Elite Analysis Day 1 – Wheeler Lake

We’ve officially entered the “It’s a grind” portion of your regularly-scheduled Bassmaster Elite Series season.

But, as with all regional dialects, B.A.S.S. speak evolves over time. “Grind” used to mean really tough, like a few-dozen-blanks-tough. Like, “I’m happy I caught anything,” rough. These days it means that only one angler topped the 20-pound mark.

There used to be a class of anglers who would “12 pound you to death.” In other words, they rarely or never competed for trophies, but hovered around the margins each day with solid-but-modest catches, and consistently found themselves competing at the Classic. Those days are over, my friends. Today at Wheeler, an even 12 pounds didn’t even get inside the money line. Indeed, nine anglers hit that mark yet sit lower than 50th.

The weights are tightly packed, as expected, and despite some big catches today I’d expect some flip-flopping tomorrow. For some of these anglers, it’s going to be a matter of surviving to advance, and hoping for a random big bite or three – as well as avoiding heatstroke.

Here’s what I saw, heard, and thought on a day when the catches were much higher than history or our sandbagging cadre of anglers gave us any reason to expect: 

The Cox Report – John Cox may be number one on the scorecard, but he rolled a bunch of twos today – including 22 pounds 2 ounces of Wheeler bass, and an electronics ceiling of two-dimensional sonar. He even referenced two lucky butterflies on stage – one of which landed on his Marshal today, and one of which landed on him during a past FLW victory. A few months after the 2016 Elite Series event on Wheeler, FLW held a Forrest Wood Cup here and Cox won it wire-to-wire with a total of 54-13 over 4 days, an average of just under 14 pounds per day. Current Elites Todd Auten, Chris Johnston, Brandon Cobb and Joseph Webster all made the Day Four cut and finished 2nd, 8th, 9th and 10th, respectively, in that tournament. Scott Martin ended up 12th. Of those other five, none are in the top 50 – Johnston is currently the highest ranked in 65th.

Good News for Crews – Up until now, the 2024 Elite Series season had been generally disastrous for John Crews (6th, 18-2). He finished 94th, 89th, 89th and 68th to start the season, then ended up 17th at Murray and had the momentum rug pulled out from under him with a monthlong break. He sat in 94th in the AOY race. If he can keep up this week’s top ten pace, he’ll make a major surge. It might not quickly get him inside the Classic cut, but if he can keep moving in this direction it’s not impossible for him to make it. In past events at Wheeler he finished 3rd in a 2016 Elite, 68th in a 2011 Elite, and 27th in a 2003 Southern Open.

Princely Sums – Cliff Prince was even worse off than Crews, sitting in 100th in the AOY race, but with 19-4 today he sits in 4th. His last Elite check came last year at Lay Lake, also in Alabama, where he finished 44th. His last top tens were in 2021 and 2020, both at his home waters of the St. Johns River.

Bubble Boys – Heading into Wheeler, Brandon Palaniuk and Greg Hackney were first and second outside of the presumed Bassmaster Classic cut. It’s hard to say if that motivated them more than normal – after all, Palaniuk famously claims not to look at the points during the season – but both made major moves today. Hackney is in 5th with 18-5 and Palaniuk is in 17th with 15-12. Both have previously won up north and would love to leave Alabama in a few weeks on the right side of the line. Should they qualify for the 2025 Classic in Ft. Worth, it’ll be Hack’s 19th and BP’s 14th.

The Harder They Fall – A few weeks into the season, various fans and pundits (this one possibly included) were half-writing, half-inscribing the Hall of Fame plaque of Kyoya Fujita, whose first ten Elite events were absolutely insane, with eight checks and six top tens. Now, though, he’s fallen back to earth. A recent 3rd place Open finish at Logan Martin notwithstanding, he’s missed three straight Elite checks, and sits in 93rd place today, in danger of missing not just his fourth in a row, but also the 2025 Bassmaster Classic. 

Rookies – The exceptional class of first year pros continues to haunt the top ten, with John Garrett (2nd, 19-7) and Wesley Gore (8th, 17-9) landing there today. Indeed, nine out of the ten are inside the cut after Day One, and the lone outlier – last year’s Opens points champ JT Thompkins (69th, 11-3) – is only 1-7 away.

Cut Weight Math – Robert Gee, Bill Lowen and Jacob Powroznik all tied with today’s cut weight of 12-10. Double that would be 25-4, and the traditional 2X+1 formula would put the cut wight at 26-4.

About that 2016 Elite – The last time an Elite Series tournament was here was 2016, with mostly a cast of different characters. Nevertheless, John Crews, Steve Kennedy, Greg Hackney and Gerald Swindle all made the top ten. Although that was an April/May event, the cut weights were remarkably similar. After the first day, 10th place was 16-15 and 50th was 12-12. Today, those marks (with a slightly smaller field) are 16-11 and 12-10. Atypically, the 2016 cut weight actually went substantially down from Day One, from 12-12 to 24-1, which would be almost a pound and a half under 2X.

Rammer Jammer – Among the many home state Alabamians expected to do well this week, Wesley Gore (8th, 17-9) and reigning Classic champ Justin Hamner (10th, 16-11) are the only two inside the top ten.

Celebrating Clunn – Rick Clunn’s first BASS event on Wheeler was the 1974 Bassmaster Classic, spanning October 30 through November 1 of that year. In a 2024 season marked by youth excellence, it’s nice to know that two members of today’s top  five – Prince and Hackney – were alive at the time. Clark Wendlandt (12th, 16-9) and Ray Hanselman (19th, 15-8), were, too. 

John Garrett (2nd, 19-7) – “That’s way more than I expected. I had the absolute perfect day.”

Mike Iaconelli (98th, 2-13) – “Mathematically, that isn’t possible.” He had three fish for 2-13, an average of 15 ounces each. He still averaged more weight per fish than fellow veteran Steve Kennedy, who with a one-minute penalty had 2 fish for a combined 13 ounces.”

Brandon Palaniuk (17th, 15-12) – “It looks so much better on paper than it actually was.”

Kyle Welcher (21st, 15-6) – “I love fishing when it’s hot.”

Trey McKinney (43rd, 12-14) – “I shook my worm all day…. They just didn’t bite.”

Alex Redwine (35th, 13-11)  “I can’t complain. I caught more fish today than I did in the last three days.”

Brandon Cobb (66th, 11-8)  “I know where they’re not.”

Dave Mercer on Alabama – “Not a big polka community.”