Youth program fueled Wheeler’s fire

BASSfest champion Jacob Wheeler got his start in Junior Bassmasters, the precursor to the B.A.S.S. Nation High School program.

The same Junior Bassmaster World Championship (JWC) that made future Bassmaster Elite Series pro Bradley Roy a star also inspired another young angler to pursue a career in professional fishing.

When Roy won the 11-14 age group of the 2004 JWC held in conjunction with the Bassmaster Classic, 13-year-old Jacob Wheeler finished sixth with one fish weighing 1 pound, 5 ounces in the inaugural event.

“I always wanted to fish professionally but that was probably the event that really sparked my interest even more because I had never been to the Classic before,” Wheeler said. “That was just an unbelievable experience that really made me feel like that is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

His fondest memory of the event was the chance to fish with Classic qualifier Jason Quinn in a bragging rights tournament on the practice day before the JWC. “We ended up winning that pro-am,” said Wheeler, who was also paired up with 17-year-old Tripper Johnson. “I remember how star-struck I was to be out there fishing with a pro who was going to be fishing in the Bassmaster Classic. It was so cool to have that opportunity to fish with one of the pros that I watched on TV and someone I looked up to.”

Curtis Wheeler started his son on the path to a pro career at an early age. “My dad was fishing in a B.A.S.S. Nation club, and I was always interested in what dad was doing,” Jacob recalled. “I fished a couple of tournaments with dad where they let me be in the back of the boat when I was 8 and 9 years old.”

While reading an Indiana B.A.S.S. Nation newsletter one day, Wheeler noticed the Nation was holding kids tournaments. So Wheeler joined the Junior Bass Kids of Indiana when he was 10 years old.

“The biggest thing I learned from the whole program was that competitive fishing is what I wanted to do for a job,” Wheeler said. “That was my dream before then, but the junior program put more fire into my belly and made me want it even more. Going to the world championship, I could see what the potential and the end result was. I knew that someday it was a possibility that I could be there.”

The young angler became a dominant force in the Indiana Junior Bassmasters program, winning three state championships in 2003, 2007 and 2008. Wheeler also won the 15-18 age group of the 2008 B.A.S.S. Northern Divisional junior competition and competed in his second JWC in 2008, finishing 20th.

After graduating from the Junior Bassmaster ranks, Wheeler joined the Circle City Bass Hookers club and started fishing B.A.S.S. Nation tournaments and local weekend events, such as the Bassmaster Weekend Series and the Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League (BFL).

Wheeler qualified as an alternate for the Indiana team for the 2011 Northern Divisional and, that same year, became the youngest angler ever to win the BFL All-American. He made the state team as a boater for the 2012 Northern Divisional but was unable to fish the event because it conflicted with the FLW Forrest Wood Cup — which he won.

The Indiana pro also started fishing the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens in 2011 in addition to competing on the FLW Tour.

“I have always wanted to fish as many events as I possibly can,” said Wheeler, who is fishing the Northern Opens this year, hoping to qualify for the 2015 Bassmaster Elite Series.

Winning the inaugural Bassmaster BASSfest in June earned Wheeler a berth in the 2015 Bassmaster Classic, which fulfilled one of Wheeler’s goals he set during his days in the junior program.

“I always thought the Classic was the most prestigious event in bass fishing, and to make it would be awesome,” he said.