September 10, 2018
Elite bass professional Jacob Wheeler trades Florida snook fish for bass on a recent trip.
By Game & Fish Editor in Chief John Geiger
Jacob Wheeler might never go back to freshwater fishing again after a few days in the salt.
The BASS Elite pro was hooked, especially when he saw something he never would in his home water, Lake Chickamauga in Tennessee.
"It was the coolest, scariest thing I've seen in years," said Wheeler after a day fishing inshore off Stuart, Fla. "I hooked a 5-foot-long shark and fought it to the boat. That's a very big shark!"
But out of nowhere a bigger shark -- a 10-footer -- popped out of the water and devoured the 5-footer within a few feet of Wheeler's toes.
The big one got away after it sliced through the 30-pound fluoro leader with its vicious teeth. Wheeler was in Florida to test out Academy Sports + Outdoor's new Mettle HD reels and H2O Express Ethos Nano rods against hard-fighting fish. He got what he came for.
"It was crazy," said Wheeler. "Now I can't get enough."
Of course, Wheeler isn't really leaving the lake-tournament circuit.
The angler has already won $1 million and three major tournaments: Bassmaster Elite at Cherokee Lake, BASSFest and an MLF Challenge Cup Championship in 2017.
But he is hooked on the salt, and he thinks he can get it wired with a few tips from his freshwater skills. He'll be back.
Wheeler offers these tips for snook fishing.
1) IF YOU KNOW BASS, YOU KNOW SNOOK
"Targeting these Florida snook is the closest thing I've seen to targeting largemouth bass," said Wheeler, who was born and raised in Indiana and now lives along the Tennessee River near Chattanooga. "Look for the docks. These fish relate to the current just like bass do. They set up the same, especially when the current changes or the tide changes.
"I caught a 17-pound snook on the exact cast I would have thrown to a 7-pound bass under a dock back in Tennessee."
2) COMMUNITY HOLES
The ocean is a big place, but the fish are not everywhere. Just like on popular lakes, there are community holes in the Atlantic and Mosquito Lagoon.
"These community holes are the places people fish every year, and for good reason," said Wheeler. "There will be fish there. But if they're getting pressured, you have to show them something different. A lot of guys are throwing lives baits here â€“ greenies, pilchard, mullet, shrimp. But artificials will get you more bites and bigger fish in the end.
Wheeler had a tough time getting bites on artificials, and did resort to live bait to get the fish heated up. But he's convinced the artificial bite would be better in time and with the right baits, simply because you can throw more and show the fish something different.
"I could go to Academy and get five baits that I know would get this bite wired," he said. "I am excited to get to the salt again to try these different techniques and hammer 'em!"
Here are the five he'd pick to get the snook and tarpon to bite:
- Shallow-diving crankbait
- Mid-depth crankbait
3) RUN THE FLATS
Wheeler said the next step would be to run the flats, channels and shoreline with electronics to find new locations.
"I am convinced I'd find many more places where fish are stacking with a good unit and a day or two of cruising." Wheeler uses a Lowrance HDS-9 and a HDS-12 on his Legend V20. On the water in Florida, it wasn't his boat, so the captain had a Humminbird Solix 12 aboard. With units like these, you can use side scan or side imaging to find structure, drop-offs or literally schools of fish to target.
The Solix and its side imaging helped the captain — and everyone else on the boat — identify fish species 100 feet off the starboard side of the boat.
"That looks like a snook, see the shape of the head?" said Capt Ed Zyak. "And there's a tarpon."
The snook's profile showed its long body with a sloped head that ends in a pointed bottom jaw. The tarpon's classic turned-up jaw was unmistakable despite the distance and turbidity.
Wheeler was right at home with the electronics on the salt.
"I could really catch a lot of fish with a few days playing on the water," he said. "There are major hammer holes to be found."
Jacob Wheeler Bio
Jacob Wheeler gets excited like a kid when there is fun-fishing going on. His smile is infectious as is he his passion for ripping lips.
Then, he turns on a game face when competition and rewards are on the line. The Bassmaster Elite pro is known as a fierce competitor on the tour.
Wheeler didn't exactly come out of nowhere, but he did burst into the modern competitive bass-fishing world in a big way. As a boy in Indiana, he won several state championship bass tournaments and angler-of-the-year honors.
Then at 20 years old, he catapulted into the scene with a BFL All-American win in 2012 as the youngest to ever win that title. In 2012, he dominated the FLW Outdoors Forrest Wood Cup and, again, set a record as the youngest angler to ever win it.
Wheeler won an MLF Challenge Cup in 2017 and took second at Lake Travis in 2018. He's surpassed $1 million in winnings.