DECATUR, Ala. — Lake Wheeler surprised the Bassmaster Elite Series pros this week. All the talk going into the tournament was that an average of 15 pounds a day would put an angler in contention to win the Southern Challenge presented by Advance Auto Parts.
Morizo Shimuzu and Matt Reed caught just over 15 pounds per day in the four-day tournament, with 61 pounds, 3 ounces and 61-2, respectively. It left them in seventh and eighth place, more than 18 pounds behind winner Jeremy Starks.
"You look at the (recent) history of Wheeler, and it usually takes 13 to 15 pounds a day to win here," said Kevin VanDam, who finished second with 78-2. "This is by far the best I've ever seen them caught here."
The tournament signaled a comeback for this 68,000-acre lake on the Tennessee River. Trip Weldon, the BASS tournament director for the past 18 years, is an Alabama native and a former accomplished tournament angler. He remembers when Wheeler was in its heyday.
"Knowing the history of this lake," Weldon said, "and this is no lie, it used to take five fish in the late '80s and early '90s that weighed anywhere from 35 to 38 pounds to win."
Elite Series pro Timmy Horton of Muscle Shoals, Ala., also remembers when Wheeler was hot.
"This was the best lake probably in the Southeast in the mid '90s," Horton said. "It took 30 to 35 pounds to win everything. Then they killed the vegetation, and it really hasn't been the same since.
"But I'm encouraged by what I've seen this week and to hear reports of over 100 fish a day being caught."
In fact, those reports of 100-bass days became almost commonplace on the Southern Challenge weigh-in stage at Ingalls Harbor.
"I'd like to take my grandboys here," Arkansas' Jimmy Mize said on Saturday. "You can't catch any more fish anywhere than you can here. We probably caught 150 today."
Jason Quinn echoed that, saying, "You can absolutely catch more fish here than you can anywhere in the country right now."
Jeremy Starks admitted he would have tried to catch a few more fish Thursday if he hadn't been influenced by that near-unanimous prediction from the Elite Series pros that 15 pounds per day would have you in contention for the win.
He was especially concerned after he saw how his 17-pound, five-bass limit stacked up against the leaders. Terry Scroggins took the Berkley Heavyweight Bag on Day One with 22-3. He backed it up with 18-7 on Day Two and held the lead again with 40-10.
But at that point, Starks remained disciplined in his approach to fish management. He thought he had a spot in the Decatur Flats where he could win the tournament, but he wasn't going to try to make up for lost ground. Until Sunday, Starks made only two dozen casts into the sweet spot of the mussel shell bed he'd found during practice.
Starks didn't have to share his water with anyone. Scroggins did. Kevin Wirth also found the place Scroggins did in practice and managed a top-50 finish out of it.
But the two anglers really put a hurt on the hole. Scroggins estimated that he and Wirth caught over 150 bass there the first two days. And Scroggins said he culled 15 3-pounders in accumulating that big limit on Day One.
"Terry Scroggins probably had the best spot on the lake," said Starks.
But Scroggins didn't have the hole to himself, like Starks did. And Starks noted that catching several bass in one spot is often enough to spook the rest.
"I've also seen this on high-pressured lakes at home," Starks said. "It's not so much you catch them all, but those fish get used to it and won't eat."
The Pepto-Bismol break
BASS officials couldn't understand why Starks wouldn't leave the lake Thursday, even though he had a 17-pound limit in the boat and had been vomiting for four hours in 90-degree heat. They were concerned that Starks could be close to serious dehydration.
Finally, the likely case of food poisoning sent Starks on the five-mile run to Ingalls Harbor, where he got some Pepto-Bismol that immediately quelled the dry heaves.
As the tournament continued over the next three days, it became obvious why Starks was willing to suffer through the four-hour barf-o-rama rather than leave Wheeler Lake: he was guarding a $100,000 fishing hole.
"It took me 15 minutes," Starks said of his medicine break. "I came in and went right back out."
