Magical day 1 guides Cox to lead at Bassmaster Elite Series event on Wheeler Lake

Butterflies and heatwaves are seemingly important ingredients to success for John Cox when he shows up at Wheeler Lake. The DeBary, Fla., pro caught 22 pounds, 2 ounces to claim the Day 1 lead at the Whataburger Bassmaster Elite at Wheeler Lake, nearly eight years after winning a Forrest Wood Cup on this fishery.

Cox holds a 2-11 advantage over second-place John Garrett while Hawaii’s Matty Wong follows in third with 19-6 and Florida’s Cliff Prince is fourth with 19-4.

“It was just one of those days,” said Cox, a six-time Classic qualifier. “It was awesome and I just caught big ones. I hope there are a few more in there. The water is falling quickly and it might be an issue even getting in there. It was really cool.”

During his Forrest Wood Cup victory in August of 2016 at Wheeler, a butterfly floated around Cox’s boat nearly the entire tournament, even landing on his nose at one point. After landing his final bass this afternoon, he noticed a butterfly flying around his marshal.

In search of his first Elite Series victory, Cox is hoping it’s a sign of things to come.

“It is nuts. I catch the last big one and this butterfly lands on my marshal's head,” Cox explained. “And when I won the Cup, that butterfly was landing on me the entire tournament. I got the chills thinking about that. It is so weird.”

Temperatures have been on the rise across northern Alabama this week, reaching the 90-degree mark on Thursday. With no rain in the forecast either, current generation at the Wheeler Dam has slowed down and made the fishing across the lake a little tougher than many anglers anticipated.

Cox landed just one limit during his three days of practice and said he would have been happy if he caught 10 pounds on Day 1.

“Today was a miracle, honestly,” he said. “I only caught a couple fish the other days of practice and I was just hoping I could get five somehow so I didn’t finish dead last. It was so incredible. As incredible as the Cup.”

After trying to find a vacant area first thing in the morning, Cox settled in and caught the majority of his weight in one small area featuring shallow grass. He caught most of his bag early in the day, but made two key culls in the afternoon hours.

The biggest key to his area was the presence of gizzard shad. A Berkley Swamp Lord produced his best bites, including a 6-12 largemouth that anchored his bag.

“I think they were eating the gizzard shad and then all of a sudden the gizzards pushed up into this area. I smoked them on the Swamp Lord,” Cox said. “They don’t look like shallow fish. I think they came out of deep water.

“You go in this area and think, ‘How can they be in this tiny, narrow creek and how can there be enough to keep catching them?’ They just kept showing up.”

There is one particular issue with Cox’s area. The water is dropping out, and if it falls any more, he is concerned he won’t be able to get to his spot.

“It has fallen a foot (since practice started), maybe a little more,” he said. “I’ll just start running if I can’t get in there.”

Garrett, a veteran of Kentucky Lake on the same Tennessee River system as Wheeler Lake, landed a 19-7 mixed-bag limit to land in second place after Day 1. The Elite Series rookie and winner of the Elite at Florida’s Harris Chain of Lakes earlier this year anchored his bag with a 4 1/2-pound largemouth as well as a 4 1/2-pound smallmouth.

“It was a perfect day today,” Garrett said. “I was able to pull up on a couple places early that I wanted to get on, which is kind of rare here. I got bigger-than-average bites today.”

The Union City, Tenn., pro opened the day by catching those two big bass on a topwater lure. After searching for another place to fish that wasn’t occupied by other boats, he pulled into a spot and filled a limit weighing about 18 pounds. A key cull late in the day lifted Garrett to his final tally.

“I didn’t think it was that good and I caught them really well on it. I caught a dozen within a 30-minute timespan probably,” Garrett said. “My timing was really good this morning. Open spots don’t come around. I have two places that not everybody knows about.”

Garrett is fishing shellbeds and hard-bottom spots in 6 to 12 feet of water. The majority of the bass he is catching are largemouth, but there are smallmouth mixed in. The brown fish, however, are more difficult to catch.

In his first trip to Wheeler Lake, Wong caught an early limit before making key upgrades late in the day to reach his Day 1 weight of 19-6.

“This is my third season on tour and I have learned to settle in and take my little tips that I get from the fish and try to implement them on gameday,” Wong said. “I can’t wait to do it again tomorrow.”

While the quality bass did not show during practice, the 2022 B.A.S.S. Nation Champion found several key areas that produced big bites on Day 1. Three baits played a role in his success. On his best stretch, Wong landed a 5-pounder, a 3-pounder and a 2-pounder.

Stumps in about 5 feet of water have been the most productive pieces of cover. He has found those using his forward-facing sonar.

“The lake is fishing unlike people thought it would. The way I figured out my bite is fitting to my style and I’m glad it all came together,” Wong said. “The afternoon heat helps the bite.”

Louisiana pro Greg Hackney landed the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Day, a 7-9 largemouth that anchored his 18-5 fifth-place limit.

Carbondale, Ill., rookie Trey McKinney leads the Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings with 539 points. Alabama’s Justin Hamner, winner of 2024 the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Classic presented by Jockey Outdoors, is second with 500 points, followed by two-time Classic champ Jordan Lee of Alabama in third with 489 points. Missouri’s Cody Huff is fourth with 472 points and Chris Johnston of Canada is fifth with 462.

McKinney also leads the Dakota Lithium Bassmaster Rookie of the Year standings, followed by Garrett in second with 462 points and Alabama’s Wesley Gore in third with 459.

The full field will launch from Ingalls Harbor beginning at 6 a.m. CT Friday and return for weigh-in at 2 p.m. The Top 50 after the Day 2 weigh-in will advance to Day 3 before the Top 10 anglers compete on Championship Sunday.

The tournament is being hosted by Decatur Morgan County Tourism.