By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor

The final Top 5 from last week's 2017 Bassmaster Elite Series opener at Tennessee's Cherokee Lake came into the event with a collective 9 years of tour-level experience. That's undoubtedly the lowest total in decades for any derby on either major circuit.

Winner Jacob Wheeler owned more than half of that seasoning, having fished 5 FLW Tour campaigns despite being only 26 years old. The two anglers who ended up right behind him in the standings were making their pro debuts and the 4th- and 5th-place finishers had logged 2 seasons apiece.

Newcomers to professional fishing in this high-tech era are generally well-schooled in using their electronics and, being hungry to prove they belong, they'll put in long pre-practice hours graphing cover and collecting waypoints. Those were beneficial traits at Cherokee, where most of the winning-quality fish (primarily smallmouths) were still hanging out in their deep wintertime haunts.

Here are some of the details of how Wheeler's closest pursuers went about solving the Cherokee puzzle that confounded a slew of the circuit's most celebrated veterans.

2nd: Jamie Hartman

> Day 1: 5, 17-10
> Day 2: 5, 16-13
> Day 3: 5, 17-09
> Day 4: 5, 17-03
> Total = 20, 69-03

Hartman, a 44-year-old former truck driver from upstate New York, said prior to the season that his financial footing was only solid enough to carry him through the first three events if he didn't earn any checks in those derbies. The picture has brightened a bit now as the $26,000 he pocketed at Cherokee was the equivalent of more than 2 1/2 of the standard paydays that accompany a Top-50 finish.

He came very close to snatching the six-figure winner's check and becoming the first true rookie to win his maiden Elite tournament since Derek Remitz in 2007, as his 4-day total was just 10 ounces lighter than Wheeler's.

He said intel that he gathered during a pre-practice visit was critical for him.

"I came here in December and got information from local folks," he said. "I didn't find anything new when I came back for (official) practice."

He ultimately relied on two places, both depressions in flats and one of which had the Holston River channel running through it. He pulled fish that he could see on his depthfinder around rocky cover in 26 to 35 of water, employing a vertical presentation with a Damiki Armor Shad fluke-style swimbait (the staple for Cherokee at this time of year) attached to a 3/8-ounce jighead.

"I fished mostly for singles – sometimes there was two or three down there, but not very often. It did seem like when there were multiple fish, I'd get a bite.

"The singles were hit or miss. Most times they wouldn't go, but sometimes a color change would produce a bite."

> Jighead gear: 7' medium-action Cashion spinning rod, Shimano Stradic 3000 spinning reel, 15-pound Hi-Seas braided line (main line), 8-pound Hi-Seas fluorescent green fluorocarbon (10' leader), 3/8-ounce i1 Baits jighead, Damiki Armor Shad (various shad colors).

Main factor in his success – "I'd have to say just persistence and making the right decisions, like changing colors, at the right times."

Performance edge – "My Lowrance graphs. I could not have done it without them."

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Jesse Wiggins exploited a single area for the vast majority of his weight and, like Hartman, finished less than a pound behind winner Jacob Wheeler.

3rd: Jesse Wiggins

> Day 1: 5, 19-01
> Day 2: 5, 16-14
> Day 3: 5, 16-14
> Day 4: 5, 16-03
> Total = 20, 69-00

Alabama's Wiggins, who came into the event carrying the momentum from a Bassmaster Southern Open victory last month at Florida's Harris Chain of Lakes, sat atop the standings for the tournament's 2 middle days. He used a small fluke-style bait to pull the vast majority of his weigh-in fish from a single spot that he had all to himself.

"I was idling a point (during practice) and just inside the point was a pocket," he said. "I idled the pocket and there was a bunch of fish."

The depression where the fish were holding was about 30 yards long by 30 yards wide. It had a hard clay bottom and was devoid of rock, but it was holding a bunch of shad.

In an effort to manage the area, he fished it for only about an hour on days 1-3. That was plenty of time put 17 pounds or so into his box.

He hit hard for several hours on day 4, but managed only seven bites, and that prompted him to spend the afternoon in other locales. He found another one that was loaded in the final half-hour and made one cull before the fish vanished.

"I thought I was fixing to win," he said, "but by the time I was finished making the cull and got back to where they were, it was like the light had been turned off. I don't know how that many fish can just disappear.

"I'd have won with two more drops if they'd stayed, but that's how it goes."

> Jighead gear: Unnamed 7'2" medium-action spinning rod, unnamed 2500-size spinning reel, 10-pound Seaguar Smackdown braided line (main line), 6- or 8-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon (8' leader), unnamed 3/8-ounce ball-head jig, 3" Jenko Big T Fry Daddy (dirty milk or pearl blue glitter).

Main factor in his success – "Just committing to looking at the graph and idling, and finding a place that had a bunch of fish."

Performance edge – "My Lowrance unit, no question."

