New Elite: Wheeler’s humble beginnings

How does someone in his early 20s afford a tournament-ready bass boat, a tow vehicle, costly entry fees and travel expenses, plus the free time required to pursue a professional fishing career? You can’t help but wonder if such a person was born with a silver jigging spoon in his mouth.

However, if you think Jacob Wheeler of Indianapolis, Ind., owes his success to someone’s deep pockets, you’re dead wrong. His path to the 2017 Elite Series tour comes from humble beginnings.

Wheeler grew up in a rough neighborhood five miles from downtown Indianapolis. His parents, Lynn and Curtis Wheeler, didn’t want to send their children to the local public schools where peer pressure could lead them into trouble. Since the Wheelers couldn’t afford private school, they decided homeschooling was the best option for their son and two daughters, Amber and Kaitlin.

“My mom was a teacher before she had us kids,” Wheeler said. “She taught us up to high school.”

Through high school, the Wheeler siblings were homeschooled via a network of instructors who would teach one or two classes in their homes. The class sizes ranged from a handful of students to dozens. Wheeler would drive to a different home three days a week to attend classes that covered the required subject matter. Two days each week were devoted to homework.

Wheeler’s bass fishing was also homeschooled, beginning with his father and his uncle Morry Wheeler. Both were members of the Circle City Bass Hookers, a B.A.S.S. affiliated club. Uncle Morry was the more accomplished angler, and he twice qualified for the B.A.S.S. Nation’s Indiana State Team.

On the weekend following Wheeler’s seventh birthday, uncle Morry took him fishing. This became an annual tradition that Wheeler looked forward to with high anticipation. Wheeler also joined his uncle and father on other fishing outings throughout his early years.

“They used to set the hook and let me reel in,” Wheeler said. “That’s when my passion for fishing started to grow.”

By age 8 Wheeler was beginning to catch his own bass with a push-button reel and a pre-rigged worm. He fished his first tournament that year with uncle Morry. Around this time he also started to fish with other bass anglers from their boats, which exposed him to a variety of lures and fishing styles.

“I met some good people and slowly but surely learned more about bass fishing,” Wheeler said. “I put a lot of value in those experiences.”

A major milestone in Wheeler’s growth as a bass angler happened when he was 10 years old. His father, as a member of a B.A.S.S. affiliated club, received a quarterly newsletter from B.A.S.S. Wheeler would always read the youth section of the newsletter.

“It said that they were looking for new young anglers to fish Junior Bassmaster tournaments,” Wheeler said. “I got so excited when I saw that I went screaming for my dad.”

Wheeler was not to be denied. He began fishing Bassmaster Junior tournaments that same year.

Another major event took place three years later when Wheeler’s father bought the family’s first bass boat.

“It was an old, beat-up, brownish-yellow tub of a boat with a 65 Mercury motor,” Wheeler said. “I had to bilge water out of it with a cup.”

Wheeler fished a number of Junior Bassmaster tournaments with the “tub,” including a state championship event at Lake Monroe when he was 13. As he looked about the water at his competitors, he was daunted at the sight of fancy boats and kids with pricey rods and reels. He believed he didn’t have a chance of winning. His father would have none of that.

“It ain’t the boat that catches them, it’s the fisherman,” he said bluntly.

Wheeler listened to his father and won his division in that event, which qualified him for the 2004 Junior Bassmaster World Championship.

“I learned an important lesson that day,” Wheeler said. “Regardless of what you have, it doesn’t make you who you are. If you work hard you can truly accomplish great things.”

The Junior Bassmaster World Championship took place on Lake Norman the weekend prior to the 2004 Bassmaster Classic at nearby Lake Wylie, which was won by Takahiro Omori. Wheeler fished the junior event with Bassmaster pro Jason Quinn and finished in the top 10.

“That experience really got me working to be better,” Wheeler said.

A few years later the Wheelers upgraded their bass boat to a 1989 fish and ski model Pro Craft with a 150 hp Mercury Black Max. Wheeler and his father installed a floor in a house in exchange for the boat, which had a blistering top speed of 45 mph.They fished countless pot tournaments in that boat over the next few years.

“We would just get slaughtered,” Wheeler said. “I think one whole year we never got a check, but I just loved it. Those experiences were priceless.”

Through fishing pot tournaments, Wheeler became friends with two older anglers whom he credits for taking his fishing to another level: Bryan “BJ” Johnson and Brian Waldman. Waldman taught Wheeler how to use electronics and about bass behavior. Wheeler often fished team tournaments with Johnson, who helped him with fishing techniques and making good decisions during a tournament.

“Those guys really had an impact,” Wheeler said. “They pushed me to be better.”

By the time Wheeler was 17 his knowledge and skill had advanced to the point that he was winning pot tournament checks on a regular basis. He was also fishing some of these events alone, which helped him gain confidence in his decision-making.

Although Wheeler fished at every opportunity throughout his teens, he also worked for his father, who makes a living by installing siding, roofing, gutters and windows. During Wheeler’s final two years of high school, he was a nanny for the children of family friends.

Between construction work and being a nanny, Wheeler was able to earn money and still have time to fish pot tournaments three nights a week. He was no longer a tournament donator and typically pocketed $200 to $400 a week in tournament winnings.

After graduating from high school, Wheeler put college on the back burner to take a shot at fishing professional tournaments. His success came faster than a speeding bullet.

In 2010, at age 19, he tied for the first BFL tournament he fished. It was at Grand Lake St. Marys, Ohio. The $4,000 prize boosted his confidence and his tournament bankroll. He went on that year to qualify for the 2011 BFL All-American at Cross Lake near Shreveport, La.

When the smoke cleared after three days of fishing at Cross Lake, the 20-year-old Wheeler was hoisting a $100,000 winner’s check. He is the youngest angler to ever win the BFL All-American.

“Winning the All-American is the whole reason I’m fishing professionally,” Wheeler said.

The win fattened Wheeler’s bankroll and also attracted sponsors that helped with finances. This allowed him to compete on the FLW Tour the following year and qualify for the 2012 Forest Wood Cup at Georgia’s Lake Lanier, which he won.

At only 21 years of age, Wheeler became the youngest angler to win the Cup and its $500,000 payday. To date, he has won more than $1 million fishing FLW tournaments.

Wheeler’s quest for the Elite Series failed in 2013 when he fished all three Bassmaster Northern Opens. The Elite Series eluded him in 2014 when he again competed in the Northern Opens. However, he did qualify to fish BASSfest 2014 at Chickamauga Lake. He won that event and collected the $100,000 first prize. The victory also earned Wheeler a ticket to the 2015 Bassmaster Classic at Lake Hartwell in South Carolina where he landed in 14th place.

After competing in the Northern and Central Bassmaster Opens in 2015, Wheeler again fell short of making the Elite Series. He ended the drought in a big way in 2016 by finishing second in the Northern Open’s AOY standings and fifth in the Southern Open’s AOY standings. Going into his first year of fishing the Elite Series, Wheeler has already claimed over $200,000 in Bassmaster winnings.

“My goal for the last few years has been to qualify for the Elites,” Wheeler said. “Now my goal is to qualify for the 2017 Classic against the toughest field of bass pros ever assembled.”

Wheeler’s sponsors include Academy Sports, Rapala, Storm, Suffix, Under Armour, Ranger, Evinrude, Okuma, Gene Larew, Lowrance, VMC Hooks and Bob’s Jack Plates.