Wheeler Lake BFL Regional – So Close!

I’ve been fishing the BFL series off and on for a while now.  Each year I have been able to fish a full season (or close to a full season), I’ve been able to qualify for the year end regional tournament.  For those unfamiliar with the BFL’s, they will take the top 40 or 45 anglers from each division, and then put 5 of those divisions together for a fish off.  After two days of fishing, the field is cut from ~200 to 12, and those top 12 fish one last day.  From there, the top six qualify for the All American.  The best way to think of the All American is to liken it to the World Series for this level of fishing.  First place in the co-angler division for the All American is $60,000, so we are not talking about small peanuts here!

In my time fishing the BFL’s I’ve fished in 5 regional tournaments, with marginal results.  In 2008 I manged a 16th place finish, just out of the top 12 cut, but other than that, you had to look pretty far down the leader board to find me.  Granted, fishing on the co-angler side is very much “luck of the draw,” but because of that, when you do have a partner around fish, you have to capitalize, and in a big way.

For the past two years I have been fishing a BFL division that isn’t necessarily the most convenient, but it is on a great lake.  I’ve always wanted to learn Guntersville, but since it is about 2 hours from my house, and I can be at a lot of different lakes in less time, I rarely go.  That is why I made the decision to jump into the Choo Choo division last year.  So far, that has really panned out to be a solid decision.  In those two years, I’ve managed to snag two top tens, one being a win, and cash over $3,600 in checks.  I figure that’s not too bad considering it’s only been a total of  12 tournaments.  But, that’s not what this is about, this is about the last tournament I fished, the BFL regional, which was on Wheeler, not Guntersville.

Having only fished Wheeler one other time, I wasn’t too familiar with the lake.  But, thanks to YouTube, I was able to find old replays of FLW and BASS tournaments on the lake, and drew a few conclusions about the lake.

  1. It’s shallow – In the past, this would mess with my head since I tend to be a deep water, spotted bass fisherman.  But, since fishing Guntersville, 3 feet of water seems normal to me, and I have no reservations about working up shallow.
  2. There is grass and lilly pads – Again, as a spotted bass fisherman, I don’t mess with this too much.  However, because of my time on Guntersville, this has become second nature to me.
  3. There are spots and small mouth – While I’ve never actually fished for small mouth, I know a thing or two about spotted bass, as well as how to try and entice a few, should the bite get tough.
  4. This lake falls right into my wheelhouse – Since I’m comfortable fishing shallow grass or deep ledges, I felt pretty confident I could do well.

On day 1 I drew a great partner.  He was on fish, but they were a long way from the boat ramp.  After ~45 min run, we pull into the back of a creek, and he proceeds to go to work with a buzz bait around shallow cover.  To say he put on a show would be an understatement.  Before I got my first bite he had already caught a limit and culled one time.

We were fishing a shallow flat, with scattered wood.  As we fished around, I was throwing an Evergreen Showerblow in the areas around the timber, and walking it by slowly.  Even though my morning started off slow, I had been having a lot of luck with the bait in practice, and I felt it was only a matter of time before I got bit.  Sure enough, I didn’t have to wait too long, as a monster blew up on my bait not once, not twice but three times.  Each time it failed to get hooked up, so I cast at it again, and sure enough, two more blow ups, with a momentary hook up.  I wasn’t hopeful on my third followup cast, since I did stick the fish for a split second on the prior cast, but about two seconds after the bait hit the water, there was another explosion, followed quickly by a second.  This time my line went tight, I set the hook, and a few moments later I was guiding the beast into the net.  I’m not sure of the exact weight, but it was a good one!

At this point I would like to give all the credit in the world to my partner.  There are not many guys who would stand by, and not cast at this fish after the first blowup.  Not only did he not cast after the first blowup, he didn’t cast at all until this played out.  He wanted to be ready with the net, because he saw just how big this fish was!

As I was taking this fish off, my partner made a follow up cast, and had another fish blow up on his topwater, but it didn’t get hooked.  At that point I figured we had a pretty good school, and I fired a Senko by the tree.  Over the next four casts, I was able to fill my limit!  It really was amazing.  As the day progressed, I managed to catch one more on the Show Blow, and cull out a small fish, for a first day total of 10lbs and change.  This had me sitting in 5th.

