will be adjusting to the changing tide, with low tide getting later each day.

That’s where Wheeler’s sizable advantage over the cut line could help him. As usual, he caught as much weight as possible on Day 1 with the hope that he can use the second day of qualifying to continue to learn the fishery. More than 38 pounds clear of 11th place, he should only have to catch a few scorable bass to ensure himself a spot in the Knockout Round.

“I think I have some stuff that will continue, but it’s definitely temperamental,” Wheeler said. “Looking at paper, you’re like, ‘holy crap, Wheeler is going to win.’ But it’s not like that. We’re running an incoming tide on the Championship Day. I think we’re going to have a very little bit of an incoming tide on the Knockout Round. I mean, it’s just completely different conditions, and I’m going to have to make the right adjustments to have a really good finish in this tournament.”

Wheeler’s biggest takeaway from his first day of competition on the James was the fruitfulness of the fishery. He estimates he caught at least 80 bass on the day including those under the 1-8 minimum weight.

“This place is really healthy,” Wheeler said. “It’s got an insane number of bass in it. My thumbs are definitely sore.”

What’s next for Stage Six

The 39 competitors in Group B will open competition Wednesday. Group A will then return to the water Thursday, with anglers chasing 10 berths to Saturday’s Knockout Round. The battle to make the Top 10 should be fierce, as eight anglers lurk within 10 pounds of Keith Poche’s 10th-place mark. Poche’s efforts were buoyed by a 7-10 lunker, which earned him $1,000 as the Berkley Big Bass of the day.

Keep up with all the coverage on MajorLeagueFishing.com and watch the MLFNOW! live stream Thursday through Sunday from 7:45 a.m. ET until 4:30 p.m. each day.

Fishing Clash Angler of the Year

Wheeler arrived at the James leading the Fishing Clash Angler of the Year race, and he’s not showing any signs of slowing. The two-time AOY winner started the event 14 points clear of Alton Jones Jr., with Dustin Connell another 10.5 back of Jones. Jones and Connell will take the water with Group B on Wednesday.

Fishing Clash, an interactive 3D fishing simulation game played by over 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.