Forrest Wood Cup In Depth Jacob Wheeler–Champion

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story and photos by Dan O’Sullivan

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The 2012 Forrest Wood Cup was remarkable. Partly because it was won with a heavier than expected weight, in an area of the lake that wasn’t supposed to play a factor. The 2012 Forrest Wood Cup was supposed to be won like the 2010 version; deep, with finesse tactics and an abundance of spotted bass.

Jacob Wheeler blew all of that out of the water on the first day.

While all of the pundits expected the 2012 Forrest Wood Cup to be won in mirror-like fashion to Kevin Hawk’s winning deep pattern from 2010, some of the anglers figured out that Lanier’s largemouth bass population could almost sustain the pressure of a four-day event.

Wheeler did it cleaner and a little bit better than the rest.

While the pattern was remarkable, what made the win even more memorable was that at 21 years old, Wheeler fished like a man with a mind twice his age. The planning, the strategizing and the execution of his plan led him to his second National Championship title in two years.

In 2011, Wheeler won the BFL All American and a little more than a week ago, grabbed victory at the Forrest Wood Cup. That’s $600,000 in two events for a young man of 21 years old. One victory could be considered luck; but, two wins in major National Championships is anything but.

Wheeler went about his preparations and the event itself with a great deal of composure, which most men his age have yet to develop, and the result was a Forrest Wood Cup overhead.

Practice
Wheeler revealed that he spent five days pre-practicing Lake Lanier prior to the cutoff. Because he remembered hearing about Ott Defoe running up the Chattahoochee River fishing for shallow largemouth in 2010, Wheeler decided it was worth a look.

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He took a jet boat with him to be able to explore the upriver thoroughly, and spent two days before realizing that he wasn’t going to be able to reach some of what he was exploring during the tournament in his bass boat, so he switched. “I decided to still focus shallow, even though I wasn’t running all the way upriver,” he said. “I saw a bunch of cruising fish, and decided to try throwing at them, I probably had a limit that weighed in excess of 15 pounds that day.”

After that, he decided to scout more shallow areas, and by the time he finished his pre-practice, he was strongly leaning towards running a shallow pattern for the tournament a couple of weeks later. In fact, he was so strongly leaning towards it, that he told friend, and Cup qualifier Stetson Blaylock that he was pretty sure he was going to go shallow. “Stetson didn’t agree with me,” he said. “He told me it would be won on the main lake; deep. That was okay, we both had our opinions.”

The official practice period arrived, and Wheeler started scouting the back ends of pockets on the lower end of the lake, below Brown’s Bridge. “I started running through these pockets, and I started seeing big fish cruising and coming out from under docks,” he said. “I didn’t really see any bluegill beds that they were relating to, but I made marks of where I thought they should be for later.”

He said that he didn’t get a lot of bites in main lake pockets, so he went up near the takeoff at Laurel Park. “I really didn’t see any good ones, but I learned something at the 2011 Cup that would help me later,” he said. “I counted some areas out early, and didn’t go back to them again and they were some of the better areas at Ouachita; so I made note to look again.”

He spent the next day upriver near the Lula Bridge, abut he did not set the hook on anything. “I knew those fish would be there,” he said. “They are resident fish, so I was careful not to hook any of them.” Even still, he managed 12 or 13 solid bites upriver.

Then, he spent the afternoon around Laurel Park again, and every pocket he went into, he found bluegill beds. He also said that he found out another thing that excited him. “I was almost entirely by myself up there,” he said. “There were so many boats out on the main lake, that I pretty much had my pick of the best stuff.”

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He spent the third day scouting pockets from Laurel Park to Brown’s Bridge and was becoming more and more comfortable with his shallow program. “I’d only seen three other boats shallow,” he said. “David Dudley was one of them, so I knew he had figured something out too, but I was committed to going, and staying shallow.”

