Wheeler out-duels Rojas on Santee Cooper, lands seventh BPT win - Major League Fishing

Wheeler out-duels Rojas on Santee Cooper, lands seventh BPT win

Image for Wheeler out-duels Rojas on Santee Cooper, lands seventh BPT win
Jacob Wheeler claimed his seventh career Bass Pro Tour event win on Sunday. Photo by Garrick Dixon. Angler: Jacob Wheeler.
February 25, 2024 • Mitchell Forde • Bass Pro Tour

CLARENDON COUNTY, S.C. — During the final period of the final day of Suzuki Stage Two Presented by Fenwick, the Santee Cooper lakes that had churned out chunky bass all week simply shut down. At one point, the 10 pros duking it out during the Championship Round went 45 minutes without boating a scorable bass. They combined to catch just 18, none breaking the 4-pound mark, during the final frame.

The one angler who managed to manufacture consistent action – Jacob Wheeler. Wheeler accounted for five of those bass, which combined to weigh 14 pounds, 2 ounces and boosted his final-day total to 47-4, lifting him past Dean Rojas by 5 pounds for his seventh career Bass Pro Tour victory.

Bucking conventional Santee Cooper tactics by fishing offshore with a jighead minnow, Wheeler did what he’s done for the past six years, seemingly willing bites into existence. He started the third period 2-8 back of Rojas but promptly took the lead with a 3-12 largemouth. A little more than an hour later, with everyone else at a standstill, he boated three fish over 2 pounds in about 10 minutes. After Rojas closed within 2-6 in the final 30 minutes, Wheeler ran across Lake Marion to hit one more spot, where he added a 2-10 to all but seal the victory.

“I stuck to my game plan this whole week, and I stayed out offshore and I tried to fish isolated stuff,” Wheeler said. “It really came down to just keeping my head down and keeping my rotation going. I tried to make other tactics work, but those last two periods really came down to throwing that Freeloader, locking it in my hand. I’ve got so much confidence in it; I know it’s going to generate the bites if they are going to bite at all.”

Here’s how the Top 10 pros finished the Championship Round. Complete results can be found here.

  1. Jacob Wheeler — 47-4 (15 bass)
  2. Dean Rojas — 42-4 (17)
  3. Jesse Wiggins — 29-14 (9)
  4. Matt Becker — 19-10 (4)
  5. Dylan Hays — 18-12 (5)
  6. Casey Ashley — 16-8 (6)
  7. Dave Lefebre — 15-5 (5)
  8. Cole Floyd — 11-5 (5)
  9. James Watson — 7-13 (3)
  10. Justin Lucas — 4-8 (1)

Wheeler wins his way 

Wheeler primarily targeted brushpiles, but also found a few good spots with stumps or hard spots on the bottom. Photo by Garrick Dixon

If an instruction manual for fishing Santee Cooper existed, it would probably read something like this: Find one or two productive areas full of shallow cover like cypress trees, stumps or grass. Dissect them thoroughly using power-fishing techniques and heavy tackle. You might go hours without a bite, but don’t be tempted to fire up the outboard and waste time running around the treacherous fishery.

Wheeler pretty much threw all that out the window. During practice, he saw a bunch of anglers cycling through the same few creeks and decided he didn’t want to mix it in the crowd. So, he decided to fish the way he’s most comfortable, graphing offshore and compiling a list of waypoints he could run throughout the event.

“I just said, ‘Forget this, there’s no way I can win this tournament at all if I continue to go on and spend all my time in these areas,’ because I just felt like we were going to get cannibalized more than anything,” Wheeler said. “So, I focused on some areas that were getting hit by the wind, I focused on some main lake stuff, I focused on trying to find a couple places that I could manage myself.”

That proved prescient. Both Wheeler and Rojas, who pulled away from the rest of the pack Sunday, largely ignored the fishery’s innumerable cypress trees, with Wheeler fishing offshore and Rojas skipping boat docks.

Wheeler wound up with 30 to 40 spots that he cycled through during the event, mostly located in the middle and lower sections of Lake Marion. He primarily targeted brushpiles, but also found a few productive locations that featured stumps or hard spots on the bottom.

While he realized his plan might not be the best way to get bites, Wheeler figured the lack of pressure would give him a better shot of having biters left during the Championship Round. He managed his fish to perfection. After putting plenty of distance between himself and the cut line on the first day of qualifying, he only caught two scorable bass for 7-4 on his second day on the water. During the Knockout Round, he amassed just enough weight (34-1) to advance without having to sweat.

“I didn’t feel like it was the winning pattern,” Wheeler said. “But I basically was able to find enough stuff that I could keep to myself and rotate on myself and really manage that it ended up being that way. And it was a combination of the right bait, the right area, the right stuff.”

