VMC® Neko hooks and Sufix® line helped Rapala® Pro Jacob Wheeler place 2nd last week in the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour Stage 5 tournament on Watts Bar, a Tennessee River reservoir southwest of Knoxville, TN. Having increased his lead in the Tour’s Angler of the Year (AOY) race, Wheeler’s runner-up finish also upped the odds of him winning an AOY title two years in a row.
“He’s going to leave here with a firm grip on that AOY title,” said MLF Now! co-host Marty Stone. “Trying to make that back-to-back.”
Wheeler won the 2021 Bass Pro Tour Angler of the Year title last fall, capping an amazing season in which VMC® hooks and Sufix® line helped him win three tournaments and earn four additional top-5 finishes. When last week’s Watts Bar tournament began, he was leading this year’s AOY race by only 17 points, with only two tournaments remaining in the season. But neither the angler then 2nd in AOY points, nor the angler then in 3rd place, earned a berth in the Championship Round on Watts Bar, missing their chances to keep close on Wheeler’s heels.
Only Wheeler and two other anglers within the top 10 in AOY points advanced to the Championship Round on Watts Bar. That helped Wheeler increase his lead from 17 to 38 points above the closest challenger. He leads the angler in third place by 62 points.
“This event puts us in a solid position for AOY,” Wheeler said. “But there is still work to be done.”
In the Championship Round last Thursday on Watts Bar, Wheeler caught 10 scoreable bass weighing a combined 23 lbs, 8 oz. — only 11 ounces less than tournament champion Ryan Salzman’s total combined weight.
“Battled all day and we left it all out there on the water!” Wheeler said. “Congratulations to Ryan on cracking the code this week and getting the win!”
In every Bass Pro Tour tournament, Major League Fishing determines a “scoreable bass” weight appropriate for the waterbody. On Watts Bar, a bass had to weigh at least 1 1/2 pounds to count as “scoreble” Every scoreable bass caught legally by an angler counts towards his total, cumulative weight on each competition day.
Wheeler caught a majority of his scoreable bass, both in the Championship Round and throughout the tournament, drop-shotting finesse worms around submerged brush and vegetation. Specific components of his drop-shot set-up included a main line of 8-pound-test Sufix Nanobraid, a leader of 10-pound-test Sufix Advance Fluorocarbon, and a 1/0 VMC Finesse Neko Hook threaded with a purple, 6-inch finesse worm.
Wheeler favors VMC 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 has explained previously. “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 VMC 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.
With a little less than two hours left in the Championship Round on Watts Bar, Wheeler caught the biggest bass of the day, a 4 lb, 2 ouncer. That fish, which put him into first place at the time, came also on a VMC-Neko-Hook-armed drop-shot rig.
“That’s the kind we need right there!” Wheeler exclaimed after landing the big bass. “We Finally hooked into one of those ‘sure ’nuff [bigguns] and got him in the boat!”
Wheeler’s 4-plus-pounder was one of the biggest bass caught by any angler in the tournament. “It’s been tough this whole week to generate a big bite,” Wheeler said in the MLF Now! livestream of the tournament’s final competition day.
Wheeler has advanced to the Championship Round — thus guaranteeing a top-10 finish — in each of the five Bass Pro Tour tournaments already contested this season. And that’s not all — his hot streak extends back into last season, in which he won his first Bass Pro Tour Angler of the Year title. He’s finished in the top 10 in ten of the last 11 MLF competitions he fished, a count which includes regular-season Bass Pro Tour tournaments, MLF’s 2022 REDCREST championship and 2022 Heavy Hitters tournament.
“There’s not anyone better on tour at forming a strategy” to find, catch and manage large numbers of scoreable bass in a tournament, observed Stone, the MLF Now! co-host.
Bass Pro Tour Championship Round competitors must advance first through two full-day qualifying rounds, finishing in the top 20 in either the Group A or Group B field of 40 of the world’s best bass fishermen. Both the Group A and Group B Qualifying Round winners advance directly to the Championship Round, getting a day off during the Knock Out Round. They are joined in the Championship Round by the eight anglers who catch the heaviest combined-weight totals in the Knock Out Round. Anglers’ weight totals from the Qualifying and Knock Out rounds are not carried over to the Championship Round, in which each of the ten competitors begins the day with a zero-weight blank slate and an equal opportunity to win the tournament.
Neko-Hook-armed Dropshot Rig equally key in Knock Out Round
VMC Neko Hooks and Sufix line were equally key for Wheeler in the Knock Out Round, in which he placed 4th, having caught 9 scoreable bass weighing a combined 23 lbs, 9 oz. He caught each of those fish with his drop-shot rig in five to ten feet of water, mostly in bays and pockets.
