As realization sunk in that he had won a huge title, Rapala Pro Jacob Wheeler was, uncharacteristically, at a loss for words – “There’s nothing more important to me than winning Angler of the Year,” he said into the Major League Fishing camera webcasting live from his boat on Michigan’s Lake St. Clair on Tuesday. “And against this group of anglers, I’m speechless. I don’t even know what to say.”
Perhaps he should have said “Ding!”
That one-word catchphrase – said with a big smile when Wheeler catches a big bass on camera, wildly popular with his big fanbase, and stitched onto the hat he was wearing on the day he won MLF’s Bass Pro Tour Angler of Year – seems an appropriate reaction to an amazing season in which Wheeler rang up three tournament wins and four additional top-5 finishes (a runner-up, two thirds and a fifth).
“It feels unbelievable to accomplish this,” Wheeler told MLF reporter Steven Scott, moments before he was handed the AOY trophy. “For me, the title of Angler of the Year is the pinnacle of our sport. It’s not just one tournament. You don’t have to be the best guy for four days, you have to be the best guy for the whole season.”
To win his first Angler of the Year title, Wheeler used VMC® hooks and Sufix® line to chase down fellow Rapala® Pro Ott DeFoe, who also had an amazing season, winning two tournaments and earning three additional top-12 finishes (third, seventh and twelfth). Heading into this week’s Bass Pro Tournament on the connected waterbodies of Lake St. Clair, the St. Clair River, the Detroit River, the mouth of Lake Hudson and Lake Erie, DeFoe led Wheeler in the AOY race by 12 points. But in Tuesday’s Knock Out Round, in which Wheeler qualified for Wednesday’s Championship Round by finishing the day in 5th place, DeFoe fell short, finishing the day in 30th place. That gave Wheeler the points he needed to overtake DeFoe, whom he congratulated on also having an amazing season.
“Obviously, big shout-out to my buddy Ott DeFoe,” Wheeler said. “[He had a] heck of a year. He pushes me to work harder, he pushes me to fish harder, and he’s very deserving of this, and I’m sure he’ll win one of these very soon.”
DeFoe was equally complimentary, writing on his Facebook page that Wheeler worked hard to earn his well-deserved AOY title. “We are thankful to be competitive with him!” he said further. “Congratulations again to Jacob and his family on an incredible season!”
Dan Quinn, from his vantage point as Rapala’s Director of Field Promotions, enjoyed watching two of his company’s top pros compete at the highest level and achieve amazing success.
“Watching Jacob and Ott duke it out this season – with each having dream seasons – was incredible,” Quinn said. “They are both so darn talented. To say 2021 was a monumental season for the Rapala Pro Team would be an understatement!”
In the decade he’s worked with Wheeler, Quinn said, it was clear he was going to have an amazing career and separate himself from the pack. “He’s been destined for big things and it’s simply amazing to witness it happening in front of our eyes and seeing him make history,” Quinn said. “What makes it even better is knowing the kind of person Jake is. The husband and father he is, the endless hours he spends perfecting his craft, it is admirable, and he couldn’t be more deserving to hoist the AOY trophy!”
Wheeler won three of the first six regular-season Bass Pro Tour tournaments of the year. DeFoe won two of the other three. Wheeler’s only finish out of the top 12 this season was a 51st-place on Florida’s Harris Chain of Lakes in the third regular-season tournament of the year.
In 2016, Wheeler finished fourth in the FLW Tour AOY race and followed it up with third- and ninth-place finishes the following two years on the Bassmaster Elite Series. On the Bass Pro Tour, he finished fourth in the inaugural 2019 season’s AOY race and third-place last year.
“That’s six straight seasons in the Top 10 in points at the highest professional level,” majorleaguefishing.com noted. “He already holds a Forrest Wood Cup title and now, with an AOY, he has his first of that variety and is still a few days shy of his 31st birthday.”
In winning the AOY title and ultimately finishing 5th place in the St. Clair tournament, Wheeler again enjoyed amazing fish-catching and fish-landing success with VMC hooks and Sufix fishing line. Both VMC and Sufix are Rapala Respected brands.
VMC® hooks and Sufix® line
Throughout the Bass Pro Tour’s northern swing through one amazing smallmouth bass fishery after another, Wheeler caught hundreds of big smallies on VMC-armed drop-shot rigs. VMC-armed Ned Rigs and paddle-tail swimbaits accounted for dozens of bass as well. His drop-shot rigs comprised No. 2 VMC Finesse Neko Hooks, VMC Tungsten Tear Drop Weights in three sizes (1/4, 1/2 and ¾ oz.) and Ned-style and fluke-style soft-plastic baits, most often in green pumpkin, shad/smelt and perch color patterns.
Wheeler favors Finesse Neko Hooks for drop-shotting because they feature an adjustable bait-keeper on the hook shank that holds finesse worms firmly in place. “I’m a big fan of threading plastics on [the hook],” he told Bass Blaster’s Jay Kumar. “I feel like I get a better hook-up ratio, and I can reel fish in and be more efficient that way, with more gap.”
Additional features of Finesse Neko Hooks include a black-nickel finish, wide gap, 3-degree offset point, resin-closed eye and a forged, long shank. They’re available in four sizes: 2, 1, 1/0 and 2/0.
Wheeler fished his drop-shot rigs this season on 8-pound-test Sufix Nanobraid tipped with 8-14-pound-test Sufix Advance Flurocarbon leader line, depending on the cover he was around. “That’s my favorite line on a spinning rod” he told Bass Blaster’s Kumar.
Wheeler’s Ned Rigs comprised a ¼ oz. VMC Ned Rig Jig (a new product released in July at ICAST, the country’s foremost sportfishing convention) rigged with Ned-style soft-plastic stickworms in various colors. He also caught bass on a Storm® Largo Shad® paddle-tail soft swimbait rigged on a VMC® Hybrid Swimbait Jig. He threw that combo on baitcasting gear spooled with 12-pound-test Sufix® Advance® Flurocarbon.
A unique beveled-edge conical keeper on the Ned Rig Jig’s hook shanks holds soft-plastic Ned worms so securely, you’ll get much more casts and hooksets out of each one you thread on. VMC designed the jig with an optimal distance from its keeper to its jig-head to allow a soft-plastic worm to remain in place on the hook shank by collapsing tightly in that area, creating superior holding power.
The Hybrid Swimbait Jig’s hook features a wider gap to maximize hook sets and a hybrid bend for extra strength. It’s 1X strong and made from Hi-Carbon Steel with a forged shank. It’s “the perfect swimbait head,” Wheeler said upon the jig’s initial release. “It’s the real deal. I’m really pumped about it. It is phenomenal.”