Day two rolls around, and my second day partner struggled on day one.  Because of the practice time I spent on the lake, I had some fish located near the ramp, and suggested we go try them.  He was game, so off we went.  This area was simply a long stretch of rip rap, that was loaded with 14 – 15 inch largemouth.  As we started working down, I hooked up with my first keeper pretty quickly.  About that time, my partner turns on the afterburners and hauls down the bank.  I know his intent was to cover as much water as possible, to try and get a limit, but the way the fish were positioned, and the baits I was using, this really didn’t work out well for me.  At the end of the day, I weighed in two keepers for about 3lbs.  I thought I was out at this point, but as fate would have it, I squeaked into the top 12 cut in 11th place.

For the final day I drew my day one partner again.  I was pretty excited about this, because I knew he was around fish, but I was also nervous because, if it were not for that one flurry, my day would have been drastically different.  As we were waiting for blast off that morning, he was telling me of a new area he found, and he thought the Evergreen would be killer.  As it turns out, her was right!  Our first stop was a large flat, with a lot more timber, but also a lot more area to cast.  The only problem was the amount of timber would sometimes make casting tough.  Right off the bat though I hook up with a decent fish.  As I’m fighting him in, he gets hung up on a tree a comes off.  I was a little disheartened, but I didn’t let it get too me too much.  As we work down this flat, I manage to hook a gar and a small non keeper, my partner doesn’t get a bite.  I can tell this is weighing on him a bit, so we decide to run up a creek just a bit.

We take off up this creek, and as we are heading up, we pass a small patch of lily pads.  My partner initially drives past it, but then changes his mind and whips the boat in.  Within his first few casts he has a monster blow up on a frog, and he looks to me and says we will be here for a bit.  Not planning on frog fishing, I only had one frog, and none of my gear was setup for it.  But, with a little re configuring, I’m up and running pretty quickly.  We fish these pads for probably the next four hours.  In that time I put two solid keepers in the boat, miss two good blowups and have one fish get tangled up in pad stems and come off (that’s two keeper fish I’ve lost up to this point, if you are keeping track).  My partner, on the other hand, has sacked up a nice limit, and culled out a small fish.  He is sitting on about 16lbs, and feeling pretty good. 

About two hours before weigh in, the frog bite has all but died, and we decide to make the long run back to the ramp.  That way we will have plenty of time should any issues arise.  Luckily there were none, and my partner took me to a few areas he thought I could catch a few keepers.  The first is a large flat, with scattered grass.  I fire my Evergreen out, and walk it by an isolated stick up.  Sure enough, a fish comes up and grabs it!  I feel almost instant relief as I knew I was really close to making the cut, and one more decent fish should put me in.  But, almost as soon as that feeling arrives it passes, as the fish pulls off, and I know time is running short.  We fish the flat another 20 minutes without so much as a sniff.

My last hope was a rip rap bank right next to the ramp.  I pull out the spinning combo with a ned rig, and start beating up the rocks trying to catch anything.  I do manged to catch one more 13 inch keeper, stick him in the well and cross my fingers.

At the weigh in, I’m hanging in better than I expect.  Trying to do math as everyone weighs in, I know I’m close.  As the last guy weighs in, and the final cut is called, I’m 7th.  The worse part, I’m 7th by one pound.  There are so many scenarios that I have been playing through in my head, so many “what if’s,” but at the end of the day, they won’t change anything.  I’m bummed I was so close, and had the bites to make the All American, but it’s also a great lesson about multi-day tournaments.  If my 1st and 2nd days were switched, I probably would have gone into day 2 in such a foul mood I wouldn’t have made the cut. And that in itself is a big lesson!

On the three hour ride home, I sat in silence.  I had friends and family calling to see how I did, and I didn’t want to talk about it.  I have a hard time putting the feeling I was experiencing into words.  I guess it was a mix of anger, frustration, disappointment and sadness.  But, then I realized how lucky I was to be where I was, and I reminded myself no matter how the tournament went, I’m very fortunate to be where I am, and doing what I’m doing.  Perhaps this was a life lesson I need, more than I needed a trip to the All American.  Plus, there is always next year.

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