Fantasy Fishing: Pick true sticklers for Summer

North Alabama’s Wheeler Lake may not have been on the Elite Series schedule in recent years, but it’s one of those waterways that feels like everyone’s been there. Whether it was the Open in 2023, the last Wheeler Elite in 2016, or just a general familiarity with the Tennessee River, if any angler doesn’t have general familiarity with Wheeler at this point it’s his own fault. Just saying the words “Decatur Flats” should make them all drool like Pavlov’s dogs.

What distinguishes this Elite event from the five that preceded it? Well, it’s going to be our first true summertime derby, and that’s what this chain of impoundments is known for. I’m not saying that it’ll be won on ledges, but I think that the bass, bream and shad spawns will at most be minor factors.

The anglers who do well will be the ones who don’t let sweat running down the back of their legs hamper their concentration, the ones who can either wait it out until the current turns on or else find a way to make bass bite when the flow is minimal. I’m going with guys who know how to win when windows open up. All five of my picks have won Elite events before, and while not all of my backups have done so, they’re all anglers who excel in this part of the world. With that as a backdrop, here’s who I recommend:


WINNING TIME: Fourteen Bassmaster events, 12 checks, including a 7th place finish in the 2023 Open at Wheeler. That’s the scant record that’s leading me to pick current AOY leader Trey McKinney to pad his lead further, but you have to ride a winning horse until it throws you or comes up lame. He hasn’t finished out of the top 17 so far this year, and if he keeps it up it’ll be an historic season.

SOLID BACKUP: Few pros are as experienced or as consistent on the Tennessee River in the summertime as Brandon Lester, and after a mediocre start in Texas he’s been solid ever since. He was 16th the last time the Elite Series visited Wheeler, and has the full arsenal of tricks to make ‘em bite, even when they don’t want to do so.


WINNING TIME: You may think of Lee Livesay as a Texas guy, but oddly enough his worst finish of the year so far came on his home pond. He’s never fished a Bassmaster event on Wheeler, but he’s won on nearby Chickamauga, and this is one of several times of year when he shines. If he can force them to bite the big bait, he may run away with it.

SOLID BACKUP: Justin Atkins hasn’t fished a Bassmaster event here, either, but he’s close to a local, and previously won an Alabama Open, albeit on another chain of lakes. This is one where he’ll need to grab some points to stay inside the Classic cut if he wants to qualify for his first.


WINNING TIME: It’s just a matter of time until Greg Hackney wins again, and while it’s easy to see him as a shallow water swamp fox, he won an FLW almost exactly this time of year at Pickwick exactly a decade ago – with 20 bass for 97-7. In two Bassmaster appearances on Wheeler he’s finished 25th in an Open and 6th in an Elite. Oddly enough, he’s never won a B.A.S.S. event on the Tennessee River – it may be his time.

SOLID BACKUP: Reigning AOY Kyle Welcher has mostly struggled this year – it’s only a matter of time until he too rights his ship and some home state bass are often the right way to make that happen.


WINNING TIME: Another angler who’s never fished a B.A.S.S. tournament on Wheeler, but who has a proven record of high finishes – including wins – is Brandon Cobb. After five Top 10 finishes last year (including the Classic), he has none so far this year. While he’d be a steel lock pick in a shad spawn tournament, and both of his wins have come in the spring, he’s one of the most multifaceted anglers around.

SOLID BACKUP: If you’re looking for somebody to get mad at ‘em, pick Alabama’s Matt Herren. He’s certainly been fishing Wheeler since before Trey McKinney was born, and finished 15th the last time the Elites visited.


WINNING TIME: Everything about this tournament, from the location to the time of year, screams the name of Buddy Gross. Don’t overthink it – pick him.

SOLID BACKUP: At some point Matt Robertson is going to wake up and get on ‘em again. If you sleep on that opportunity, you’ll miss out on some good points.

Falcon Rods Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge

• Justin Atkins
• John Garrett
• Buddy Gross
• Matt Herren
• Robert Gee
• Greg Hackney
• Matt Robertson
• Cole Sands