The Weapons
Wheeler said that he narrowed his program down to where he had three main techniques. He said he had others at the ready, but that three things were his most productive. He used a vibrating jig, several topwaters and Flippin’ a creature bait.

For the shad colored vibrating jig, he used a 7’2″ heavy action GLoomis Senko Rod and a Shimano Core 50MG reel with 20-pound-test Fluorocarbon. He tossed the prop baits, including a Rapala XRap Prop and a handcarved wooden one on a 6’9″ medium action GLoomis Jerkbait Rod, a Shimano Core 50MG and 15-pound-test monofilament line. He pitched the creature baits; primarily a Trigger X Goo Bug and a couple others on a 7’1″ heavy action GLoomis NRX rod and a Shimano Core 100MG with 20-pound-test Fluorocarbon. He rigged the creature baits on a 1/4-ounce VMC tungsten weight and a 4/0 straight shank VMC Flippin’ Hook.

His vibrating jig was a pearl white base with blue glimmer and blue and chartreuse strands in the skirt, his prop baits mimicked bluegill and his creature bait colors were Watermelon / Red and Carolina Bug colored. he fished all of them in water that was seven feet deep or less.

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Tournament
For all intents and purposes, Wheeler won the 2012 Forrest Wood Cup on the first day. He started the morning by turning left out of the Laurel Park takeoff and went up the Chattahoochee River, he was the only boat to venture past the Clark’s Bridge and on to the Lula Bridge upriver.

When he arrived, he proceeded to get to work. His boated a limit, primarily on the creature baits by 9:30, and that limit weighed in excess of 16 pounds. “I had a five and a half and a four and half pounder pretty early,” he said. “I had another one pushing four pounds and then a pair of keepers in the box when
I hit a stump and bent the propeller on my Evinrude, so I limped it back to the ramp.”

He had decided not to stay upriver and beat on the resident fish upriver anyway, but returning to retrieve a backup propeller at 10:30 made him follow his plan anyway. “I called Bill Taylor (FLW Tournament Director) and asked him to get my prop so I could change it,” he said. “Then I started running pockets close to the takeoff.”

His thoughts turned to Dudley, the 2011 and 2012 FLW Angler of the Year, who has a slogan that tells him to never be satisfied. Wheelers response to that was to only go where he saw big fish in practice. He went to a creek where he had seen a five pounder on a bluegill bed. When he got there, the big fish was right where he expected her to be.

He threw a wacky rig and she struck, went under and out of the dock, jumped and came off, then slid back to the bream bed. “I reached for my prop bait and when I looked up, my Co-angler for the day, J.R. Wright was just looking at me like he was wondering what I was going to do,” said Wheeler. “I picked up my rod and made a cast with the prop bait, she bit the back hook, fought into the net and the hook fell out. J.R. could have made a cast on that fish, but he knows how important the Cup is to us as pros, and he did a classy thing to not throw at her.”

After that, he managed to catch one more four and a half pounder at around 1:00. That pushed his total to almost 22 pounds. he spent the rest of the day out deep in the river looking for something to fall back on should he need it.

His 21-pound, 15-ounce limit landed him in first place.

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Day two proved to be more of a grind, he had four small fish upriver then worked his way out to the main river areas. He went to areas that held some quality bluegill beds and picked up the X Rap Prop and caught a two and a half pound spot and another three pounder on a bluegill bed.

He weighed 11 pounds, 12 ounces and withstood an 18-pound, 4-ounce blast from Corvallis, Ore. legend Jay Yelas, who moved to a little more than three pounds behind him. “It was a tough day, but I held serve on day two,” he said. “It wasn’t the day I wanted to have, but I still had the lead.”

Day Three proved to be a little better. He ran back upriver and put a eight to nine pound limit in the boat by 9:30. by 9:45, he had culled it up to more than 11 pounds. At 10:30, he caught a four pounder downstream a little in a spot he ended up naming the “pig pen.” He said it was a logjam with cover around it that produced a five pounder and two fish over four in the event.

