DULUTH — Before the crowd at the Gwinnett Arena heard the total of Jacob Wheeler’s five best bass on Thursday, he knew it was something special after a great day fishing on Lake Lanier. As the fish flopped in the bag on the scale, Wheeler anticipated the announcer standing by his side on stage to call the weight on the first day of the Forrest Wood Cup.
Then the 21-year-old angler from Indianapolis let loose with a fist pump, just before the announcer was able to call out his total of 21 pounds, 15 ounces, putting him solidly in first place by almost 5 1/2 pounds over his nearest competitor with three days left to go. Wheeler was so animated, knowing that winning bass fishing’s biggest tournament would be life changing with its $500,000 that goes to the winner.
“I’m just speechless,” said Wheeler, the 2011 Bass Fishing League’s All-American Champion. “It was just one of those days you live for.
“Everything went my way out on Lake Lanier today.”
In the co-angler division, Cumming’s Nick Hensley is in the lead after a first-day total of 12-2. The top co-angler for the weekend walks away with a check for $50,000.
Wheeler’s success started early, after moving away from his first spot of the day. Quickly, he honed in on a honey hole that produced a 5, 4 1/2 and 3-pound bass in rapid succession. All of Wheeler’s 10 keepers were largemouth bass that he caught in water that was less than 10 feet deep. It marked his biggest tournament bag in his young career.
Like most anglers, Wheeler was trying to hit as many different spots as he could, noting he dropped a line in about 50 locations. He plans to do the same again today as he tries to make the top-20 cut for the weekend.
After Saturday’s third round, only the top 10 advance to the final round on Sunday.
Coming into the Forrest Wood Cup, Wheeler felt that 15 pounds would be a good start with less-than-ideal weather conditions, and the knowledge that more storms are forecast for today in Hall County.
“Fishing in the Forrest Wood Cup is the ultimate event,” Wheeler said. “Now, I just have to stay focused on catching big bass the rest of the time here.”
This weekend, Wheeler also has the opportunity to win his biggest paycheck to date. Wheeler said he was having to borrow a boat just to fish in BFL events as recently as 2010. Back then, any winnings from weekend events would go right back into fishing another event. Winning the BFL in 2011 netted $100,000 and helped finance future events.
“Just 18 months ago, I was draining my bank account so I could fish,” Wheeler said.
After Day 1, Scott Canterbury was second with his five fish weighing in at 16-9. Though not familiar with Lake Lanier’s tendencies for fishing before practice recently, Canterbury, of Springville, Ala., opted also to hit as many spots as possible.
Although he struggled early, Canterbury landed his first big fish late in the first-day session, landing four keepers — all smallmouth bass — to take down to the weigh-in.
“I did my homework getting ready to fish on Lanier,” Canterbury said. “The fish are there down deep and feeding good.”
Tied for third at 14-15 were Cody Meyer and 2000 Forrest Wood Cup winner Dion Hibdon.
Last year’s Forrest Wood Cup Champion, Scott R. Martin, currently sits in sixth place (14-9). Troy Morrow, of Eastanollee, is in 17th place after weighing in at 10-15.
Also in the co-angler division, Lula’s Rob Hicks sits in seventh at 7-13.
Day 2 of the Forrest Wood Cup begins at 7 a.m. at Laurel Park in Gainesville. Afternoon weigh-in begins at 5 p.m. at the Gwinnett Arena in Duluth.