Coming up clutch in the Championship Round

Wind and weather conditions changed as Championship Sunday progressed, ending with calm and clear water. Photo by Garrick Dixon

Someone who tuned into the MLFNOW! live stream and saw Wheeler looking at his Lowrance ActiveTarget and wielding a jighead minnow might assume he was fishing the same way he (and most of the Top 10) did at Toledo Bend three weeks ago. While he utilized the same tools, in Wheeler’s eyes, this was completely different.

“There’s a big difference between ‘Scoping bait and ‘Scoping cover,” Wheeler said. “They’ve caught ‘em on Santee for years on brush, so this is not a rare pattern, per se … I’m just a little bit more efficient now with ActiveTarget when I’m around the cover.”

While most of the field focused on cypress trees or submerged vegetation, Wheeler wasn’t the only angler in the Championship Round fishing offshore. Justin Lucas stacked up 42-6 on six bass doing virtually the same thing during the Knockout Round but mustered just one fish Sunday.

What separated Wheeler was his ability to generate strikes amid the tough, postfrontal conditions that greeted the field on Championship Day. 

His final-period flurry will likely be remembered as the winning moment, but surviving the first period might have been more important. The morning brought chilly, windy conditions that made fishing offshore difficult. Seeing that fish were tucked tighter to the bottom, Wheeler pulled out a jig and used it to catch his first bass of the day, a 5-10. Without that fish, his biggest of the day, he would’ve fallen 10 ounces shy of Rojas’ total.

“I just felt like the fish were on the bottom,” he said. “When the wind blows, a lot of times, those fish will suck down to the bottom. Basically, all I was using ActiveTarget for then was just making the right casts.”

As the wind died down and the water warmed, Wheeler turned to the Rapala CrushCity Freeloader, a soft-plastic, pintail minnow of his own design. The Freeloader has become a confidence bait for Wheeler — no surprise considering he’d already won one Bass Pro Tour event, 2023 Stage Four on Lake Guntersville, with it. 

He came into the week unsure whether it would be effective in Santee Cooper’s shallow, off-color water. But as the event progressed, he found that bass that would eat a jerkbait earlier in the week could still be enticed by a Freeloader — even Sunday afternoon, when no one else in the field could get bit consistently.

“The water’s starting to clean up a little bit, the fish were definitely really fickle,” he said. “When the water was a little bit dirtier, you could catch ‘em on a spinnerbait, you could catch ‘em on a jerkbait; it was a lot better. And then as the water slowly cleared, it became a deal where I had to change up. And that was the key.”

Victory still sweet

Jacob Wheeler’s wife, Alicia, joined him on stage after his Stage Two victory. Photo by Phoenix Moore

Wheeler’s latest triumph adds to an already sterling Bass Pro Tour résumé. He’s now amassed seven wins and 29 Top-10 finishes in his first 43 BPT events — both easily the most among his peers on tour. He’s claimed two Fishing Clash Angler of the Year titles and is back in the driver’s seat to add a third.

So, has all that success gotten old yet? Not a chance.

For one thing, Wheeler recognizes that a lot of people expect him to win, or at least come close, every time he takes the water. He said he puts pressure on himself to meet those expectations.

His friends and traveling partners on tour push him, too. Dustin Connell, one of Wheeler’s closest friends, took home the trophy at Toledo Bend. Adrian Avena, another of his roommates on the road, had won more recently than Wheeler, at Stage Five on Cayuga Lake last year.

While Wheeler is happy to see his buddies succeed — he said the coolest part of this win is knowing that he and Connell started the 2024 campaign with back-to-back victories — he was also eager to have his turn in the winner’s circle again. 

He wasn’t the only member of his family thinking that way, either. His 5-year-old daughter, Olivia, told dad prior to Santee Cooper that this week better be his time to hoist the trophy. Mission accomplished.

“My little girl, she’s sort of like me, she always likes to win,” Wheeler said with a laugh. “And she told me, ‘Daddy, you don’t let DC and Adrian win this week. You’ve got to bring home the trophy.’ So, we’re bringing home the trophy, darling.”

Fishing Clash Angler of the Year

Not only did he hoist the trophy at Santee Cooper, Wheeler took over the lead in the Fishing Clash Angler of the Year race. Throughout the 2024 season, Bass Pro Tour anglers will compete for the prestigious award and its $100,000 payday. 

Jesse Wiggins moved into second place, seven points behind Wheeler. Defending AOY Matt Becker is now third, two points back of Wiggins. 

While there’s plenty of time left for the standings to shift, running down Wheeler won’t be easy. He won consecutive Angler of the Year titles in 2021 and 2022 before finishing second to Becker a season ago.

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.