DECATUR, Ala. — Frank Ippoliti of Smithsburg, Md., was able to make time to fish just one Bassmaster Southern Open event this year, but he has made it count thus far by leading the tight field Friday with 29 pounds, 6 ounces in the Bassmaster Southern Open season-ender on Alabama's Wheeler Lake.
Ippoliti was 1-7 in front of Ken Chapman of Woodlawn, Tenn., who moved up from sixth place into second with 27-15. In third was Todd Auten of Lake Wylie, S.C., with 26-11. Following the leaders were two Bassmaster Elite Series pros from Alabama: Tim Horton of Muscle Shoals with 25-10, and Gerald Swindle of Warrior with 25-3.
The pros are competing for a top prize of $6,000 in cash and a Triton/Mercury boat package valued at $50,000.
The field was cut to the top 30 for the final day of competition Saturday. Fishing fans can track the finale of the Southern Open season by accessing real-time leaderboards and live, streaming video of the Wheeler Lake event weigh-ins at www.espnoutdoors.com beginning at 4 p.m. ET Saturday.
The father of a 7-month-old son and owner of a car dealership — two factors that keep him too busy to compete as much as he'd like to — Ippoliti, 44, posted close to 15 pounds each day, a consistency he credited to a technique which he preferred not to discuss.
"It's something that's a little bit different," Ippoliti said. "But it's something everybody knows how to do. The formula is the area plus the technique equals fish."
Second-place finisher Chapman, a 44-year-old retired master sergeant, entered Bassmaster Opens for the first time this year, moving up from lower level events. He's aiming to qualify for the Classic and Elite Series.
"If I qualify for the Elite Series, I'll be there," he said. "And I'd love to go to the Bassmaster Classic. That's something you dream about from the time you're old enough to pick up a fishing pole and read Bassmaster Magazine. I've been reading it since 1970."
Many of the pros at the Southern Open are also are in contention to win the grand prizes of the season: entry into the 2008 Bassmaster Classic, Feb. 22-24 on South Carolina's Lake Hartwell, and 2008 eligibility for competitive fishing's top-tier circuit, the Bassmaster Elite Series. The top three in the points standings score Classic berths and invitations to the Elite Series; fourth- and fifth-place finishers earn only Elite eligibility.
First-day leader Bobby Lane, 33, dropped to sixth place with 24-14. Lane, of Lakeland, Fla., is among the pros with enough points amassed this season to have a shot at one of the three Classic spots.
Charlie Hartley, another pro shooting for his first Classic, pulled up from 15th into 11th place Friday with 21-8. An Elite Series pro from Grove City, Ohio, Hartley competed this season in the Opens as an alternate route to the Classic. Having missed a Classic berth through the Elite Series, he's put the pressure on himself to get to the Classic through the Opens.
"I struggle to fight my own nerves," said Hartley, 43. "This is my life goal, my life work. I've dreamed of going to the Bassmaster Classic since I was 8 years old, so getting to the Classic has been my lifetime work, too."
In the co-angler division, where the top prize is $2,000 cash and a Triton/Mercury boat package valued at $32,000, Lee Hannah of Grandville, Mass., moved up from third to take the lead with 22-5. Trailing him were first-day leader Scott Reed of Cary, N.C., who had 19-0; and Eric D. Johnson of Millis, Mass., who posted 17-14.
The pros will launch Saturday at 7:45 a.m. ET at Decatur's Ingalls Harbor, where the weigh-in will begin at 4 p.m. ET.