GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. – After yesterday’s nearly 30-pound bag, it seemed inevitable that Jacob Wheeler would win at Lake Guntersville for Toro Stage Four Presented by Bass Cat. He backed up his banner day on Saturday with another day-best total during Championship Sunday as he placed 25 pounds, 6 ounces, on SCORETRACKER®.
Wheeler’s winning weight of 54-15 over the final two days was more than enough to win a Bass Pro Tour event for the first time since he won three during the 2021 season. His two stellar days in Alabama gave him the win by 9-7 over Bass Pro Tour rookie and Guntersville local Jacob Wall.
It was another dominant showing for Wheeler, who won for the first time on the Bass Pro Tour under the five-fish format. No matter the format this week, he would have won as he consistently fooled big bass and plenty of them while fishing offshore ledges that the lake is known for.
One key to his success this week was staying ahead of the game and continually finding new areas.
“This week was the week that the fish were starting to move out,” he said. “In practice, I only found eight or 10 places and by the end of it, I had around 25 spots. The fish were coming to these offshore places. It’d be three or four fish and then it was 15 or 20 when I went back. I was like, ‘holy smokes,’ it’s happening.”
Wheeler is known for his tournament strategy, which was in full force this week. Capitalizing on a solid morning bite during the two days of the Qualifying Round, he had plenty of time to look for new areas during the tournament.
“I fished about a period and a quarter of the next period each of the first two days and then I went looking,” he said. “I spent my time graphing and also rechecking areas. Some of the best areas only had a couple of fish, and when I returned there was a whole school there. Other places only had spotted bass on them, but I knew the bigger largemouth would be coming.”
He also carefully chose which areas to milk for all they were worth and which to save for later.
“The whole key was finding new groups; that was the deal,” he said. “I hammered on the stuff where the fish had been for a while. Not only did our guys know those spots, but the locals also did. I saved some places in my back pocket for later in the tournament.”
Wheeler shared that he fished anywhere between 8 and 35 feet deep and the one key this week was his new “Freeloader” soft plastic bait that he used to catch 90% of his bass this week.
“The depth zone didn’t matter as much; it just depended on where they were set up,” he said. “Some of it was main river and other stuff was more secondary – you had to look everywhere and anywhere. The fish would be more suspended each morning and get tucked in on the bottom later in the afternoon.”
Wheeler shared a bit more about the bait that did his work every day this week. It’s a soft plastic with a shad profile that he fished on a VMC Hybrid Swimbait jighead in various sizes and fished the bait at whatever depth the bass were sitting.
“It’s a bait I’ve been working on for a couple of years now and it’s part of a whole new line of soft plastics that will be released at ICAST,” he said. “The key with this bait was its unique action; I wanted something different. I spent countless hours in my pool playing with different jig heads and modifying it until we got it perfect.”
The bait measures in at 4 1/4 inches and doubles as a vibrating jig trailer. Wheeler fished two shad patterns, green shad and natural shad, depending on the cloud conditions.
“The bait has a nice shad profile but not just a fluke-style bait; it has more depth to it,” he said. “It’s a phenomenal trailer for the back of a vibrating jig. Having one bait that does two things well is hard, but we nailed it.”
Wheeler mixed it up with four different jig head sizes and varied it based on the depth and conditions.
“I used 3/16-, 1/4-, 5/16-, and 3/8-ounce and changed it based on how shallow the fish were, how much wind there was and how high in the water column the fish were sitting,” he said. “The jig head has a great screw lock keeper, which was important because I only had so many of these baits. It helped me get an extra fish or two from each bait.”
To fish the bait, he used his 7-foot medium Duckett Jacob Wheeler Series spinning rod, a 2500-sized Shimano Vanford reel. He spooled it with 8-pound Sufix NanoBraid with a 10-pound Sufix Advance Fluorocarbon leader.
“The key with the lighter braid is so it wouldn’t float around in the wind or current,” he said. “The NanoBraid is huge for getting bites in the current, especially for these pressured Tennessee River fish. The light braid allows the bait to act more naturally and you can have confidence that your bait is doing its thing.”
The Bass Pro Tour will take a two-week break before heading north for the remaining three events. The next event is on New York’s Cayuga Lake on June 6-11. When they arrive, Ott DeFoe will launch his boat with a 42-point lead over Edwin Evers in the Bally Bet Angler of the Year race.