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Jacob Wheeler (Photo by David A. Brown/FLWOutdoors.com)

Star fisher

Sports | A prodigy angler is learning to use his talent to catch more than fish

Issue: "All tied up," Sept. 24, 2011

Jacob Wheeler is a fisher of fish. The 20-year-old angler has cashed $120,000 in tournaments this year, including the $100,000 prize for first-place in the Bass Fishing League All-American competition in Louisiana this past spring. He followed that up with a 12th-place finish in the prestigious Forest Wood Cup in Arkansas in August.

Those successes at such a young age have sponsors salivating. Wheeler's dream of joining the few elite fishermen who make a handsome living in the sport appears within reach. The prodigy first discovered a knack for hooking fish at age 4, ravaging the less-than-stellar fishing holes of the White River just a short bike ride from his childhood home in Indianapolis. Before long, he was spotting patterns, experimenting with various baits and lines, and jotting every advantageous tidbit in a daily journal.

Wheeler's homeschooling parents quickly harnessed his love of trawling to motivate broader learning. His mother Lynn built arithmetic problems with fish as main characters. She required he complete his schoolwork with scores of 90 percent or better before returning to the river. Somehow, no matter how many assignments, the schoolwork always got done in a hurry. Jacob Wheeler is a fisher of fish.

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But the wisdom on the water has not always translated to solid ground. Last year, Wheeler took home $3,000 for a solid tournament showing and promptly blew the wad on a truck. That splurge left him short on funds to enter the next level of the regional competition. "It was a ton of money to me," he says now. "I got cocky and arrogant. I never really had given my fishing to God."

For Wheeler and his family, Christian faith has always mattered. But only in the wake of his financial blunder and attending disappointment did Wheeler first realize that faith matters in his fishing life, too-perhaps especially so. That incident has sobered the young angler. He now views his rising star on the fishing circuit with caution, even reservation. The travel, the money, the pressure-opportunities all to move one of two directions: toward self or toward God. "You have to walk with Him," Wheeler says. "You have to pursue a relationship with Him."

In the tournament scene, that relationship means finding other Christians for friendship and makeshift church services. It means participating in competitions and with organizations that use fishing as a metaphor for true spirituality. Wheeler is learning: "It's not the best fishing spot that teaches you the lessons. It's the difficult times that teach you the most." Jacob Wheeler is a fisher of fish and fast becoming a fisher of men.

-with reporting from Russ Pulliam in Indianapolis

Pac power?

For 32 years, the Pac-10 conference provided the most competitive environment for college football on the West Coast. This season, the conference has added Colorado and Utah, bringing a name change. Will the Pac-12 prove as successful as its predecessor? Here are a few reasons why it might or might not:

Successful

• Utah has a record of 96-39 with eight bowl victories since 2000. That kind of success will add vigor to the conference.

• The willingness to change the name to Pac-12 is a positive-unlike the Big Ten, which features 12 teams, or the Big 12 that has 10 teams. Ugh!

Not successful

• Colorado has a record of 63-73 with one bowl victory since 2000. That kind of mediocrity will detract from conference competitiveness.

• The previous format featured natural in-state rivalries and a final week of drama that was unparalleled nationwide. The additions of Colorado and Utah diminish that drama.

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