RIDGEDALE – Through the early rounds of Stage 7 of the Major League Fishing’s Bass Pro Tour on Table Rock Lake, Jacob Wheeler was putting up numbers that have never been seen on the pro fishing circuit.
There was the 88-bass catch on the opening day of the tournament last week, weighing in at more than 129 pounds.
He added 49 fish in the Knockout Round, enough to qualify for the 10-angler Championship Round.
Then on Wednesday in the finals – starting over from scratch – he caught 56 fish weighing in at 84 pounds, nearly 15 full pounds ahead of second-place finisher Brandon Palaniuk.
All the while, Wheeler was in communication with his wife, Alicia, back in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He called to check in during the two scheduled breaks in fishing built into each day’s competition.
Going into the final day, Wheeler said his wife entertained the idea of coming up for the Championship Round.
That idea was quickly nixed. The decorated 28-year-old angler didn’t want to mess with what was working.
“That’s exactly what I told her, ‘Don’t do that, because you’re going to jinx me, and I don’t want that,’ ” Wheeler said while waiting to claim the trophy and $100,000 first-place paycheck during ceremonies at the Bass Pro Shops Shooting Academy.
There was no jinx to be found, especially after a final round where Wheeler landed 12 more bass than any of the other nine finalists, including the top catch of the day – weighing in at 3 pounds, 6 ounces.
It was Wheeler’s first win on the tour this season, pushing his season earnings to $172,000 on the circuit.
But most importantly, it was his first tournament victory since the birth of his daughter, Olivia, some four months ago.
It led to a flood of emotions, right there in the boat, when it all ended.
“After lines-in, I started tearing up pretty hard,” Wheeler said. “I work my butt off, and have gotten close.
“For it to finally happen, it was all that emotion from the whole year and your whole career and whole life. … All the emotion came on in one second. After it finally hit me, you can’t even explain the emotion.”
Wheeler has been all around the top anglers in this – the inaugural year of the Bass Pro Tour. In the previous five tournaments, Wheeler was 27th in Stage 1, second in Stage 3, 15th in Stage 4 and fifth in Stage 5 – which was two weeks ago at Table Rock Lake.
Flooding on Grand Lake in Oklahoma, the scheduled stop for Stage 6, forced the tour back to Table Rock for this week’s event, with a couple of wrinkles.
Fishing in the preliminary rounds was pushed back in time, from noon to 8 p.m., instead of starting early in the morning.
It forced the anglers to make some adjustments in their approach, and Wheeler clearly made all the correct calls.
When Wheeler was catching bass in bunches during his 88-fish opening day, he considered backing off a bit and saving some of the knowledge of where the bites were coming for later in the tournament.
With the total weights resetting for every subsequent round, it had to be tempting.
But he passed.
“I thought about it, but forget it,” he said. “You don’t get too many opportunities to break a single-day record, so I had to go for it. I wanted to break the record. … I just had to do this.
“I knew there were some schools of fish that would hit throughout the week, so I wasn’t really worried about saving anything. It just came down to the fact that I wanted to catch some fish when they were biting like that.”
The Shotgun Round – covering the opening round and two days of fishing, ended with Wheeler on top of the field, with 108 total fish and a total weight of 160 pounds, 1 ounce.
The weights were reset for the Knockout Round for the top 40 anglers remaining, and Wheeler was eighth, catching 49 fish for a weight of 71 pounds, 8 ounces. That whittled the field to the top 10 for the Championship Round.
That’s where Wheeler exerted his dominance once again.
Wheeler went into the deeper water to fish some of the “non-obvious” places, chasing fish coming away from the banks post-spawn.
The numbers showed he knew what he was doing. His 56-fish catch weighed in at 84 pounds, with Palaniuk’s runner-up weight of 69 pounds, 2 ounces.
In the end, it left Wheeler hoisting the large trophy and collecting the $100,000 first-place check.
Wheeler is no stranger to success on the pro fishing scene. He has seven career victories, 30 top-10 finishes and 38 top-20 showings. His career earnings are more than $1.86 million.
But the circumstances of this week’s victory made it all the more rewarding.
“This one really means a lot to me,” Wheeler said. “I had a fifth-place finish here last time, and I really wanted to finally make it happen.
“I was tearing up a lot. When they called it, lines-in, I was more than happy.”
Palaniuk cashed in with a $42,000 paycheck for his second-place finish, using a consistent performance throughout the early rounds to remain in contention.
He was third in his group in the Shotgun Round, catching 41 fish weighing 69 pounds, 9 ounces on the opening day and adding 27 bass at 48 pounds, 4 ounces, on the second day.
Palaniuk was ninth in the Knockout Round, catching 37 fish for 71 pounds, 8 ounces. He landed the big bass in the Knockout Round, at 3 pounds, 15 ounces.
He emerged at the top of a pack behind Wheeler in the Championship Round, with his total weight of 69 pounds, 2 ounces, just ahead of Cody Meyer’s 67 pounds, 6 ounces.
It was something of a redemption story for Palaniuk, who has some history fishing on Table Rock Lake in other tournament circuits, and has always enjoyed success here.
Until, that is, the Stage 6 event last month. He finished 52nd and out of the money.
“Table Rock is awesome,” Palaniuk said. “There are so many different ways to catch them right now, guys can really play to their strengths and still compete, which is awesome.
“You’re not forced to go do one thing to compete. It’s probably the most level playing field that we have.”
Palaniuk is a 31-year-old from Rathdrum, Idaho, who has four career victories, was the 2017 Elite Series Angler of the Year and has nearly $1.25 million in career winnings.
He enjoyed the change to evening fishing in the tournament’s early rounds.
“Switching it up from the morning definitely changed some things,” Palaniuk said. “The fish are positioned differently and you had to adjust to that, and I had to fish a little bit differently this morning. But once the afternoon rolled around, I was able to start running to some of the places I was fishing and catching them.”
There is one more stage left on the schedule, on Lake Winnebago in Neenah, Wisconsin, later this month.
The season-ending Bass Pro Tour Championship is scheduled for Aug. 21-25 on the Upper Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is open to the top 30 in the season point standings.
Edwin Evers is leading the season standings, with Jeff Sprague second and Michael Neal third. Wheeler is fifth after the Stage 7 victory. Aaron Martens, who won the Stage 6 event on Table Rock last month, finished 14th in Stage 7 and is 11th in the season standings.