Wheeler Earns Seventh Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour Victory
CLARENDON COUNTY, S.C. (Feb. 25, 2024) – During the final period of the final day of Suzuki Stage Two Presented by Fenwick, the Santee Cooper lakes that had churned out chunky bass all week simply shut down. At one point, the 10 pros duking it out during the Championship Round went 45 minutes without boating a scorable bass. They combined to catch just 18 fish, none breaking the 4-pound mark, during the final frame.

The one angler who managed to manufacture consistent action – Rapala pro Jacob Wheeler of Harrison, Tennessee. Wheeler accounted for five of those bass fishing a soft plastic swimbait, which combined to weigh 14 pounds, 2 ounces. That boosted his final-day total to 47-4, lifting him past Suzuki pro Dean Rojas of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, by 5 pounds for his seventh career Bass Pro Tour victory.

Bucking conventional Santee Cooper tactics by fishing offshore with a jighead minnow, Wheeler did what he’s done for the past six years, seemingly willing bites into existence. He started the third period 2-8 back of Rojas but promptly took the lead with a 3-12 largemouth. A little more than an hour later, with everyone else at a standstill, he boated three fish over 2-pounds in about 10 minutes. After Rojas closed within 2-6 in the final 30 minutes, Wheeler ran across Lake Marion to hit one more spot, where he added a 2-10 to all but seal the victory.

“I stuck to my game plan this whole week, and I stayed out offshore and I tried to fish isolated stuff," Wheeler said. “It really came down to just keeping my head down and keeping my rotation going. I tried to make other tactics work, but those last two periods really came down to throwing that Freeloader, locking it in my hand. I’ve got so much confidence in it; I know it’s going to generate the bites if they are going to bite at all.”

Both Wheeler and Rojas, who pulled away from the rest of the pack Sunday, largely ignored the fishery’s innumerable cypress trees, with Wheeler fishing offshore and Rojas skipping boat docks.

Wheeler said he had 30 to 40 spots that he cycled through during the event, mostly located in the middle and lower sections of Lake Marion. He primarily targeted brushpiles but also found a few productive locations that featured stumps or hard spots on the bottom.

“I didn’t feel like it was the winning pattern,” Wheeler said. “But I basically was able to find enough stuff that I could keep to myself and rotate on myself and really manage that it ended up being that way. And it was a combination of the right bait, the right area, the right stuff.”

While most of the field focused on cypress trees or submerged vegetation, Wheeler wasn’t the only angler in the Championship Round fishing offshore. Justin Lucas stacked up 42-6 on six bass doing virtually the same thing during the Knockout Round.

What separated Wheeler was his ability to generate strikes amid the tough, postfrontal conditions that greeted the field on Sunday.

His final-period flurry will likely be remembered as the winning moment, but surviving the first period might have been more important for Wheeler. The morning brought chilly, windy conditions that made fishing offshore difficult. Seeing that fish were tucked tighter to the bottom, Wheeler pulled out a jig and used it to catch his first bass of the day, a 5-10. Without that fish, his biggest of the day, he would’ve fallen 10 ounces shy of Rojas’ total.

“I just felt like the fish were on the bottom,” he said. “When the wind blows, a lot of times, those fish will suck down to the bottom. Basically, all I was using ActiveTarget for then was just making the right casts.”

As the wind died down and the water warmed, Wheeler turned to the Rapala CrushCity Freeloader, a soft-plastic, pintail minnow of his own design. The Freeloader has become a confidence bait for Wheeler — no surprise considering he’d already won one Bass Pro Tour event, 2023 Stage Four on Lake Guntersville, with it.
He came into the week unsure whether it would be effective in Santee Cooper’s shallow, off-color water. But as the event progressed, he found that bass that would eat a jerkbait earlier in the week could still be enticed by a Freeloader — even Sunday afternoon, when no one else in the field could get bit consistently.

“The water’s starting to clean up a little bit, the fish were definitely really fickle,” he said. “When the water was a little bit dirtier, you could catch ‘em on a spinnerbait, you could catch ‘em on a jerkbait; it was a lot better. And then as the water slowly cleared, it became a deal where I had to change up. And that was the key.”

Wheeler’s latest triumph adds to an already sterling Bass Pro Tour resume. He’s now amassed seven wins and 29 Top-10 finishes in his first 43 BPT events — both easily the most among his peers on tour. He’s already claimed two Fishing Clash Angler of the Year titles and is back in the driver’s seat to add a third.

So, has all that success gotten old yet? Not a chance.

“My little girl, she’s sort of like me, she always likes to win,” Wheeler said with a laugh. “And she told me, ‘Daddy, you don’t let (roommates) DC and Adrian win this week. You’ve got to bring home the trophy.’ So, we’re bringing home the trophy, darling.”

