By Bernie Schultz
Over the course of my career, Lake Wheeler has delivered some pretty heavy blows. At the same time, it’s provided some great finishes.
Part of the TVA chain of lakes, Wheeler boasts more than 68,000 surface acres and is home to a healthy population of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. They’re usually easy to pattern, too.
I had high expectations.
Arriving at the home of Gene and Peggy Sue Barnette, our hosts for the week, I settled in with traveling companions Cliff and Kelley Prince. Cliff’s parents would catch up later in the week with his and Kelley’s two kids, Gracie and Syler.
It looked like a fun and exciting time ahead.
On day one of practice, Cliff and I drove to Mallard Creek to launch at mid lake. Our plan was to start shallow then work deeper as needed.
My first stop was to a protected pocket across the bay. Using a Hildebrandt SqueakEasy buzzbait and Terminator swim jig with white Swim Senko trailer, I combed shoreline grass and wood — hoping to find a shad spawn in progress.
The area looked perfect, but there was no evidence of shad or bass.
From there I motored to a ridge separating the bay from the main lake. Using a Rapala DT-Flat7, I cranked the entire length of the ridge … but to no avail. The only bite I got was from an oversized freshwater drum.
From there I moved back to the shallows, to a field of pads and waterlily. Those, too, looked good but no fish seemed to be using the area.
About that time, I received a call from Cliff. He said he, too, had tried shallow but that his only bites had come when he moved to the bluffs. Hearing that, I decided to head upriver to try the steeper channel swings — a trip that would take considerable time, yet one that might pay off.
Switching back and forth with the crankbait and a pitching jig, I probed several different bluff banks. There was no apparent current or any type of action. Growing tired of that, I began flipping large laydowns along flatter banks, but those, too, yielded nothing.
By day’s end I was tired and frustrated. Nothing was working and I needed a change of strategy.
Over dinner, Cliff recommended I move to the bluffs down the lake. He reported plenty of bites and insisted the pattern was solid. I thanked him and said I would give it a try.
When morning came, my first stop was on a bluff wall outside of First Creek. In minutes, Cliff’s pattern proved itself. By noon, I had located several schools of largemouth and smallmouth. Hope had been fully restored.
On day-three of practice, I tried expanding the bluff pattern. As time passed, I noticed the fish weren’t quite as shallow as before. It seemed like they were pulling out some. I reported my findings to Cliff by phone, then headed to registration.
The first morning of competition came quickly, but I was ready. When my number was called, I raced downriver toward the dam. When I arrived at my starting spot, I found it unoccupied.
In minutes I had my first keeper on a shaky-rig Thin Senko — a scrappy 2-pound largemouth. Minutes later, another keeper came aboard. I was sure the day would continue to be productive.
Moving farther down the bluff to a small rockslide, I finished my limit with a keeper smallie and two more largemouth. As the day progressed, I culled steadily using the shaky rig. Just before weigh-in, I boated my best fish — a 3¾ pound brown.
I was stoked. I thought my 13-pound limit would position me high in the standings. Soon, however, I learned otherwise: The entire field had caught good limits of fish and I was barely inside the cut. To insure a money finish, I knew I would have to do at least as good on day two.
When the next morning came, I returned to my best bluff bank. But after more than 30 minutes without a keeper bite, I knew something had changed. I moved to the rockslide where I had finished my limit the day prior, yet it produced only a single keeper.
At that point, I began rotating spots … hoping my timing might be right at some point, but I continued to struggle. With only an hour to go, I had three small keepers in the box. Finally, a skinny 15-inch smallmouth came aboard, and then it was time to head in.
Running toward check-in, I knew I would be short of the money. My thoughts at that point were more on the AOY standings: If I could somehow finish a limit, I could at least salvage some points.
Recalling a shallow brushpile near take-off, I decided to make a last second stop.
Bringing the boat off pad, I hopped to the bow, grabbed the shaky rig and fired a quick cast. Immediately, my line went tight and, after a short battle, I swung a 2-pounder into the boat.
As fast as I could, I boxed the fish, cranked the big Merc and raced to check-in … arriving with only forty seconds to spare.
At the scales, my modest limit dropped me from the top-50. But that last-minute largemouth had given me at least twenty additional AOY points. It had been a long, frustrating day, but I did all I could. The derby was over — for me at least — and it was time to put it on the trailer.
Back at the Barnette’s, we had a final dinner then said our farewells. Although the tournament didn’t go as hoped, I did enjoy the time spent with good friends. That always seems to take the sting out of a poor performance.