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Living the Dream: Wheeler Lake, Part 1

Living the Dream: Wheeler Lake, Part 1
TBF Living The Dream winner Dave Andrews shows off his catch at Lake Okeechobee.

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Editor's note: This is the first piece in a series of journal entries from Dave Andrews, winner of the 2007 TBF National Championship, detailing his second stop on the 2008 FLW Series Eastern schedule. Entries will be published at FLWOutdoors.com throughout the course of the season. As winner of the "Living the Dream" package, offered by FLW Outdoors through The Bass Federation, Andrews had his entry fees paid to test his club skills on the pro tour with the use of a fully wrapped boat and tow package. Andrews will chronicle his adventure in pro bass fishing, having most recently competed on Alabama's Wheeler Lake. After Andrews has submitted his journal following each FLW Series event, segments will be posted approximately weekly. (Read his Okeechobee journal; this links to the final entry, which provides links at the top for each preceding part)
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Wal-Mart FLW Series BP Eastern Division
Stop No. 2: Wheeler Lake
March 26-29, 2008


Prepractice

I had the month of February to catch up at home back in Massachusetts and prepare for the second stop of the 2008 Wal-Mart FLW Series stop at Wheeler Lake in Decatur, Ala., in late March. Since my boat and truck were already in Alabama, I had the opportunity to take a long weekend just prior to the cutoff and fly down to check out Wheeler. I had never fished any of the Tennessee River chain prior to my scouting trip in early March. I waited until the last possible weekend, hoping that I would get the most favorable weather and that conditions wouldn't change much prior to the start of the tournament.

I arrived in the late morning of Thursday, March 6, rented a car in Huntsville and drove out to Rogersville, where my boat and truck were being stored. The day was sunny and warm with temperatures that edged up to 60 degrees by the afternoon. I found the nearest launch onto Wheeler Lake, down near the dam, and anxiously launched my Ranger 520Z and set out to explore First Creek.

I was nearly the only boat on the water, and a quick check of my temperature gauge showed that the lake was in the 57- to 59-degree range. I picked up a rod that was still rigged from Lake Okeechobee with a chartreuse Rat-L-Trap and began fishing down a chunk-rock bank. I fished until dark and caught The bass, caught by Dave Andrews, hit a crankbait on a rocky shoreline in one of the creeks down by the dam on Wheeler.many keeper largemouth bass, all on the Trap. Just before dark, a flurry of action produced five keepers, all between 2 1/2 and 4 pounds. The fish weren't shallow, but on the first breakline, holding in 5 to 8 feet of water and feeding on dying shad. The water color was good in First Creek - maybe 3 feet of visibility - and I really liked the look of this creek; but it was small, and I was certain it would be mobbed come tournament time.

The second practice day featured a major change in the conditions. The worst cold front of the season had followed me from the Northeast and finally caught up to me that morning. I fished with my friend Chris Gist, who graciously allowed me to store my boat and truck at his house following the first FLW Series event on Lake Okeechobee. We launched at the tournament site in Decatur. We had the only trailer in the parking lot, and there was a good reason for this. Twenty- to 30-mph winds whipped the Decatur Flats to a muddy mess. We tried to fish some stump rows with a Rat-L-Trap, but got blown down the flat way too fast to be effective. It was clear that we would need to find protected water in order to fish any more this day.

We pulled out, drove back across the lake and launched in the Elk River. It was more protected here, and we managed to fish the rest of the day in relative comfort. I had brought every piece of winter clothing that I use to fish in nasty weather back home, and I certainly needed it all. The northeast winds whipped all day, and temperatures never got out of the low 30s. We flipped jigs to lay-downs and rocks on banks where the channel swung in close, but only managed a few small keepers and some huge drum.
Despite the cold-front conditions, the drum in the Elk River were ammenable to biting for Dave Andrews.
By 5 p.m. the drizzle turned to heavy sleet and covered the bottom of the boat with pea-sized pellets. We figured we had better head off the water, and by the time we parked the boat at the nearby motel, a heavy, wet snow had begun to fall. The evening news was abuzz with the potential for the biggest snowstorm of the winter in northern Alabama. The news ran a scroll across the top of the screen, which urged residents to stay indoors and not travel in the dangerous conditions; it also urged people to bring bottled water, cell phone and warm clothes if travel was absolutely necessary. It all seemed a bit dramatic to me, since I had left snow piles 6 feet high back in New England, where nobody even blinks an eye unless the storm is supposed to bring more then a foot of snow. But being trapped at the Economy Inn in Rogersville for the night, I got into the spirit of the event and snapped a few photos of the impending blizzard while taking a short walk to the nearby businesses.

