By DAVE LINK
Jackson Bennett and Sparks Eltz have watched professional angler Jacob Wheeler of Dayton, Tennessee, compete at the highest levels of bass fishing.
They only dreamed of fishing with him until recently.
Bennett, a rising junior at Farragut, and Eltz, a 2022 graduate of Bearden, got that chance during the June 27-29 Wheeler Fishing Foundation’s High School Shootout presented by Magellan Outdoors.
It’s an event organized and run by Wheeler, and not only did Bennett and Eltz get to fish with him in it – they won the whole thing.
“Oh, my goodness, he’s my favorite fisherman, by far,” Bennett said. “I was pumped. I didn’t even sleep the night before the tournament.”
Eltz was pumped, too.
During the event, Eltz and Bennett were housed at PB Lodge in Dayton, a small motel overlooking Chickamauga Lake (each room has a large-enough garage where guests can park boats).
“It was a great time,” Eltz said. “We stayed at the PB Lodge, and you can look out the window and see Dayton Boat Ramp. We had dinner the night before, went over rules for the tournament, got goody bags, and got to talk to Jacob Wheeler. Then tournament day, it was a blast.”
For Bennett, it was like the best of Friday night football.
Bennett was a promising defensive end at Farragut but decided to quit the sport after suffering an ACL/torn meniscus after his 2020 freshman season and a torn labrum in the fifth game last year.
“After that,” Bennett said, “I just wanted to fish and see how far that would take me.”
It’s taken him a way, so far, including the day with Wheeler.
“It was a great moment,” Bennett said. “Fishing with Wheeler was probably my favorite day on the water. Wheeler’s a great guy. I can’t thank him enough.”
GETTING TO FINALS
Bennett found out about the Jacob Wheeler event in April, then called his buddy, Eltz.
“Let’s do this and try to win it,” Bennett told Eltz.
They tuned up with a top-five finish in a spring event on Fort Loudon Lake and fished another event before the Wheeler tournament, originally scheduled for Watts Bar Lake.
Bennett and Eltz didn’t have a boat captain for the Wheeler event, so they got in touch with Robert Gee, a senior at Tennessee and a member of its bass fishing team.
“He’s a very good fisherman, a great guy, super dude,” Bennett said of Gee, a 2017 graduate of Christian Academy of Knoxville and former baseball and football player there.
Bennett spent about two weeks in June practicing at Watts Barr, prepping for the Wheeler event, and one day afterward decided to go to Lake Chickamauga with a friend.
While having a great day – “We had like 22 pounds in the boat, just messing around,” Bennett said – he got a call from Alcoa Fishing Team’s J.J. LaRue, telling him the Wheeler event was moved to Chickamauga.
“I was like, ‘Perfect,’” Bennett said. “I was pretty pumped about it.”
On the Friday before the tournament, Bennett and Gee spent the day pre-fishing Chickamauga.
“We just went and idled and found some off-shore depth changes and idled a lot of community holes,” Bennett said. “We found some good schools, but we didn’t feel like we had enough for the tournament.”
Monday, June 27, was practice day for the Wheeler tournament, and it was bad news for Bennett and Eltz.
“A lot of the schools we’d found on the Friday before were gone, vanished,” Bennett said. “We were freaking out a little bit.”
That changed in a hurry the morning of Tuesday, June 28.
Shortly after blastoff, Eltz, on his first cast, caught a bass that weighed 5 and three-fourths pounds.
“After that, I knew it was going to be a good day,” Eltz said.
It sure was, although not the best of Day 1, in which the format consisted of a three-bass limit.
Hayden Barnett and Will Bacon of Roane County had the lead with the three bass weighing 16 pounds, 3 ounces.
Eltz and Bennett were second with three bass for 15 pounds, 13 ounces, including a 6.9-pounder caught by Bennett.
“We had big bass until pretty much the last person weighed in,” Bennett said. “We weighed in right before Barnett and Bacon, and we took the lead. We didn’t think we had that much. I knew we had over 13 or 14, but we didn’t weigh any of our fish.”
They were followed by Blake Wheat (Rhea County) and Riley Faulkner (Campbell County) with three bass weighing 14 pounds, 7 ounces.
The top six teams from Day 1 qualified for Championship Day on Wednesday, June 29, when teams competed by Major League Fishing (MLF) rules with pro anglers serving as boat marshals, overseeing rules and weighing each bass.
Pro anglers taking part were Wheeler, Brandon Coulter, John Murray, Dustin Connell, Jacob Foutz, and Wesley Strader.
By luck of a draw, Bennett and Eltz got to fish with Wheeler on Championship Day.
“That was exciting,” Eltz said. “He was the one I wanted to be with, and luckily it was him.”
WINNING IT ALL
In MLF events, keeper bass are landed without the use of a net, then weighed and released, with an electronic score-tracker keeping results as the day goes.
Although the pro anglers weren’t allowed to give their teams advice or tips, they could still talk with them.
“We were talking to (Wheeler) the whole day,” Eltz said.
In fact, Bennett was talking with Wheeler when he hooked a 7-pound, 9-ounce largemouth on a drop-shot rig using 8-pound test line.
“(The bass) comes from 30 feet of water and jumps over Wheeler’s power poles, at least 4 or 5 feet in the air,” Bennett said. “Almost an 8-pounder just came out of the water, 3, 4, 5 feet. I fought that fish for 5, 8 minutes. It’d get right up next the boat and then peel drag back down. And the best part was, I had it on 8-pound line, and it was almost an 8-pounder. I try to keep my cool in that scenario, but Sparks and even Wheeler were freaking out. It was hilarious.”
Eltz got a fish-landing penalty warning for the way he got the bass in the boat.
“(Bennett) had such small line and such a small hook,” Eltz said, “I was just going to eat our warning penalty, so I just bear-hugged it and scooped it in there. I just put my arms under her belly and scooped her in.”
It was one of several bass Bennett caught while talking with Wheeler.
“You had to work (the bait) super slow,” Eltz said, “just because how slow the bite was, and I think some of the fish Jackson caught was because he was turned around talking to Jacob Wheeler and he wasn’t really working it, so it was just sitting there in front of ’em and they’d smoke it and he’d real ’em in.”
Bennett and Eltz took the lead with the 7-plus pounder and kept it the rest of the tournament.
They won with six bass weighing 19 pounds, five ounces.
Jon Loya and Sam Houston of California were second with 11 pounds even.
Wheat and Faulkner were third (10 pounds, 1 ounce), followed by Carson Holbert and Owen Stamm (6 pounds) and Barnett and Bacon (3 pounds, 4 ounces).
Bennett will fish for the Alcoa Fishing Team this school year while attending Farragut. Eltz hopes to be fishing in college, perhaps at Stephen F. Austin in Texas.
They won’t forget their once-in-a-lifetime experience with Wheeler.
“I follow Jacob Wheeler,” Bennett said. “I was joking around one day, and was like, ‘One day I’m going to fish with Jacob Wheeler.’ Sure enough, a few days after that, I saw a post on my Instagram feed that said, ‘High School Shootout 2022,’ and was like, I’ll fish it, and I called Sparks.”