At age 23 and from Indianapolis, Ind., Jacob Wheeler would not be most people’s odds-on favorite to take over in the June 11-15 Bassmaster BASSfest competition on Chickamauga Lake.
Until you know that he’s been fishing Chickamauga for years because one of his often-visited friends lives near the lake. And that he competed on the lake just last year in a major event. And that at age 21, he was the 2012 Forrest Wood Cup champion.
Wheeler put all his experience to work Thursday, BASSfest’s second day. He weighed in 29 pounds, 13 ounces for a two-day total of 52-3, banking a lead of 6 pounds, 12 ounces against Bassmaster Elite Series pro Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich.
VanDam, the famed seven-time Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year and four-time Bassmaster Classic winner who is known as a Tennessee River impoundment expert, moved up from fifth place into second place with 45-7.
Wheeler, who qualified for BASSfest via the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens circuit, said his day did not start out well. When he arrived at his first spot, his front-deck electronics unit was out.
“When you’re fishing deep, you need a graph,” he said. For about 15 minutes, he tried to repair it himself.
“Then I said, ‘You know what, I need to settle down.’ I decided to just use the back graph along with a (marker) buoy, and fish slow and take my time,” Wheeler said. “Then everything got into a rhythm, and I was able to catch a few fish.”
He hopped around to several more spots, and boated a few more bass before he pulled up on one that he had to himself. The time was about 12:30 p.m.
“It was lights out,” he said. “I caught a couple of my really nice fish.”
He culled one more time before he had his 29-13.
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Wheeler said the timing of his rotation around his spots was a key to his success. Some spots worked best without current, some with current.
Another key: He worked spots he basically had to himself. The lake has been “fishing small” for many BASSfest competitors, meaning most are sharing the most productive water.
VanDam was one of those sharing water. He and two other competitors fished within speaking distance of each other.
Despite weighing 22-14, VanDam wasn’t happy with how his day went. Contrary to his first day, when he had fished “clean,” he said, on Thursday he failed to boat several bass that would have helped him considerably.
“It’s hard to make up for what happened to me today,” he said. “But it’s part of fishing.”
Elite Series pro Greg Hackney of Gonzales, La., rose from 13th place into third place with a two-day total of 44-13. He weighed 24-8.
“This lake is full of grass, and that’s my favorite way to fish, so I’m fishing grass or close to it,” he said.
Hackney, who said he’s never before fished Chickamauga, missed out on about a day and a half of practice time for the event because he was competing in another tournament. None of that seems to be hurting him: Thursday he found a 6-12 and another in the 6-pound range.
Like Hackney, Matt Herren was an upward mover. The Ashville, Ala., Elite Series pro had a two-day tally of 43-13, enough to push him up from sixth place.
Fifth place was taken by Takahiro Omori at 43-1. He had been in fourth place, but the slip was understandable. Omori felt so ill during Thursday’s competition that at one point he had to stretch across his deck and fish his Carolina rig lying down. He still weighed in 20-2.
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First-day leader Michael Iaconelli of Pitts Grove, N.J., plummeted to 20th place after bringing in three bass — two short of a limit — that weighed 8-1. He had bagged 25-12 on Day 1.
“They seemed to vanish,” Iaconelli said.
Wheeler won the Livingston Lures Leader award of $500 for climbing to the top of the leaderboard on the second day. For his 29-13 Day 2 catch, Wheeler became the top contender for the event’s Berkley Heavyweight award of $500.
Hank Cherry of Maiden, N.C., captured big-bass honors with a 10-11. The behemoth was also the largest bass of the Bassmaster Elite Series season so far — and Cherry’s personal best.
Amazingly for June on a Southern lake, the 10-11 was on a bed when Cherry caught it. He’d spotted her each day for three days, following his swimbait, but had not seen her actually on a bed.
“I went into there today, and she was locked tight on the bed,” he said. “It took five flips to catch her.”
Twice the bass slipped out of his hands, he said, and his shredded palms proved that. He finally was able to two-hand her over the side and into his boat.
He was using a 9/16-ounce jig with a small creature bait on 20-pound line.
Cherry became the frontrunner for the event’s Carhartt Big Bass award of up to $1,500.
Part competition, part festival, BASSfest is a new and unique event. The field includes the 107 pros of the Bassmaster Elite Series plus 33 anglers from the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens circuit. They are competing over five days for a first prize of $125,000 and a berth in the 2015 Bassmaster Classic.
The Top 50 will sit out a day while the other 90 anglers go into a shootout on Nickajack Lake on Friday. The 10 pros who survive the shootout will rejoin the 50 anglers Saturday for the next round on Chickamauga. Sunday, the Top 12 from Saturday will compete on Chickamauga for the trophy.
While the Nickajack leg of the event takes place, the Top 50 from Thursday’s competition will participate in an extensive slate of free seminars conducted by Bassmaster University presented by Nationwide, part of the big BASSfest Expo at Dayton’s Point Park. The Expo will open at 10 a.m. Bassmaster University seminars will run from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The Nickajack weigh-in will be streamed live into Point Park beginning at 2:30 p.m. After that weigh-in is complete, Bassmaster College Series anglers will take the Point Park stage to weigh their catches from Watts Bar Reservoir.
There’s no admission charge to the Expo and all seminars are free.