Remembering to not be satisfied, he decided to save some of his mid lake pockets for day four and made a long run down lake to the pockets near the dam. The run took him nearly an hour with run time and idling to the back of a marina. There he caught a two and a half pound spotted bass, giving him around fourteen and a half pounds.

He went to another bank and hooked another fish that he estimated at nearly six pounds on a shaky head, and lost it. He got a couple more bites, but nothing that would help. He weighed 14 pounds, 7 ounces and moved his lead up to 5 pounds, 13 ounces, the second largest lead going into a final day of a Forrest Wood Cup after David Fritts in 1997.

He started day four thinking about reaching a goal weight of 12 pounds. “I knew that if I caught 12 pounds, Scott (Canterbury) would have to catch over 18 to have a shot to beat me,” he said. “So, that was my goal for the day.”
Instead of rushing upriver and risking having his armada of camera boats and spectators blow out the river, he decided to work his way upriver slowly. “Jay (Yelas) told me he wasn’t heading up the Chattahoochee, so I knew I could take my time when he let me have it to myself,” he said. “So, I took my time and hit new spots on the way up.”

In two hours, he had yet to receive a bite. By 9:30, he put his first keeper in the boat, which he revealed calmed him down. At 10:30 he Flipped his second keeper; a three pound spot, then hit keepers three and four on the vibrating jig by noon. At noon, he ran down river to a spot near Laurel Park that he had saved for the final day.

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The pocket had dozens of bluegill beds on one side of it that he planned on hitting. When he arrived, a school of spotted bass had just started pushing a cloud of spottail minnows against the bank and were gorging on them. A few seconds later, he had his limit fish in the boat with a two and a quarter pound spotted bass; his limit weighed around eight and a half to nine pounds. “I felt better about things, but nowhere close to feeling like I had closed it out,” he said. “I wanted more.”

He made a couple other stops in pockets that were blown out, then went into another that he had saved. He made a cast to where he had visibly marked a bluegill bed with the prop bait, and twitched it. A nice bass came up and dogged it, darting back and forth. He twitched it again, and the fish reacted by darting side to side under it, but no strikes. Then, he remembered a trick he’d used before and paused the bait for as long as six seconds. The fish finally inhaled the topwater.

He fought the fish; which weighed more than three pounds into the boat, and went crazy. “I knew right then that I had most likely closed it out,” he said.

He was right. His 11-pound, 15-ounces earned him the title, the trophy and the $500,000 pay day with a total weight of 60 pounds, 1-ounce; six to eight pounds heavier than what most pundits predicted would win.

Wrapping Up
As he hoisted the trophy handed to him by tournament namesake Forrest L. Wood, and received the check from a representative of Walmart, Wheeler said he had not yet realized what he had done. When he took his victory lap around the floor of the arena, and fans and children rushed to the edge of the stands to congratulate that it hit him. “I started thinking to myself at that point that I had won the cup,” he said. “It really hit me at that point.”

He realized that there would be some media needs following his win, so he cleared his calendar for the next few weeks to “make sure that any media or sponsor who needed his attention could get it.” His decisions, and strategizing revealed a mind that is seemingly much more mature than his 21 years would normally allow, but somehow, it seems right in character.

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“I’ve watched this sport for a long time, and I’ve tried to emulate what I see from the upper echelon guys in the sport,” he said. “I also learned a lot in winning the All American in 2011 and my Cup experience at Ouachita last year. There is a certain level of commitment you have to have to be successful, and I want to make sure that I live up to it both on and off the water.”

Well, with a BFL All American title, a 12th place finish at the 2011 Forrest Wood Cup in 2011 at Lake Ouachita and a stunning victory at the 2012 Forrest Wood Cup at lake Lanier, he’s certainly started off big. Especially as the youngest Forrest Wood Cup Champion ever.