Wheeler Leads Top Ten to Championship Round at Dale Hollow

Tennessee pro catches 25 bass weighing 79-13 to lead Knockout Round, final 10 anglers set for Championship Sunday in final-day shootout for top prize of $100,000

BYRDSTOWN, Tenn. (April 13, 2024) – Each of the 10 anglers who qualified for the Championship Round on Dale Hollow Lake will start Sunday morning with zero pounds, but it sure feels like two have separated from the rest of the pack in the chase for the trophy at the Major League Fishing (MLF) Bass Pro Tour PowerStop Brakes Stage Three Presented by Mercury.

On a day during which many of the 20 anglers on the water struggled to generate consistent bites, two-time Angler of the Year (AOY) winner Jacob Wheeler of Harrison, Tennessee, and rookie Drew Gill of Mount Carmel, Illinois , seemingly stacked weight on SCORETRACKER® at will. While it took 31 pounds, 2 ounces on the day to earn a spot in the Top 10 and a berth to the Championship Round, both Wheeler and Gill surpassed that mark within the first 90 minutes. Each eclipsed 50 pounds in Period 1 before easing off the throttle, saving as many fish as possible for what’s looking like a final-day prize fight.

Wheeler ultimately finished atop the leaderboard with 25 scorable bass for 79-13. That put him 3-7 ahead of Gill, with a sizable gap to Alton Jones Jr. of Waco, Texas, in third place at 54-7.

Still, with several of the best anglers in the game at using forward-facing sonar to find and catch schools of bass (Jones Jr., Dustin Connell, Michael Neal, Spencer Shuffield) among the Top 10, the only sure thing entering Championship Sunday is that whoever prevails will have to earn it.

The final 10 anglers are now set, and competition resumes Sunday morning with the Championship Round. In the Championship Round, weights are zeroed, and the highest one-day total wins the top prize of $100,000.

When Wheeler won his seventh Bass Pro Tour trophy at Stage Two on Santee Cooper, he quipped that he had to keep pace with Connell, his travel roommate and close friend who had won the prior event on Toledo Bend. So, after Connell prevailed again at last month’s REDCREST championship, there was some semi-serious speculation that Wheeler would have no choice but to win at Dale Hollow.

Suddenly, the possibility appears very real. While Wheeler is more focused on trying to add to his record BPT victory tally and consolidate his lead in the Fishing Clash Angler of the Year competition, he’d be happy to continue the trend.

“It would be cool, obviously,” he said. “(Connell) won the first one, I won the second one, he won the third one. It’d be nice to win this one, for sure. Right now, the house is undefeated.”

Usually an ironclad lock to make the Championship Round (he’s now up to an astounding 31 Top 10s in 45 career BPT events), Wheeler admitted that it took him a bit longer than he expected to figure out the bass on Dale Hollow this week, especially considering that he visits the lake regularly. He started competition fishing around the bank, but by Saturday morning, he’d realized that the offshore, forward-facing sonar pattern that has dominated tournament fishing all year would once again be the way to win.

“I really anticipated this tournament to be a shallow-water tournament,” he said. “It’s April, the trees are blooming. Now, this lake right here is well known for forward-facing sonar, and half my fish have come that way this week; the other half didn’t, I wasn’t looking at my screen. But I fully believe that it’ll be won doing that.”

That’s fine by Wheeler, who’s proven himself as effective as anyone with the technology. He started Saturday morning on an offshore school of largemouth. Using a jighead minnow, he put together a furious flurry that saw him boat 17 scorable bass totaling 53-13 in less than two hours.

“I thought it was going to take 50 pounds to probably make it, and I was able to catch that pretty quickly this morning,” Wheeler said. “And so, I was able to practice the rest of the day and look around and ultimately come up with a pretty solid game plan.”

Despite the fact that smallmouth accounted for the majority of the scorable bass caught by the field Saturday for the first time, 22 of Wheeler’s 25 fish were largemouth. That was by design.

“I was targeting largemouth for the most part,” Wheeler said. “I’ve spent a lot of time here in the wintertime, and I know the typical zones those bass live in.”

As good as Wheeler’s opening period was, he’s not committed to revisiting that spot to start Sunday’s action. In typical Wheeler fashion, once he amassed enough weight that he didn’t have to worry about the cut line, he spent the final five or so hours scouting new water. He found a few new areas that piqued his interest, and as the first boat to launch, he’ll have his pick of real estate on the 28,000-acre reservoir.

“I was able to eliminate a lot of stuff,” Wheeler said of his afternoon. “Now, I still have some stuff that I need to go look at. I found some stuff late; I realized what was transpiring late. So, I’m going to have to practice tomorrow as well.”

While he might practice in the sense that he’ll continue searching for the winning fish, there will be no easing off his efforts to catch them during the Championship Round. Wheeler believes it will take at least 100 pounds to claim the trophy, maybe more.

“I think 100 pounds will probably win,” Wheeler said. “I mean, it could take even as much as 120 or more. Heck, I don’t know. Obviously, a lot of guys put some pressure on their fish, but a lot of guys are sandbagging, too.”

The top 10 pros from Saturday’s Knockout Round that now advance to Sunday’s Championship Round on Dale Hollow Lake are:

1st:          Jacob Wheeler, Harrison, Tenn., 25 bass, 79-13
2nd:        Drew Gill, Mount Carmel, Ill., 25 bass, 76-6
3rd:        Alton Jones Jr., Waco, Texas, 17 bass, 54-7
4th:         Marshall Robinson, Landrum, S.C., 17 bass, 49-6
5th:         Spencer Shuffield, Hot Springs, Ark., 18 bass, 49-0
6th:         Dustin Connell, Clanton, Ala., 16 bass, 43-15
7th:         Michael Neal, Dayton, Tenn., 14 bass, 43-0
8th:         Justin Lucas, Guntersville, Ala., 14 bass, 39-3
9th:         Keith Poche, Pike Road, Ala., 11 bass, 31-9
10th:      Alton Jones, Lorena, Texas, 11 bass, 31-2

Finishing in 11th through 20th place are:

11th:      Shin Fukae, Osaka, Japan, seven bass, 26-5
12th:      Britt Myers, Lake Wylie, S.C., eight bass, 26-2
13th:      Jesse Wiggins, Addison, Ala., nine bass, 23-6
14th:      David Dudley, Lynchburg, Va., eight bass, 23-3
15th:      Grae Buck, Green Lane, Penn., six bass, 19-15
16th:      Anthony Gagliardi, Prosperity, S.C., seven bass, 17-11
17th:      Casey Ashley, Donalds, S.C., six bass, 15-14
18th:      Jeff Sprague, Wills Point, Texas, five bass, 12-5
19th:      Adrian Avena, Vineland, N.J., four bass, 12-1
20th:      Ott DeFoe, Blaine, Tenn., four bass, 9-6

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