Elite Analysis Day 4 – Wheeler Lake

Get an in-depth analysis of the final day of the Whataburger Elite at Wheeler Lake.

Steve Bowman, who is always opinionated and often correct, stated this morning that “Ray Hanselman is not the guy you want to get into a knife fight with.”

Indeed, after going after Wheeler Lake’s bass with surgical precision for three days, this morning Hanselman put down the scalpel and picked up a machete. Within a few hours he had over 23 pounds of Tennessee River bass in his livewell and what had once seemed like a foregone conclusion, a battle for second place, suddenly offered intrigue.

Unfortunately for the Texan, it was too little too late. While the nine trailing members of the Top 10 had feasted on Wheeler’s offerings for three days, Cliff Prince seemed to be bypassing the plastic cutlery and Fancy Ketchup and ordering from Whataburger’s secret menu. He “only” caught 15-2 today, his lightest bag of the week, but Reelin’ Ray would’ve needed over 27 pounds to beat him.

Many props to Prince, who was otherwise enduring a tough season, for a dominant win, but it shouldn’t be lost on us that every time we celebrate one of these historic and meaningful moments, there’s a (usually) gracious runner-up who can’t fully partake in the excitement. Do you remember who finished second when Rick Clunn won at the St. Johns in 2019? It was Chris Johnston. We (myself included) were thrilled that Clunn won, but a victory would have meant much more to Johnston’s career at the time. He likely left Palatka knowing that he’d been present for history but still wishing that he’d somehow mustered up a few more pounds of bass one or more days that week.

Johnston went on to win an Elite tournament on the St. Lawrence at the end of the following season, and likely has another “W” or two in the tank, but there are no guarantees. Hanselman put together a masterful performance this week that will likely be forgotten by most fishing fans. He didn’t “lose,” as the runner-up is most certainly not the first loser, but you never know how many more such opportunities will arise.

Most of the rest of the top ten, all in their twenties and thirties, understand in their brains how hard it is to claim a blue trophy, but on an emotional level they haven’t experienced as many beatdowns and disappointments as the veterans. Even the best win only a small percentage of the time and that gets more and more emphasized the longer you stay around – a perverse reward for surviving.

While I didn’t have a dog in the hunt, I hoped all day that it would be closer than it eventually turned out to be. That kept me riveted. Here’s what I saw, thought, heard and dreamed as the tournament reached its conclusion:

Lead Horse – This was the first Elite Series event since Toledo Bend where the Day 3 leader did not extend his lead on Day 4. Toledo was the only tournament where the Day 3 leader did not win.

Fish Faster– In ultra-hot weather, you might expect the shallow fish to be lethargic, but John Cox (3rd, 70-8) discovered that the key to getting more and bigger bites from his off-the-grid location was moving his hollow frog quickly. “When I really get it going, that’s when they come up and get it,” he said. “I wish I was ten years younger – then I could really work this thing.” Logan Parks (8th, 62-11), who is over a decade younger, reported a similar phenomenon in a different part of the lake, with a different lure. He caught most of his bass on a Berkley Dime crankbait, “burning it as fast as I could.”

Which Matters More? – Prince will leave this event with a big check and a blue trophy that nobody can take away from him, but still mired below 90th in the AOY standings and unlikely to make the 2025 Classic. That begs the question – would he trade it all for a chance to fish the Classic at Ray Roberts next March? In other words, would he give up the sure thing, which in and of itself is quite a big deal, for an approximately one-in-fifty chance of something bigger? He hasn’t been to the Classic since 2020.

Speaking of the Classic – It may be small consolation, but this week’s runner-up Ray Hanselman moved himself close to the Classic cut. With three tournaments left to move to the right side of the line, if he makes it, does he become one of the pre-tournament favorites? He’s had substantial success over the course of career on multiple Texas waters, and while Del Rio is over 400 miles from Ray Roberts, it’s still a type of fishing with which he’s intimately familiar.

Saving the Best for Last – Hanselman was the only angler in the top ten whose weights increased each day, from 15-8 to 17-12 to 20-7 to 23-5. Of course, after catching an astounding 26-2 on Saturday, no one can fault Prince for not improving his catch each day.

Sweet Sixteen – Yesterday nine of the top ten anglers caught at least 16 pounds and two had over 20. Today, only five of them topped 16 pounds and Hanselman was the only one to catch more than 20.

Gaining Points – Five of yesterday’s Top 10, including the top four anglers, held their position through another day of competition. Only three anglers gained points today – Alex Wetherell (5th, 66-13), Jay Przekurat (6th, 64-9) and Logan Parks (8th, 62-11) moved up two spots apiece. Alex Redwine (10th, 57-12) sacrificed the most points today as his 8-6 limit dropped him five places from 5th to 10th.

Big Bait Deficit – In each of the first five Elite Series tournaments, big glide baits or swimbaits produced some key fish and memorable catches. This week, despite the fact that there was a gizzard shad spawn occurring, they didn’t seem to be a player, at least not amongst the top ten anglers. The landscape of the week was dominated by old and new bubba techniques – a big worm, crankbaits, Chatterbaits and frogs.

Tears of Joy – Logan Parks, fishing his first Championship Sunday, admitted that the accomplishment got him in the feels as he headed out this morning: “I started crying a little bit,” he said. “I got choked up.” Justin Hamner (9th, 58-10) almost suffered a similar fate when Dave Mercer started listing how good his year has been – a Classic win, second place in the AOY race, and a second child on the way. “Don’t make me cry again,” Hamner said before departing the stage.

The Passage of Time – I’m officially at the point in the season where I’ve memorized all of the commercials on BASS Live and find myself humming the jingles in the shower. It’s like my Groundhog Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day all rolled into one.

Any Worm Will Work as Long as It’s…. — John Garrett (4th, 68-9) reported that his best lures were “a red worm and a bigger red worm.”

In-Demand Tackle – Alex Wetherell’s 16-inch worms.

Nielsen Ratings – Why doesn’t John Cox have his own TV show? After watching where he fished this week, it could be sponsored by a cheese company.

Mark Menendez – “The Tennessee River is the most fertile river in the US.”

John Cox — “Hopefully Decatur will have us come back.”

Cliff Prince – “I’m glad to have five, I can tell you that. It could have been a lot worse.” A 3-pounder that he caught shortly after 1 o’clock wasn’t a difference maker on the scoreboard, but it probably helped him breathe a little better.

Cliff Prince – “I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t earn it.”

Enjoy the breeze while you can.