Wheeler takes BASSfestJason Wheeler won the BASSFest fishing tournament in Dayton on Sunday
BASSfest Final Results
Jacob Wheeler, 90 pounds, 6 ounces; Kevin VanDam, 84-12; Matt Herren, 83-15; Gerald Swindle, 74-10; Brett Hite, 71-5; Greg Hackney 70-12; Casey Ashley 69-15; Terry Scroggins, 69-7; Luke Clausen 68-1; Russ Lane, 66-13; Jason Williamson, 64-14; Hank Cherry Jr., 61-10.
Carhartt Big Bass winner: Hank Cherry Jr., 10 pounds, 11 ounces.
DAYTON, Tenn. — Near the end of his on-stage interview after Championship Sunday's weigh-in at the first BASSfest tournament, Jacob Wheeler said: "Dad, thanks for taking me fishing when I was little."
Wheeler, the weight leader heading into the final day of fishing on Chickamauga Lake, did enough to hold off closest competitors Matt Herren and Kevin VanDam and win the tournament. The first-place payday he earned should allow him to buy a nice Father's Day gift.
"My family and I are really close," said Wheeler, a 23-year-old from Indianapolis, Ind., who ended up catching 90 pounds, 6 ounces of fish. "I had a lot of support from them. I talked with mom and dad every single morning on the phone. The $125,000 is great. But having dad there was really something special."
Wheeler led Herren, from Ashville, Ala., by 1 pound, 1 ounce after Saturday when the field was trimmed to the final 12. VanDam, a native of Kalamazoo, Mich., whose 20 Bassmaster career victories include four Bassmaster Classics, was 7 pounds, 1 ounce off the lead, but Wheeler knew what the seven-time Toyota Bassmaster Angler of Year was capable of.
VanDam had the biggest haul Sunday of 23 pounds, 8 ounces. That enabled him overtake Herren, who Weeler said was the most consistent fisherman throughout the tournament, for second place with a total of 84 pounds, 12 ounces.
"He's the king of bass fishing himself," Wheeler said. "He has so high expectations. He's always planning on winning. You know if you can beat him you've done something special."
The four-day tournament began with 140 fisherman. The field was pared to 60 and ultimately 12 for Championship Sunday.
Water currents varied from day to day, which challenged the pros' decision making. Some fished shallow water. Some fished deep water. Some went back and forth.
VanDam failed to bring in the limit of five fish on Saturday, but said he was more haunted by Thursday when a few big ones were able to get away.
"Day two was the day that killed me," VanDam said. "I had a chance to have a really big day."
Before this weekend Wheeler's biggest professional accomplishment was winning the 2013 Forrest Wood Cup on the FLW Tour. By winning the BASSfest event, Wheeler now has a spot in the 2015 Bassmaster Classic.
"Qualifying for the Classic," Wheeler said, "That's the event you want to qualify for in your career. When I was 10 years old I knew I wanted to qualify for the Classic."
Nearly each of Sunday's finalists praised the community in Rhea County for supporting the tournament and for being so hospitable. Many hope the event returns there in the future.
"I think it's been a super success," VanDam said. "We've had a ton of fans. I know there are a lot of bass fisherman within a hundred miles of this place. It makes a lot of sense to be here. You've got a lot of fans who truly appreciate us and what we do. There were some traffic nightmires they put up with for this. There were a lot of young people here, some high school teams. It was something Dayton should be proud of."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.