Knowing when to throw which baits where was the Key to Jacob Wheeler’s win last week on Tennessee’s Lake Chickamauga in Bassmaster’s first-ever BASSfest. He caught most of his biggest fish on a Rapala® DT® Metal 20 and a 3/4 oz. Ike Approved VMC® Swimbait Jig.
The key was understanding how current – or lack of it – “would set up the fish” on subtle pieces of structure overlooked by other anglers, says Wheeler, a VMC and Rapala pro.
“In the morning, the current wouldn’t be running, so you’d have to catch them on a swimbait … or doing some other stuff,” he explains. “But if that current cranked up to the right amount – you could pick up a DT Metal 20 crankbait and catch ’em really good.”
Understatement of the year.
Wheeler caught ’em “good” enough to beat bassin’s best. The BASSfest field included all 107 Bassmaster Elite Series pros, plus 33 leading Bassmaster Open anglers, of which Wheeler was one. He is fishing the Bassmaster Northern Opens circuit, in addition to the FLW Tour. BASSfest was the first Bassmaster Elite Series event in which he’s ever competed.
“It was a pretty unbelievable week,” he says.
Understatement of the Year Pt. 2.
Of course, the young pro is no stranger to success in big tournaments. Not only did he win the 2012 Forrest Wood Cup – the FLW Tour’s championship tournament – he was runner-up in the 2013 Cup.
Right Bait, Right Time
Although the ledges of Tennessee River reservoirs have a reputation for being crank-baiting paradises, moving baits are not nearly as effective without heavy current – something beyond an angler’s control. That’s up to Mother Nature and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The TVA creates current – measured in cubic feet of water per second (cfs) – when it opens gates at the dam holding back a reservoir. It does so to both generate power and to prevent flooding following heavy rains in the area or upstream. On most reservoirs, current generation trends can be tracked online and anticipated, to a degree. Water release schedules are updated periodically throughout the day, and next-day release schedules are usually available by 6 p.m. of the current day.
During the tournament, current was light in the morning, but increased steadily throughout the day. When current was flowing the fastest – between 30,000 to 40,000 cfs, Wheeler says – it was time to throw a Rapala DT Metal 20 crankbait.
“You can catch ’em so quick on a crankbait, like the DT Metal 20,” he explains. “It’s so much more efficient. It gets down there and gets to them and catches ’em quick. You get ’em in the boat and get back out there and catch ’em again.”
Crankbaits in Rapala’s famed DT series dive fast to a pre-set depth and stay in the strike zone longer than any than other crankbait. DT stands for “Dives-To,” indicating the bait’s maximum diving depth.
Like all cranks in the series, the DT Metal 20 is made from balsa wood combined with carefully placed internal weights, a tapered fuselage, thin tail and ultra-thin polycarbonate lip. An internal baritone rattle helps call fish in. A VMC SureSet® tail hook and black-nickel belly hook keeps them buttoned up when they bite. Unique to the DT Metal 20 is small metal disc permanently embedded in the lip, which helps the bait get down fast and stay down.
Weather conditions too tipped off Wheeler when to throw his DT Metal 20 – “if there was a lot of wind, or if there wasn’t,” he explains. A combination of high wind and TVA-generated current created really fired up his DT Metal 20 bite.
“At one point, they were running 46,000 cubic feet per second out of the dam and the current was ripping and the wind was blowing, two- three-foot waves,” Wheeler recalls. “You get those conditions, you pick up a DT Metal 20 in Disco Shad.”
Wheeler has “a lot of confidence” in the Disco Shad color pattern, he says, explaining why: “It’s a little translucent, has some blue glimmer in it, and has a little chartreuse on the belly. So when it rolls, it gives them a little something a little bit different to look at.”
When current was light to moderate, Wheeler caught good-sized fish slow-rolling the bottom with a swimbait rigged on a 3/4 oz. Ike Approved VMC Swimbait Jig. On the tournament’s first day, he caught three four- to five-pound fish on three consecutive casts doing that. Maintaining bottom contact was “super key,” he says.
Designed to mimic a baitfish head, VMC Swimbait Jigs feature flared gills, 3D holographic eyes and a concave head that allows your swimbait to nest up tight to the jig. They’re equipped with a double-wire bait keeper and a forged-shank, hi-carbon steel, 1X-strong VMC hook.
“One big key was definitely that hook,” Wheeler says. “The hook was huge in getting those fish hooked and keeping them on.”
Right Bait, Right Place
Knowing the right bait and when to throw it was only half the battle. Knowing the right places was key too. Wheeler avoided crowded community holes on well-known ledges, calculating correctly that they wouldn’t hold enough quality bass to win with.
“Community holes are community holes for a reason – because that’s where the mega-schools get, and they win a lot of events out of those places here,” Wheeler concedes. “But it you can find something off the wall, then you don’t have to worry about a whole bunch of other boats fishing the same spot.”
“Key for me in getting a lot of the bites I did was being able to run to numerous spots and not having to worry about a lot of people messing with them,” Wheeler explains.
Other anglers can’t “mess” with spots they can’t find.
“I was fishing really, really subtle stuff,” says Wheeler, who has fished on Chickamauga recreationally dozens of times with a good friend who lives in the area. “I knew the lake from coming down here and fun fishing so many times. I knew a lot of spots that weren’t obvious.”
Some of those spots were in nine to 10 feet of water; some were in 20 to 25 feet. Some featured small shell beds, some little rock piles, and some sunken brush. He found some of that stuff months ago, and not with his sonar unit, but with his eyes. He was here when the water level was much lower, making small areas of cover and structure visible to the naked eye.
“A lot of those places were where just one or two fish would live,” Wheeler says. “I’d pull up and line up on a certain tree, or what have you, and make my cast with the DT Metal 20 and hit that cover, and maybe one of them would get it.”
Colliding his Disco Shad DT Metal 20 into wood and grinding it into shell and rock was “super key,” he says. “When I’d hit a rock where the fish were positioning, I’d let that bait sit there for a second and then start bringing it back again,” he explains. “A lot of times, they’d eat it as soon as I stopped it.” Aside from that momentary pause, however, he reeled in the DT Metal 20 “really, really fast,” he says.
Right Bait, Right Line
Although anglers “don’t talk about it a lot,” Wheeler says, line type and size is almost as important as the baits you tie on. “Because if you’ve got the wrong line size on, the bait doesn’t work right,” he explains.
Sufix® Castable Invisiline 100 Percent Fluorocarbon was “key to both my swimbait tactic and my crankbait tactic,” he says – 12-pound test for the DT-20, 14-pound test for the VMC Swimbait Jig.