Jake Whitaker took the Bassmaster Elite Series by storm when he stepped up to the big time last year. He earned checks in five of the nine regular-season events, with his top finish coming at the Sabine River in June.
The run earned the young angler the Rookie of the Year title — and it all started in the mountain streams of North Carolina.
“My dad grew up hunting and fishing,” Whitaker said. “Naturally, he got me involved at a young age. My very first fish was a trout.”
Untold hours spent catching trout in those streams evolved into bass fishing by the time Whitaker hit middle school. After his father’s fishing partner passed away, the Whitakers became a team on a “buddy club.”
“We’d have six to eight tournaments in the spring, and that was it,” Whitaker said. “Fishing with my dad in those little buddy events really spurred my interest.”
Football came into play during high school, and his team won the North Carolina state championship his senior year. The offensive lineman was named to the All-State team.
The same competitiveness he applied to high school football has fueled his bass fishing. Even while in high school, the young Whitaker was fishing BFL events. When he graduated and enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he joined the school’s fishing team.
He excelled at the college level, winning the 2014 Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship on Lake Chatuge.
“I made the college bracket twice,” Whitaker said. “But I never did end up punching my ticket (to the Bassmaster Classic) through that.”
The college fishing experience is largely responsible for his current career in fishing, however.
“It was huge,” Whitaker said. “If you take a look at the recent years, you have a number of guys who started at the college level.”
He pointed to two-time Bassmaster Classic champ Jordan Lee and brother Matt Lee as prime examples of successful careers that began on college fishing teams.
“The College Series allows younger anglers to travel and fish more places than they would just fishing local tournaments,” Whitaker said. “It really does grow you into a more well-rounded fisherman quicker.
“Just to get that experience fishing in a multi-day tournament was big.”
For Whitaker, who won the College Championship with partner Andrew Helms, the college experience proved he could hold his own. So he bumped up to the Basspro.com Bassmaster Northern Opens.
“I had marginal success the first year,” Whitaker admitted. “The first year was definitely a learning experience. The quality of anglers on the Opens is better (than at the college level).”
He learned how to scout and deal with tough travel demands, and when the 2017 schedule was released he knew he had a chance to really make a mark.
“I told myself, ‘If I’m going to make this happen, I need to make it happen this year,’” Whitaker said.
The first event that year at Oneida Lake resulted in a 40th-place finish, but then he stepped it up and ended in 10th place at the James River. His second year as an Opens angler wrapped up with a 14th-place finish at Douglas Lake.
The adjustments made, along with a favorable schedule, earned the young angler one of the coveted invitations to the Elite Series.
He didn’t give the decision much thought: He grasped the opportunity to become a traveling pro.
“I immediately said, ‘Yes,’” Whitaker said. “Once you qualify and that’s something you want to do, it’s hard to say ‘no.’”
“You’re not going to qualify on the Opens every year. Of course, it was something I dreamed of doing, but a lot of things had to line up.”
The 2018 season was a whirlwind, with five regular-season Top 50 finishes and a 15th-place finish at the Toyota Angler of the Year Championship. His highest finish was at the Sabine River, where he clinched the fifth-place slot.
It was enough to earn him the coveted Rookie of the Year title and send him to the Bassmaster Classic on the strength of his 27th-place ranking on the Toyota Angler of the Year rankings.
“It was more than I wanted it to be,” Whitaker said of his first season as an Elite Series pro.
So what goals does he have for the 2019 season?
“I always want to finish high in the Angler of the Year and make the Bassmaster Classic,” Whitaker said. “To me, it’s not about winning every tournament. I want to be the guy who is consistently near the top.
“The more you finish near the top, the more you’re going to get noticed.”
That means more sponsors and more financial success.
But it also will lead to another goal.
“Five years from now, I want Jake Whitaker to be a household name,” he said.