Prince powers to Day 2 lead in Bassmaster Elite Series event at Wheeler Lake

DECATUR, Ala. — When he arrived for practice for the Whataburger Bassmaster Elite at Wheeler Lake, Cliff Prince hadn’t studied a map or done any research on the lake. He wanted as clear of a head as possible, and so far, it has paid off in a big way.

With a 20-pound, 7-ounce Day 2 performance, “The Prince of Palatka” jumped into the lead at Wheeler Lake with a two-day total of 39-11. Opening the tournament in fourth with a 19-4 limit, Prince now holds a 2-8 advantage over Alabama’s Justin Hamner, while Day 1 leader John Cox is third with 34-13.


The last time the Elites visited this Tennessee River reservoir in 2016, Prince suffered a dismal 105th-place finish. This time around, he didn’t think about Wheeler Lake until he put the boat in the water to start practice.


“I had someone ask me before this tournament, ‘Did you go practice?’ And I said no,’” the three-time Classic qualifier from Palatka, Fla., said. “I didn’t look at a map. I didn’t read anything. I wanted to come here with an open mind and just practice. I didn’t want to have any preconceived notions.”


That practice strategy proved productive as Prince has maximized and guarded one key spot he found on the main lake just a short distance from the takeoff spot at Ingalls Park. He has been throwing two baits around a patch of grass that surrounds a hard spot with shell in about 4 feet of water. While he’s caught mostly largemouth, he has hooked into several big smallmouth as well.


“It is not an obvious spot,” Prince said. “If you don’t throw it in that exact spot, you don’t get bit. You’ll catch three and they’ll quit. Then you’ll fish around for a while, catch three or four, and they’ll quit again.


“If they don’t leave there, we’ll be alright.”


Similar to Day 1, Prince filled his limit early, picking up a few key bass later in the morning to cull up to his final weight. His tally included several 4-pounders and a 5-pounder.


“I’m going to guess I caught between 15 and 20 bass,” he said. “The good thing is I landed the ones I needed. The first fish I flipped off, I thought it was going to hurt me, but I probably would have culled it anyway.”


While the bass seemed to be in one big group on Day 1, Prince noticed they had split into two groups, 2- and 3-pounders on one side and 4- and 5-pounders on the other. Two of his bigger bites came on a Texas Rig today, but one other bait has produced the bulk of the weight.


Once he felt comfortable with his bag Friday, Prince hung around and guarded the spot. While hot and sunny conditions are expected to continue, with temperatures in the mid-90s expected, the wind has not blown hard. That has helped Prince keep tabs on the school of bass he has located.


Meanwhile, Justin Hamner’s magical season continued as he jumped into second place with a two-day limit weighing 37-3. The Northport, Ala., pro caught 20-8 on Day 2, adding to his 16-11 performance from Day 1.


The winner of the 2024 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Classic presented by Jockey Outdoors, Hamner is running all the way up to the Guntersville Dam tailrace and casting at one rockpile that is holding over 100 bass, he estimated. The pile sits in 10 feet of water and rises to 2 or 3 feet, and Hamner said he’s caught most of his weight on “basically topwater.”


“I’m shocked (no one is there). It is a very popular spot,” Hamner said. “It is a long way away and I guess no one wanted to make that run. I love that type of fishing. I like tailraces and I like current. I’m not a ledge-fishing guy. The first time I was here, I found that rockpile and never got to fish it in the tournament because there was a line of boats waiting to get on it.”


While he didn’t start there on Day 1, he made key upgrades there late in the afternoon and focused all of his time there on Friday. He also lost two big bass there Thursday, one over 7 and one over 5. A traditional smallmouth area, all of the bass he has caught so far have been largemouth.


Cox, who holds the Rapala CrushCity Monster Bag of the Tournament with his 22-2 Day 1 limit, caught just 12-11 on Day 2 and fell to third. He returned to the backwater pond where he caught all of his weight in on Day 1, and received five bites on a Berkley Swamp Lord.


Unfortunately, he landed just three of those bass and could only scrounge up two more keepers.


“The first two this morning annihilated it and just didn’t get it,” Cox said. “There are a lot of weeds that seem to get on your line. It’s like dying milfoil. I think both of those bites, the hooks had weeds on them. But they were nice ones.”


While he received bites in the morning hours, Cox said the activity in the pond slowed tremendously and there weren’t nearly as many gizzard shad in the area as there were on Day 1. He left to check some other areas around midday and those didn’t pan out, so he feels the pond still provides his best chance at winning.


“Now, after running around and not catching anything anywhere else, I think if I would have stayed and let the wind start moving and let some things change, I probably could have gotten another quality bite or two,” he explained. “Now I know. I think there are a lot of fish deep in there somewhere. I didn’t realize there were so many shallow spots and humps.”


Alabama’s Wesley Gore landed the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Day, a 5-13 largemouth, but Louisiana’s Greg Hackney still holds the lead for Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Tournament with a 7-9 largemouth from Day 1.

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