Bass fishing on Wheeler Lake is hardly a secret, but Kyle Welcher said the lake’s probably fishing better than locals are letting on. In fact, the Bassmaster Elite Series angler from Opelika, Ala., said he believes the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Wheeler Lake will shine a spotlight on a solid fishery.
Competition days will be May 18-20 with daily takeoffs from Ingalls Harbor at 6 a.m. CT and weigh-ins each day at 2 p.m. Full coverage will be available on Bassmaster.com.
“Wheeler has been getting really good really fast,” Welcher said. “Wheeler has been one of the lakes on the Tennessee River that has consistently been putting out some really good bags, but there hasn’t been a big tournament there to show it. I think this Open is going to show it.
“I think it didn’t really get that good (overnight), I just think the locals have done a good job of keeping it a secret. I’ve heard reports over the past few years that the lake is fishing well, but when locals catch ’em, they don’t post pictures because they’re trying to keep it a secret."
As Welcher points out, Wheeler owes much of its productivity to a resurgence of eelgrass. The past couple of years have seen significant expansion of this submersed plant that filters water and provides consistent bass habitat.
About a week before the tournament, Wheeler stood within the normal pool range of 555 to 556 feet. Barring any major rain events, that level should remain steady.
“It’s going to be a pretty typical Tennessee River fishery,” Welcher said. “It’s not crystal clear, but definitely a clearer water body. It has the Tennessee River green to it.”
Welcher said he’s anticipating a predominantly postspawn event, with enough remaining late spawners to keep things interesting. Worth noting, he said, is the difference in late-season spawning areas.
“There will definitely still be some spawning, but I would say probably 85% of the fish will be done spawning,” Welcher said. “Later in the spawn, the fish usually start transitioning closer and closer to deep water.
“They’ll be closer to the main lake, not way back on those shallow flats that warm up first. They’ll just get in beside where they’ve been living. The conditions are better for them now. They can spawn anywhere they want.”
With postspawn bass likely to make up the majority of the action, Welcher breaks this down into three elements — threadfin shad spawn, bream beds and offshore ledges. Starting with the shad, these abundant baitfish gather overnight for a flickering, splashing reproduction romp that lasts into the first hour or so past daybreak.
Perfectly timed to provide easy meals for postspawners looking to fill out their recently thinned figures, shad spawns typically occur adjacent to rocks, docks, seawalls or grasslines. Bass tend to get reckless around these baitfish buffets, so picking off one or two big ones can jumpstart the day’s productivity.
“A lot of times on the Tennessee River, the best shad spawn baits are vibrating jigs, topwater walking baits and swimbaits,” Welcher said. “Also, a lipless crankbait is one that people don’t think about, but it’s a good choice when the shad are spawning on bars.
“On the Tennessee River, shad will spawn on bars in 2 to 3 feet of water, but they could be 30 yards off the bank.”
Bedding bluegill offer postspawners another convenient feeding opportunity, and this scenario can last all day. When clusters of bream beads give the bottom a honeycomb appearance, bass will stake out these shallow areas — often in small “wolf packs” — to pick off distracted panfish.
Prop baits, topwater walkers and poppers get plenty of attention, as does a beaver-style bait rigged sideways (vertically) for a small panfish profile. Additionally, Welcher suggests flipping laydowns, bushes or docks near bream beds for bass taking a break between feeds.
As for those postspawners that will have moved offshore by tournament time, Welcher believes this could be the most promising opportunity. Crankbaits, swimbaits and Scroungers are the common offerings and those who play their cards wisely will weigh competitive bags.
“I think the key to success will be making adjustments throughout the tournament,” Welcher said. “Guys might go out there and find eight or 10 big schools of fish offshore, but (considering the size of a Bassmaster Opens field), you may not be able to get on those fish. You have to make good decisions, go run other stuff and maybe try to come back and get on them later.
“It’s going to be the same thing with offshore grass. A lot of times, those fish don’t stay in one spot day after day; they move around. I think managing those super-tiny key areas around a bunch of boats and staying mentally resilient is going to be extremely important to string together three good days.”
A potential wild card could be the Guntersville Dam tailrace. At the top end of Wheeler Lake, this point of turbulent water creates a prime feeding scenario for largemouth and smallmouth.
Similar to those early morning shad spawns and the bream beds, the tailrace could deliver day-making bonus opportunities. The tournament will likely see a modest number of anglers committing most of their day to the tailrace, but Welcher believes this is more of a bonus-fish scenario than a sustainable pattern.
Ultimately, Welcher expects an average of about 17 pounds a day will earn a final-round berth. For a winning three-day total, he’s going with 55-11.
“I think it will be a good mix of some offshore fish, some shallow fish, some smallmouth and largemouth in the tailrace; I think it’s going to be everything going on,” Welcher said. “It’s going to be a really good tournament to see what wins there.”
After three events, John Garrett of Union City, Tenn., leads the Opens Elite Qualifiers standings with 577 points. Matt Henry of Milledgeville, Ga., is second with 545, followed by Kenta Kimura of Osaka, Japan, with 539, Wesley Gore of Clanton, Ala., with 538 and Ben Milliken of New Caney, Texas, with 535. Rounding out the nine anglers who are in position to qualify for the 2024 Bassmaster Elite Series via the Opens EQ are Trey McKinney, Keith Tuma, Brett Cannon and JT Thompkins. Follow the Opens EQ race all season at Bassmaster.com.
The St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Wheeler Lake is being hosted by Decatur Morgan County Tourism.
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Title Sponsor: St. Croix
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Platinum Sponsor: Toyota
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Premier Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops, Dakota Lithium, Humminbird, Mercury, Minn Kota, Nitro Boats, Power-Pole, Progressive Insurance, Ranger Boats, Rapala, Skeeter Boats, Yamaha
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Supporting Sponsors: AFTCO, Daiwa, Garmin, Lew's, Marathon, Triton Boats, VMC