Wheeler’s first bass in the Knock Out Round came out of a brushpile. The other eight came out of submerged vegetation – AKA “grass” in bass-angler lingo. Stone, the MLF Now! livestream co-host, noted that Wheeler had “made a nice adjustment” to catch so many bass off “an isolated grass patch.” He said that Watts Bar’s grass proved an important “X Factor” in the Knock Out Round.
“The locals told me this grass, it’s not new to the lake, but it shows up in different areas every year,” Stone explained. “For the first time all week, we saw what grass can do on this lake. I’m not saying it was the ‘It’ pattern, but … it was a pattern.”
When “lines in” was called at the onset of the Knock Out Round’s third period, Wheeler was in first place. But, as has become customary for him, he did not fish competitively much in the third period after it became clear that his weight total at the time would be enough to guarantee his advancement to the Championship Round. Recall that Knock Out Round weight totals do not carry over to the Championship Round, which begins with all anglers at zero pounds.
“In the big picture,” Wheeler has explained, he can better improve his chances for success in the Championship Round by “practicing” in the third Knock Out Round period, rather than sore-lipping a few more fish in areas already proven productive. It’s better strategy to go scouting for additional areas with much potential to be productive during the following day.
“It’s so easy to run history, and I don’t really want to do that,” Wheeler explained in the MLF Now! livestream of the Championship Round. “I’d much rather chance it and fish new stuff — especially with all the pressure that’s been going on with some stuff.”
To Wheeler and bass-tournament pros generally, “practicing” during a tournament starts with studying the contour maps on your sonar/gps units, looking for areas you haven’t fished yet that comprise similar characteristics of the spots that have already been productive for you – including structure, cover and potential for current- and wind-related productivity. The next step is racing around the lake to several such spots and idling around on them, studying your down-scan, side-scan and forward-facing sonar displays to determine if schools of big bass, likely to bite, are present in the area.
When in “practice” mode in a tournament, a bass pro might not make a single cast in the spots they are scouting. In some situations, they will fish with hookless baits, or baits with barbless hooks, in order to get some intel on what types of baits and presentations the resident bass will respond to. Such in-tournament scouting gives anglers additional places with potential to yield a key bass or two – spots they’ll need if all their previously productive spots run dry in the ensuing competition round.
“I’m trying to run stuff that, if they’re there and they’re biting, I can actually catch one or two per place,” Wheeler explained, in real time via the MLF Now! livestream, of the spots he was fishing in the Championship Round – some of which he found while practicing in the third period of the Knock Out Round. “That’s sort of my mentality behind it. … I’m not going to get locked into one place, or spot that I’ve caught a bass on. You’ve got to be open-minded.”
Sufix® Nanobraid® Line
A super-sensitive micro-braid, Sufix® Nanobraid® casts a mile, increases hook-up ratios, works well in the wind and doesn’t require a special knot to tie. Made from 100 percent Dyneema® fibers, Sufix Nanobraid boasts a uniform diameter, increased abrasion resistance and superior knot and shock strength. It features an ultra-thin diameter for extreme sensitivity and long casts without sacrificing strength. Wide-angle braiding technology gives it a tight weave, resulting in a super strong, silky-smooth line.
It’s easier to throw tiny baits on Nanobraid – and feel bites on it – because it’s ridiculously thin. Ten-pound test Nanobraid measures only 3/500th of an inch in diameter; 2-pound test measures a mere 1/1000th of an inch. That makes for less wind resistance, which makes for better bite detection and a better hook-up ratio. Nanobraid comes in Sufix’s “Aqua Camo” and Low-Vis Green colors, on 150-yard spools. Attach it to a fluorocarbon leader with a uni-to-unit knot.
Sufix® Advance® Fluorocarbon Line
Advance® Fluorocarbon is the most supple, sensitive and strong fluoro line Sufix® has ever engineered. A proprietary gel phase technology process allows Sufix to maximize fluoropolymers to create a 100% fluorocarbon line that outperforms other fluoro lines so well that it merits its own category.
Wheeler’s confidence in Advance Fluorocarbon includes “knowing that when I pitch into that heavy cover and I hook that big one, I’m going to be able to get it in,” he has explained previously.
Advance Fluorocarbon’s inherent qualities and exclusive G2 Precision Winding make it virtually memory-free, preventing the dreaded line coils that jump off your reel with most other fluorocarbons. What’s more, Advance Fluorocarbon does not achieve increased suppleness by sacrificing strength or feel.
Featuring a higher density index than traditional nylon lines, Advance Fluorocarbon helps anglers feel bottom and bites better, telegraphing invaluable “intel of what’s going on” down on the bottom, Wheeler has explained. “That can be the difference of having a bad day or having a great one.”
Another benefit of Advance Fluorocarbon’s higher density index is that it will convey your finesse baits to the bottom four times faster than will old-school nylon line. And baits that work best fished on or near the bottom will get bit even better, thanks to Advance Fluorocarbon’s virtual invisibility underwater. “Knowing that the fish aren’t seeing it is a huge thing,” Wheeler said.