GREENEVILLE, S.C. – I’ve covered a lot of bass tournaments and fished with a lot of bass fisherman. I cannot remember a time, however, when I’ve watched a display of casting skill and bass fishing efficiency as I watched Sunday. I was tagging along behind Jacob Wheeler from Harrison, Tenn. as he fished in the final day of the 2018 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Hartwell.
“He’s an absolute machine isn’t he,” exclaimed media boat driver David Vaughn.
It was a gross understatement. Wheeler skipped his chatter bait beneath dock after dock into the tightest slots and holes imaginable. He was hitting holes from distances that for me were unimaginable. In the two hours we followed along he missed three casts, and not by much even then. Every move seemed choreographed with no wasted motion, even when switching rods. It seemed a perfectly-placed lure was in the water constantly. The phrase “fishing artistry” came to mind.
“You can’t compete at this level and not be efficient,” said Wheeler, who ultimately ended in 6th place, tied with another Tennessee angler, Ott DeFoe.
“For me it was all about hitting as many docks as possible and making solid presentations. We caught that one big one that was four-and-three-quarters. You were right there. You saw it. That really anchored my bag and I get a couple more of those bites and I win.”
It was, indeed, picture perfect. Wheeler’s chatterbait skipped beneath the dock and didn’t fall far before he felt the “thump” of a bass inhaling the jig. If I’d been providing directions I couldn’t have had the bass, or Wheeler, perform any better for the camera.
The big fish ran around the bow as Wheeler buried his rod tip, keeping the line clear of the trolling motor. The professional angler walked the fish toward the back of the boat, where a BASS video camera was rolling tape, before he deftly lipped it and scooped the fish into the boat – in very picturesque fashion I might add.
Unfortunately the additional “big bites” Wheeler needed never came. He ended with a three-day total of 42 pounds 13 ounces, not enough to overtake Jordan Lee (47 pounds 1 ounce) who won the Classic for the second year in a row.
After all was said and done Wheeler wondered if he had made one bad decision.
“About one o’clock today I was still running those pockets and I thought about running down to the main lake,” he said. “The big water is cleaner and those bigger fish start suspending. But I pushed it a little too long. I had a gut feeling I should have gone down the pond. I just didn’t do it.”
Sunday morning I shared with Wheeler the news of Saturday’s CBA Tournament winners on Chickamauga – when Kevin Drake and Cory Vetten boated five bass that weighed almost 43 pounds. It was a CBA tournament record.
Drake and Vetten’s single day catch equaled or GREATLY exceeded what most Bassmaster Classic anglers caught in three days of fishing on Lake Hartwell.
For Wheeler, who actually moved to Harrison specifically to be near Chickamauga Lake, it was good news and bad news.
“Chickamauga is phenomenal. I love it,” he said. “But it just gets so much pressure.”
He added with a smile, “I don’t like talking about it because I don’t want any more people on the pond.”
Wheeler feels certain the publicity and the pressure will ultimately affect the bass fishing on Chickamauga.
“One thousand percent… one thousand percent,” he said. “The lake’s not big enough. I think the pressure will eventually affect that lake. There’s no doubt. That’s my opinion.”
Dennis Tumlin, who heads up Dayton’s “FishDayton.com” marketing program attracting bass tournaments to Chickamauga Lake, said, “To help manage the pressure we only solicit [tournament] events five months of the year – March through May, half of June and half of September and October. We also won’t host an event in the hot summer months unless they will self-regulate with a 3-fish limit. We understand there is a fine balance between protecting the resource while encouraging economic growth.”