By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
(Editor's note: In observance of the Thanksgiving holiday, a new First Cast article will not appear until Monday, Dec. 2.)
There may be a lot of uncertainty in professional bass fishing these days, but here's one thing that's become pretty much a lead-pipe cinch: Jacob Wheeler's placement on the season-ending points list will consist of only one digit.
Over the past four years, Wheeler has logged four top-10 AOY finishes on three different circuits. He was 4th in 2016 (his final FLW Tour campaign), 3rd and 9th on the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2017-18 and 4th this year in the MLF Bass Pro Tour's inaugural season.
He won a championship (the 2012 FLW Cup) before he'd even turned pro. Now he's eager to nail down a tour-level points title.
"Angler of the Year is such an important piece of the sport," he said this week in a phone interview from Texas, where he's fulfilling some sponsor obligations and will spend Thanksgiving with family members. "There's always the debate about whether that or winning a championship event is bigger, but for me, Angler of the Year is high on my priority list.
"It's not one week or one event that went well – it's a whole season. And on the BPT, fishing against guys I grew up watching and some that came up with me, if you can win Angler of the Year out of that group, you've done something."
Was Stubborn at Conroe
Wheeler, who finished 22 points behind AOY winner Edwin Evers this year, landed outside the top 40 in only one of the BPT's eight regular-season events. That was a 63rd-place showing at Lake Conroe – the second stop on the schedule.
"That was definitely one of those times when I needed to make an adjustment and I didn't do it," said Wheeler, who sits atop the BassFan World Rankings with a six-point advantage over Evers. "I was real hard-headed – everybody who knows me knows how much I love to fish a topwater and I tried to make it happen there. I've fished it all over the country, from pre-spawn to late fall, and I tried to force it.
"I knew the conditions weren't set up perfectly for it, but I thought if I got the bites they'd be the right ones. It didn't work out."
Other than a 40th at Smith Lake ("We had a big thunderstorm that killed the shad spawn and I didn't adjust very well"), all of his other finishes were 19th or better. He said the string of strong showings, which included a win at the second Table Rock Lake derby and a runner-up in the three-lake North Carolina event that came right on the heels of his 2nd-place finish in the Bassmaster Classic, was the best extended run of his career.
"It was a pretty special few months," he said. "When I was 45th in the points at the beginning of the year people would've looked at that and said I was struggling, but it's a marathon and not a sprint.
"When we got done with Conroe I was really mad at myself that I didn't make the adjustments I needed to and I was very committed after that. I won the MLF World Championship, which didn't air until July, and then I was leading the Classic on the final day and ended up 2nd there.
"The whole year was awesome," he continued. "To have all that happen in such a short amount of time, you feel like you can jump in any tournament and have a chance to win it."
Won't Rest on Laurels
Wheeler became a father for the first time early this year and this is the first offseason in which he's had to work in the obligations that come along with that.
"I don't have quite as much time to work on preparing for next season that I used to, but I still have the attitude that I'm going to work hard," he said. "That's something I don't want to lose."
He plans to make pre-practice trips to Lake Eufaula and Lake Okeechobee – the first two stops on the BPT schedule when it gets under way in February. He won an MLF Cup event at Eufaula, but that was a late-fall affair and he says he's not really familiar with how it'll fish in the pre-spawn phase.
"I'd like to run around for a couple of days and just get an idea of how it's going to set up. If I can have those images in my mind for a couple of months, it could help with coming up with a plan about how to attack it. It might give me a little bit of an edge.
"Like last year, I'd never been to Conroe and I ended up kicking myself in the butt for not going (for pre-practice). Things might've turned out different if I had."