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Illinois hunting and fishing

Jacob Wheeler, a 21-year-old local professional bass fisherman, recently won the 2012 Forrest Wood Cup, the world championship of bass fishing. Here in the basement of his parents home, Wheeler shows the hundreds of lures that he and his father use to fish, Oct. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/The Indianapolis Star, Matt Kryger)

Indy man reels in prizes in elite fishing circles

October 25, 2012 at 03:10 PM

The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Good anglers are said to be patient, but there’s nothing patient in the way Jacob Wheeler is moving around his bass boat.

Wheeler doesn’t sit; he stands. He uses his foot to manipulate a small electric motor mounted on the bow, maneuvering his boat constantly. He changes bait constantly. He changes rods constantly; he has eight lined up on deck.

He casts constantly, three casts every 60 seconds, and he chucks it, two-handed, 30 yards. He’s accurate, too, can throw an artificial lure into a shady, bass-friendly spot underneath a docked pontoon boat, can send the little fake crayfish or whatever it is cleanly through the roughly 12-inch opening between one of the pontoons and the engine.

Wheeler was practicing earlier this month. He was in an old gravel pit on Indianapolis’ Northeastside. In 90 minutes he landed 18 bass, two of them 5-pounders.

That weekend he drove to Texas and finished third at a bass tournament at Sam Rayburn Reservoir, earning $22,000, which is paltry compared to some of his earlier paydays.

Wheeler, 21, is pro bass fishing’s next big thing.

“A Star Rises,” said this month’s cover of Bass Fishing magazine.

You’ve likely never heard of Jacob Wheeler because bass fishing isn’t that big of a deal in Indiana. Around Indianapolis he goes unnoticed. He still lives at home in his parents’ Broad Ripple bungalow.

But in the South, where high schools compete against each other in bass fishing, where competitive fishing is a spectator sport and the money so big the winners are polygraphed, Wheeler signs autographs. He gives interviews. Television crews pile into his boat to film him in action. Men offer up introductions to their nieces.

Last year Wheeler became the youngest winner of the $100,000 Bass Fishing League All-American championship, making him the king of bass’ minor leagues. And in August he became the youngest winner of the Forrest Wood Cup, the Walmart FLW Tour’s Super Bowl. The prize was $500,000.

Now what?

Keep fishing. Wheeler stays sharp by fishing at least five days a week. There is constant innovation in fishing — new lures, new ways of manipulating old lures, new ideas. When he’s home in Indianapolis, he often fishes Geist Reservoir and White River.

He credits the White with his win at the Forrest Wood because while most of the competition stayed in big, open Lake Lanier, Wheeler headed up the Chattahoochee River, a shallow Lanier tributary, and fished in two feet of water. It was something he’d learned how to do as a kid on the White. “Jake’s got an elephant memory,” said Bryan Johnson, Wheeler’s fishing mentor, his Mr. Miyagi.

Wheeler was 13 or 14 and hanging around the Broad Ripple Park boat ramp with his tackle box, badgering the anglers to take him along. One day Johnson, himself an expert, took him along. Wheeler absorbed everything.

“Jake can catch a fish, and I mean one particular fish, then tell you the bait he used — the color, the size — to the pinpoint two, three years later,” Johnson told The Indianapolis Star ( ). “I’m telling you, these bass anglers have got a lot to contend with with this kid.”

In August, after four days of fishing the White River way, Wheeler had collected 60 pounds of largemouth bass. His winning margin, measured in pounds, was the largest in Forrest Wood Cup history. After taxes he took home $300,000, he said, “which isn’t much if you go crazy.”

Wheeler said he still has his prize money. The wildest thing he is considering is taking his family on a cruise or to Mexico.

He plans to move out of his parents’ house next year and rent a place in Indianapolis. But it may make more sense for him to move south to be nearer the tournaments, which are almost all below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Wheeler grew up wanting to fish professionally. His father fished. His uncle fished. He loved to watch fishing shows on TV. “I was just ate up with fishing shows,” he said.

Ate up? Wheeler already has the patter down. “Go on back and call Big Mamma tell her to come on,” he said the other day from the gravel pit, in a single breath, as he tossed a small bass back into the lake. A large bass is a big ‘un (big one) in Wheeler-speak, and if you say something Wheeler agrees with, his next sentence is: “I’m telling you!”

He sounds like a Southerner but was born and raised in Indianapolis. His mother home-schooled him and his two sisters. The Wheelers are religious. They attend Nora Christian Fellowship. A copy of “The Inspirational Study Bible” is on his nightstand, next to his DVD of “Forrest Gump” and near his giant Forrest Wood Cup trophy.

Wheeler drinks an occasional beer (in Broad Ripple he likes Three Wise Men) but doesn’t smoke or chew. He looks as if he may have a pinch between his gum and lower lip, but it turns out to be just a slight overbite.

He recently broke up with his girlfriend and is putting his love life on hold. At tournaments when someone broaches the niece issue, “I’m like, ‘Time-out!’ I thought fishing was tough, but women ..”

“It’s an advantage, him not being married,” said Wheeler’s father, Curtis Wheeler, a retired home remodeler. “I know a lot of avid fishermen who’ve been married three, four times. They’ve divorced because they choose fishing over their wives. There’s a song about it.”

Wheeler is 6 feet tall and weighs 200 pounds. His kind of fishing requires physical conditioning, which he achieves by running and playing tennis. “I just love the heck out of tennis,” he said.

He has a large head, which is perfect because his primary sponsor is a company called Fatheadz that makes sunglasses for large-headed people. “I’m on the lower spectrum of large-headed people,” Wheeler said, “and these sunglasses really do fit my head well.

“If you don’t believe in your products — the rods, the motors, the sunglasses you’re supposed to be promotin’ (promoting) — that comes across. Sponsors don’t like that, and they watch everything.”

It costs money to compete on the pro tour. There’s travel — you need a big gas-guzzler to haul your bass boat around the country — and hotel rooms add up. Just to enter the tournaments cost about $4,000 a pop. Wheeler’s expenses this year came to $60,000. They were covered entirely by sponsors.

It’s a sign of fishing’s arrival in the mainstream that large corporations whose business has nothing to do with fishing have signed on as sponsors, including Toyota and Chevrolet. Wheeler is on the Toyota team, which calls for him to wear a baseball hat that says “Tundra Fishing Team.” The hat has a flat bill instead of a curved bill. It looks like something Eminem would wear. “That gives me a city twist,” Wheeler said. “It sort of separates myself.”

“From what I’ve seen he’s a pretty marketable kid,” said Jimmy Houston, a pioneer of TV fishing shows who is considered one of the sport’s marketing geniuses. “As long as he keeps his head on straight, you can make a good living in this bidness (business).”

Houston has more than three dozen sponsors, including Chevrolet, Duracell Batteries and the Oklahoma Tourism Council.

He competed against Wheeler at the Rayburn but failed to place in the top 50. “Obviously, (Wheeler) has fishing ability,” Houston said, “but this game is marketing.

“They’re paying Jacob Wheeler to sell sunglasses. They’re not paying you to win tournaments. It’s like advertising on the Super Bowl: You don’t care who wins, you just want to sell a lot of Pepsi Cola.”

Words of wisdom from an old hand, and Wheeler hears them. Wheeler someday wants his own TV show, too.

But for now, the youngest-ever Forrest Wood Cup champ dwells not on business but on bass. “My goal right now,” he said, “is to be one of the best who ever fished.”


Information from: The Indianapolis Star,

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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