The top 10 pros from the Suzuki Stage Two Presented by Fenwick at Santee Cooper Lakes finished:

1st:        Jacob Wheeler, Harrison, Tenn., 15 bass, 47-4, $100,000
2nd:      Dean Rojas, Lake Havasu City, Ariz., 17 bass, 42-4, $45,000
3rd:       Jesse Wiggins, Cullman, Ala., nine bass, 29-14, $38,000
4th:        Matt Becker, Ten Mile, Tenn., four bass, 19-10, $32,000
5th:        Dylan Hays, Hot Springs, Ark., five bass, 18-12, $30,000
6th:        Casey Ashley, Donalds, S.C., six bass, 16-8, $26,000
7th:        Dave Lefebre, Erie, Pa., five bass, 15-5, $23,000
8th:        Cole Floyd, Leesburg, Ohio, five bass, 11-5, $21,000
9th:        James Watson, Lampe, Mo., three bass, 7-13, $19,000
10th:     Justin Lucas, Guntersville, Ala, one bass, 4-8, $16,000

A complete list of results can be found at MajorLeagueFishing.com.

Overall, there were 70 bass weighing 213 pounds, 3 ounces caught by the final 10 pros Sunday. The catch included four 5-pounders, one 6-pounder, and one 8-pounder.

Reigning Fishing Clash Angler of the Year (AOY) Matt Becker of Ten Mile, Tennessee, won Championship Sunday’s Berkley Big Bass Award, with a largemouth totaling 8 pounds even in the first period. Berkley awards $1,000 to the angler who weighs the heaviest bass each day, and a $3,000 bonus to the angler who weighs the heaviest bass of the tournament. Pro David Dudley of Lynchburg, Virginia, earned the $3,000 Berkley Big Bass award for the overall largest bass of the event with his 9-pound, 11-ounce largemouth that was weighed on Day 4 of competition.

The Suzuki Stage Two at Santee Cooper Lakes Presented by Fenwick featured the MLF catch, weigh, immediate-release format, in which anglers caught as much weight as they could each day, while also feeling the pressure and intensity of the SCORETRACKER® leaderboard. The tournament featured anglers competing with a 1-pound, 8-ounce minimum weight requirement for a bass to be deemed scorable. The MLF Fisheries Management Division determines minimum weights for each body of water that the Bass Pro Tour visits, based on the productivity, bass population and anticipated average size of fish in each fishery.

The six-day tournament, hosted by the Clarendon County Chamber of Commerce, showcased 80 of the top professional anglers in the world, competing for a purse of $659,000, including a top payout of $100,000 and valuable Fishing Clash Angler of the Year (AOY) points in hopes of qualifying for the General Tire Heavy Hitters all-star event and REDCREST 2025, the Bass Pro Tour championship.

The Bass Pro Tour features a field of 80 of the top professional anglers in the world, competing across seven regular-season tournaments around the country, for millions of dollars and valuable points to qualify for the annual General Tire Heavy Hitters all-star event and the REDCREST 2025 championship.

Bass Pro Tour anglers also compete throughout the 2024 season for the prestigious Fishing Clash Angler of the Year (AOY) award and its $100,000 payday. After two events in the 2024 season, Jacob Wheeler leads the AOY race with 157 points. Jesse Wiggins of Addison, Alabama, moved into second place with 150 points, while defending AOY Matt Becker of Ten Mile, Tennessee, sits in third, two points back of Wiggins with 148 points.

Television coverage of the Suzuki Stage Two at Santee Cooper Lakes Presented by Fenwick will premiere as a two-hour episode starting at 7 a.m. ET, on Saturday, Sept. 21 on Discovery, with the Championship Round premiering the following Saturday on Sept. 28. New MLF episodes premiere each Saturday morning on Discovery, with re-airings on Outdoor Channel.

Proud sponsors of the 2024 MLF Bass Pro Tour include: Abu Garcia, B&W Trailer Hitches, Bass Pro Shops, Berkley, BUBBA, Epic Baits, Fishing Clash, Garmin, General Tire, Humminbird, Lowrance, Mercury, MillerTech, Minn Kota, Mossy Oak Fishing, NITRO, Onyx, Plano, Power-Pole, Rapala, StarBrite, Suzuki, Toyota and U.S. Air Force.

For complete details and updated information on Major League Fishing and the Bass Pro Tour, visit MajorLeagueFishing.com. For regular updates, photos, tournament news and more, follow MLF’s social media outlets at FacebookX,  Instagram and  YouTube.

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