Cautious Wheeler hangs onto BASSfest lead

Cautious Wheeler hangs onto BASSfest lead

June 15th, 2014 by Jim Tanner in Sports - Outdoors

The 12 finalists in the Bassmaster Elite Series BASSfest tournament appear on stage in front of the crowd at Point Park in Dayton. The 12 will fish Sunday for the top prize of $125,000.

Photo by Jim Tanner/Times Free Press.

DAYTON, Tenn. - And then there were 12.

The Bassmaster Elite Series BASSfest professional tournament returned to Lake Chickamauga on Saturday with 60 anglers competing to make today's final round and earn a shot at the top prize of $125,000 and entry into the 2015 Bassmaster Classic.

Jacob Wheeler entered the day with a big lead but saw that dwindle to just over a pound after bringing in four fish totaling 16 pounds, 2 ounces. Wheeler's three-day total stands at 68-5 heading into today, and he said that with the target on his back and a lot of attention on his boat he decided not to tip his hand about where he had success earlier in the week.

"I tried to save some stuff," the Indianapolis resident said after Saturday's weigh-in. "Maybe I should have gone and started on the place I've been starting on every day, but tomorrow I can go there and catch 16, 17, 18 pounds off that place and be right where I need to be and go catch two big ones and win this thing.

"I had 30 people following me today and there were spectator boats, and you had to be really careful about what you fished and what you didn't. You had to save something [for today]."

The big mover at the top of the leaderboard was Matt Herren of Ashville, Ala., who brought in five fish weighing 23-6 and jumped from fourth to second with a total of 67-4. That knocked Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., down a notch into third at 61-4.

"I could tell early on that it was going to be a tough day," said VanDam, who caught four fish weighing 15-13 on Saturday. "There was a lot of bait suspended on the top, and there was not much wind or cloud cover to help. The fish were in a real neutral mood, and I really struggled to get any bites today."

Completing the dozen in today's final round are Greg Hackney (58-7), Terry Scroggins (56-4), Gerald Swindle (55-11), Casey Ashley (54-11), Brett Hite (54-5), Russ Lane (53-11), Jason Williamson (53-5), Hank Cherry Jr. (53-2) and Luke Clausen (52-6).

Stephen Mui of Bartlett, Ill., didn't make the final field, but he was more than happy with his 18th-place showing. Mui competes in the secondary Bassmaster Open Series and doesn't normally go up against the Elite Series anglers. He said he discovered a spot that went undetected by his competition all week.

"Going into this, I had kind of a tough practice and only found two areas and I was thinking, 'These are the best guys in the world. Somebody's going to find it,'" he said after bringing in 17-5 on Saturday to jump from 30th place. "And I got lucky that no one found what I found, and there were a lot of fish there."

"It feels great and makes you thirsty for more. I want to get back up there and do it again."

Tennessee Department of Tourism official Dave Jones visited the tournament and said he was impressed with the job Dayton has done to make the anglers and Bassmaster welcome in the state.

"People talk about hospitality in Tennessee," Jones said. "I'm not sure hospitality brings you to Tennessee for the first time, but I do think it's what brings you back to Tennessee over and over."

"Fishing is one thing from a tourism standpoint that ties the entire state together. There's so many great lakes across the state. We have people who come to Tennessee because they know about our great fishing. When we get them here, we hope they spend a lot of money. That money provides a great quality of life for those who live in this area."

After rain and clouds had kept the lake fairly clear for the first three days, Saturday was a more typical summer day with clear skies and higher temperatures. The good weather helped bring out thousands of fans to watch the weigh-in and also resulted in a lot of boat traffic on the lake as the anglers were competing. VanDam said that recreational boat traffic is just part of what he has to deal with in his line of work, but he hopes today is a bit less crowded on the water.

"It's a public lake and there's a lot of traffic and it's a busy day," he said. "Tomorrow with there being just 12 boats and it being a Sunday, hopefully everybody goes to church and that will really open up the lake for us."

Contact Jim Tanner at jtanner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JFTanner.