Running essentially the same gameplan that won him a trophy last June on Chickamauga, Jacob Wheeler came within one biggun’ of winning again this week on the Tennessee River reservoir. Wheeler cranked ledges with Rapala DT-16 and DT-20 crankbaits to catch the most, and biggest, bass he weighed, including a 5-pound, 13-ouncer in the final minutes of the championship round Wednesday on the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour.
“If I can get them to eat a crankbait, there’s nothing I can catch Chickamauga bass on faster and make ‘em react to better,” Wheeler says. “The key really is speed – you have to wind it fast. You have to wind it through the schools of them. Basically, you’re just making those big fish react. They see someone and they just attack it.”
Rapala DT-16’s and DT-20’s are Wheeler’s favorite crankbaits for targeting bass on deep ledges. “DT” stands for “Dives To.” Built of balsa wood, Rapala’s signature material, a DT-16 will get down to its maximum depth of 16 feet sooner than – and thus stay in the strike zone longer than – lookalike crankbaits.
“The DT-16 gets down there, if I throw it on 10-pound-test, about 18 feet,” Wheeler says. But he will sometimes throw a DT-20 – on heavier line to make it run higher – at the same depth he throws a DT-16. “That 20, I think it’s a little more subtle of a crankbait,” he says. “And there are certain times when those fish will react to the 20 better than a 16. So I have both tied on.”
Because summer tournaments on Chickamauga are usually won by anglers targeting schools of bass positioned by current on the Tennessee River reservoir’s famous offshore ledges, the fish in the best spots often sustain hourly pressure from both national and regional tournament pros and savvy locals. Because they’re made of balsa, DT-16’s and DT-20’s trigger bites from those heavily pressured ledge bass better than “harder-thumping” molded-plastic crankbaits, Wheeler says.
Cranking as fast as he could through a school was more important than consistent bottom contact with either the DT-16 or DT-20. “Sometimes I’m hitting bottom, sometimes I’m not,” Wheeler says. “Ideally, I want to hit bottom, because I want it to deflect around on stuff. But I don’t want it to dredging the bottom — like, I don’t want to throw a DT-20 in 12 foot [of water]. I’d rather throw a 16 on 14-pound line. I mix things up. That’s why I have three or four DT’s tied on at all times, because I change my line size for whatever I’m fishing and whatever they’re set up on.”
Wheeler mostly threw DT-16’s on 10-pound-test Sufix Advance Fluorocarbon and DT-20’s on 12-pound-test.
Although Wheeler caught some fish on finesse offerings armed with VMC hooks and weights – mostly when current was slack – most of those fish weighed less. He had to throw his DT’s to catch bigger fish, which is key in MLF’s catch-weigh-release formant, and in a tournament in which only bass weighing two pounds or more counted as score-able.
“You have big schools of fish and you could sit there and drag [a finesse bait] there and catch those 2-pounders, or pound-and-a-halfers, you know the smaller ones, but to generate those bigger bites, you had to make those fish react with a DT,” Wheeler explains. “And that was really the game plan this whole week.”
That being said, when current in the reservoir was especially slack and his schools weren’t fired up, Wheeler caught score-able bass on a Neko Rig comprising a finesse worm dressed on a No. 2 VMC Neko Hook and impaled with a 3/32nd oz. ribbed-nail-shape VMC Neko Weight. “That was really the key for generating a couple bites when it was flat-calm with no current and sunny,” he says.
Last June on Chickamauga, Wheeler threw DT-20’s to win the first-ever FLW Pro Circuit Super Tournament. On the final day of the 4-day event, he caught an 8-pounder on a DT-20 to seal the win.