That quarter-hour window was the only chance to find his fishing hole that Starks gave the rest of the 107-angler field.
The winning lure patterns
Starks relied on a 10-inch Berkley Power Worm to catch his fish the first three days. But he had to do some lure switching when the fish wouldn't bite Sunday. He struggled through three straight hours without a strike.
"The deal this afternoon was a Carolina-rigged (Zoom) Brush Hawg," Starks said. "I changed up a hundred times during that three-hour period.
"But that last hour was just incredible."
Kevin VanDam also did his fair share of lure changing during the week. But a Strike King Series 5 crankbait in a Sexy Shad color pattern was easily the lure that brought most of his fish to the weigh-in scales.
Comeback of the week
Matt Sphar of Pavilion, N.Y., recorded the comeback of the week at Wheeler Lake. Sphar was in 92nd place with 7-13 on Day One. But he jumped all the way to 36th place Friday and made the top 50 cut with a 16-pound limit. It included the Berkley Big Bass of the day, which weighed 6-14.
In the last 30 minutes Saturday, Sphar found a one-foot depression in a flat and mined it for a 20-pound limit that put him in the top 12.
Sunday he continued that roll. Sphar caught the second-biggest bag of the day — 21-5 — and moved from 10th place to fifth. And he also took another Berkley Big Bass of the day check with a 6-1.
Sphar was due some good luck. On the first day at Lake Amistad back in April, Sphar was shocked when he checked in and had only four bass in his livewell. He'd caught keepers all day long, and just knew he'd put another 3-pounder in the box.
Later, after talking with his co-angler, Sphar realized that a livewell lid had popped open during a run across the lake and the missing 3-pounder had to have escaped then. Sphar ended up missing the top 12 cut at Amistad by 12 ounces.
"It was a slow day for me. I only caught 100 fish, and these were the biggest ones I could come up with," — Mark Menendez, on his 9-13 limit Sunday that left him in 12th place
"I've got one little spot and by 7 o'clock I'm done every day." — John Murray, on his fishing pattern the first three days of the tournament
"It took me only eight minutes this morning to catch a limit." — John Murray, who finished fourth with 66-0
"Every morning I would catch a fish on my first cast." — Todd Faircloth, who finished sixth with 65-1, but retook the lead in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race
"People talk about the good old days of bass fishing. The good old days are here right now." — Kevin VanDam, on the quality of the bass fishing around the U.S. now
"Any time I get into contention going into the final day, I cherish it. It's something you don't take for granted because it is so hard to do." — Kevin VanDam, on his second-place finish
"When Jeremy told me yesterday that I had better have 25-pounds, I knew he had a pretty good spot." — Kevin VanDam on just how good winner Jeremy Starks' secret shell bed was
"I guess I caught them all." — Terry "Big Show" Scroggins on how his best spot went from producing more than 100 fish yesterday to "only" 30 to 40 fish today
"I had the 100th spot on the first day, so I told myself that I was going to stop at the first spot that nobody was on that I had coordinates for." — Current Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race leader Todd Faircloth on why one of his best spots was right around the corner from the boat launch
"It took me eight minutes this morning to catch a limit. After that, it got tougher." — John Murray on his "Elite 12" final round effort on Sunday
"I was amazed at how many fish are out there. But I think I finally ran out." — Matt Reed on the incredible numbers of bass that the Elite Series pros were catching this week on Wheeler Lake
"(My mindset was) everywhere. From the helicopter chasing us to the cameraman around me all day, I'm not used to this. But I had a good time." — Elite Series rookie Corey Waldrop on how his first "Elite 12" competitive experience went on Sunday
"I had to trade one thing to be here today. I had to miss my daughter's first dance recital." — Mark Menendez on the difficulties of being a father who fishes for a living
"Nothing this season has produced the numbers we're seeing here." — BASS Tournament Director Trip Weldon on how many bass Elite Series pros caught this week