New Elite: Wiggins earns a second chance

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James Overstreet

In 2014 Jesse Wiggins of Cullman, Ala., accomplished something that most anglers only dream of doing. He qualified for the Bassmaster Elite Series by finishing second in the Bassmaster Southern Opens' AOY standings.

Qualifying for the Elite Series was not on Wiggins’ agenda when he signed on to fish the Southern Opens that season. His goal was to win the second of the three Open tournaments and qualify for the 2015 Bassmaster Classic. The second Southern Open was at Smith Lake, which he has fished since childhood. If he won at Smith Lake, he would have to fish the other two events in the Southern Opens to qualify for the Classic.

Wiggins was disappointed with his sixth place finish at Smith Lake, but he was stunned to find himself leading the Southern Opens’ point standings. It suddenly hit him that he could qualify for the Elite Series. He began scrambling to find the time and financial support he would need to join the Elites. Sadly, he failed to do so and was unable to take advantage of the opportunity.

The 2016 Southern Opens included Smith Lake, which prompted Wiggins to sign up for another go around. This time he had three goals in mind. One, win the Smith Lake tournament and qualify for the 2017 Bassmaster Classic. Two, qualify for the Elite Series. Three, be in a position to accept an invitation to the Elite Series.

Wiggins pulled off his personal triple crown, winning at Smith Lake, finishing third in the Southern Opens’ point standings and joining the Elite Series tour. At age 27 Wiggins is young enough to enjoy a long career as a professional bass pro should he perform as well as he did in the Southern Opens.

However, Wiggins will need to make a splash in his first year with the Elites. And 2017 definitely started with a bang: Wiggins won the Southern Open #1 last week on Flordia's Harris Chain of Lakes. He currently works as a respiratory therapist at three hospitals. To make time for the Elite Series, Wiggins must work part time. Money will be tight.

“I won’t be playing it safe to qualify for the Classic,” Wiggins said. “I need to win one. If I don’t make money I’m not going to be able to keep fishing the Elites.”

That’s a tall order for Wiggins, given that his fishing experience is mainly at Smith Lake. He grew up five minutes from Smith and still lives near its shoreline.

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fishing there,” Wiggins said.

His father, Craig Wiggins, introduced Wiggins and his 18-month older brother Jordan to fishing early in life. The brothers also fished often with their uncle Phillip Green and grandfather Welton Wiggins.

At around age five Wiggins fished his first bass tournament with his father. It was a nighttime event at Smith Lake.

“I’ll never forget my dad swinging a 4 1/2-pound largemouth into the boat,” Wiggins said. “It won the $300 Big Bass pot.”

Wiggins’ father excelled with crankbaits. Wiggins and his brother took what they learned from him and later used it to good effect while fishing team tournaments at Smith Lake. They’ve been at it since Wiggins turned 15 and have pocketed substantial winnings since then.

The Wiggins brothers have also taught themselves a wide variety of fishing techniques. The shaky head worm has become their go-to bait, which isn’t surprising, given the strong spotted bass population at Smith Lake.    

When Wiggins traveled to Florida’s Lake Tohopekaliga in January of 2014 to compete in a Southern Open, it was the first time he had fished outside of Alabama. He nabbed 15th place by fishing a shaky head worm 10 to 15 feet deep in a manmade ditch.

“I won $70,000 on a shaky head this year alone,” Wiggins said. “I throw it everywhere I fish because bass bite it.”

Wiggins claims that his brother is a better bass angler than he is. However, the elder Wiggins sibling has opted to put his family first and not pursue a professional fishing career. Wiggins is not married.

“I postponed all that to see if I could do this,” Wiggins said in regard to the Elite Series.

Wiggins is looking forward to fishing “lakes I’ve heard about all my life” on the Elite Series tour. Then again, he is well aware that his biggest challenge is overcoming his inexperience on bass waters across the country.

“I don’t know anybody,” Wiggins said. “If I catch them this year it won’t be because anybody put me on them.”      

Wiggins’ sponsors include Bass Cat Boats, Honda Marine, Jenko Fishing, TH Marine and Lowrance.