Sure enough, the next morning there was perhaps an inch of wet snow on the ground, and sirens wailed in the distance from the multiple car accidents. Indeed, the 1 to 2 inches of snow the region received qualified as the biggest snow event of the winter. The post-front conditions featured a bright, sunny sky with vicious 20- to 30-mph winds and temperatures that started around 20 degrees and never made it above 35. Wind chill factors (I didn't know they had wind chills in Alabama) were in the After what was being called a blizzard in Alabama: Wind chills were in the single digits that morning.single digits in the morning.

I slept in and actually went to a sit-down breakfast, essentially stalling for time, waiting for the snow to melt on the launch ramps. I offered Chris an out, telling him I would go it alone for the day, but he soldiered on, and we hit the ramp down by the dam at 11 a.m. We fished in the protected creeks in the lower part of Wheeler Lake, mostly dragging Giggy Head worms on light tackle and cranking rocky banks with midrange Rapala crankbaits. The lake was predictably devoid of boats, and despite the harsh conditions, we managed to put five or six fish in the boat including one over 6 pounds. Mostly, I just wanted to look around in the creeks at this end of the lake, and this we accomplished.

The final day of prepractice started off chilly, but warmed to a high of 48 degrees. It was sunny and the winds were light, so it felt like it was much warmer. I launched on the main river near Decatur and fished some riprap banks with the Rat-L-Trap. I caught a few small keepers, and when the sun warmed up the bluff banks, I headed over to check them out. The power company was pulling water and current was evident as the water flowed along steep bluff walls that plunged into the main lake. The cold front had dropped water temperatures into the low 50s, and the clarity had been reduced to only a few inches. I worked the Trap along the bluffs, concentrating on little drains and points and soon had my first solid largemouth of the day, about 3 pounds. More chunky keepers would fall victim to the Trap, as the fish were apparently hungry following the passage of the front. I switched to a red-shad Rat-L-Trap, just to see if color mattered to the fish, and caught a good fish on my very first cast with it. Every time I caught a fish over 2 1/2 pounds, I would punch a waypoint into my GPS.

I moved down the lake a few miles and looked at some more bluffs. These, too, held solid largemouth bass and all were completely inhaling my Trap. After four hours of fishing the bluffs, my Navionics map This 8-pounder capped the off the most productive day of prepractice on Wheeler Lake for Dave Andrews.was dotted with GPS coordinates. Toward the end of the hot streak, I got a solid thump on the red-shad Trap and boated a beautiful largemouth that easily weighed 8 pounds.

Satisfied that I had found something that might hold up for the tournament and with my confidence soaring, I figured I better explore some of the famous Decatur Flats area of Wheeler. The water level on the lake was low, near normal winter pool, and it had cleared enough to see some of the stumps and fallen trees, which make this area such a bass magnet. I cranked through the little ditches where the water was 6 or 7 feet deep and flipped a jig to every stump that I saw, but very few fish would bite, and soon I found myself running out of daylight.

My practice had come to an end, but despite the horrific conditions, I felt like it was a useful and productive trip. At least I learned how to run around on the lower end of Wheeler Lake and had gotten some confidence in catching fish along the steep bluffs. I left my boat and truck at Chris' house again and headed to the Huntsville airport early Monday morning for my flight back to Boston. I was to return in exactly 10 days.

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Editor's note: Stay tuned for Part 2 of Andrews' adventure on Wheeler Lake in which he'll write about his official practice period.
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Tags: dave-andrews  article 

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