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Seth Feider pushed his string of single-digit Elite finishes to three.

4th: Seth Feider

> Day 1: 5, 18-10
> Day 2: 5, 15-01
> Day 3: 5, 16-13
> Day 4: 5, 15-05
> Total = 20, 65-13

Seth Feider has dramatically boosted his bank balance and his name recognition over the course of the last three Elite derbies, all of which have taken place on smallmouth-dominated venues (being from Minnesota, brown fish are his specialty). This was actually his lowest finish from that triad of tournaments, which included last September's AOY Championship – an event he won.

He came down for pre-practice before the lake went off-limits last month, but did his exploration from a borrowed boat with sub-standard electronics and thus didn't learn much. During official practice, he used the SideScan feature on his depthfinder to identify areas with large rocks. He found six places that he deemed worthy of fishing during the tournament and uncovered two more on competition days.

"It was the same deal a lot of people were fishing – clay banks with limestone rocks," he said. "It was all deep water (25 to 40 feet) and if it was solid rock, I didn't do any good. The best places had 5 to 10 feet of open ground around the rocks.

"A lot of the fish I didn't see (on his graph). I'd just drop it down on the edges of the rocks and shake it down there, and they'd come out and get it."

He started the tournament using 6-pound fluorocarbon line and compiled his biggest bag on a "Damiki rig" without losing anything of consequence, but then lost a bunch of fish on day 2. A conversation with eventual 10th-place finisher Ott DeFoe, who has vast experience on Cherokee, convinced him to switch to a slightly heavier rod and to spool up with braid and a fluorocarbon leader.

> Jighead gear: 7' medium-heavy Daiwa Steez AGS 10 spinning rod, Daiwa Steez EX 3012 H spinning reel, 10-pound Sufix 832 braided line (main line), 6-pound Sufix Invisiline flurocarbon (12' leader), 3/8-ounce VMC Moon Eye jig, 3" minnow-style soft-plastic trailer (white).

> He also caught a couple of fish (one that he weighed) on a Rapala Jigging Rap ice jig.

Main factor in his success – "Just having enough places – I could run around some and I had options. Timing was a big deal and sometimes my timing was better than others. Sometimes the fish were biting and sometimes they weren't."

Performance edge – "Definitely my Humminbird graphs – I stared at them for 7 straight days – and my new Minn Kota trolling motor with Spot-Lock."

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Paul Mueller rebounded from a bad first day to post a Top-5 finish.

5th: Paul Mueller

> Day 1: 5, 12-05
> Day 2: 5, 16-12
> Day 3: 5, 17-15
> Day 4: 5, 18-00
> Total = 20, 65-00

Mueller had by far the worst day of any of the Top-5 finishers, but rebounded to equal his career-best showing in a regular-season Elite event (he was also 5th at Toledo Bend last year). He focused his efforts on places that he deemed to be in fairly close proximity to spawning areas.

"I could look on the bank and see a nice combination of rock and gravel, and even sometimes clay," he said, "and there was deep water close to the shore. They were areas that fish were staging before they come up on the banks.

"I had six areas from practice, but one of them other competitors beat me to and a couple of guys who did well fished there. In the tournament I rotated through five, and they were spread out a little bit from mid-lake to the southern end.

He used his Garmin Panoptix electronics to home in on the location of fish, and then he'd drop a Reins Bubbling Shaker down to them on a jighead.

"Instead of letting it got to the bottom, I tried to keep it above them and constantly shake it," he said. "Sometimes they'd eat it right away and other times I'd let it sit above them and they'd slowly come up and eat it.

"Every fish was different. The electronics would tell me what mood they were in and then I'd work each one accordingly."

He also caught a few weigh-in fish on a small swimbait attached to an under-spin.

"If they were moving fast or if it was windy and I couldn't position the boat right to get over them, I'd cast the swimbait to them. I could see where they were at with the Panoptix, and if they were maybe 30 to 40 feet away I'd cast beyond them. The key was letting it go to the bottom and then slow-rolling it."

> Jighead gear: 7'2" Dobyns Champion Extreme spinning rod, unnamed 2000-size spinning real, 10-pound Gamma Torque braided line (main line), 6-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon (12' leader), hand-poured 3/8-ounce ball-head jighead (from Do-It mold), 3 1/2" Reins Bubbling shaker (bluegill, baitfish or natural pro blue).

> He threw the under-spin on a 7'6" Dobyns Champion Extreme rod with a Team Lew's Pro Speed spinning reel. He employed 15-pound braid with an 8-pound leader.

Main factor in his success – "I knew I needed to catch a good bag every day after that bad first day, when the cold front moved the bait out of my areas. Once conditions got more stable, the bait moved back in and that brought the (bass) back."

Performance edge – "The Panoptix – it allows you to see everything that's happening away from the boat in real time."

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