Open: Fukae leads Day 1


James Overstreet

JASPER, Ala. — Many anglers predicted the bass would be tightlipped in temperatures that climbed into the low 90s during Thursday’s first round of the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open on Smith Lake.

They were right.

But a handful of the 175 pros still managed to boat nice bags, including Shin Fukae who led the way with a five-bass limit that weighed 15 pounds, 4 ounces.

The Japanese-born pro, who now lives in Texas, said he didn’t fare well during practice on the 21,000-acre fishery, but that changed when competition began. His bag was anchored by a 4-15 bass that tied for the second largest of the day.

“(Practice was) bad, bad, bad,” Fukae said. “But I found two good spots, and I went to one spot the last two days. I don’t know if I’ll keep catching, but I was catching today.”

For Fukae, it was an important start to the final Southern Open of the season.

The angler who is victorious here this week will earn a spot in the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods scheduled for March on South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell. Even if Fukae doesn’t win, a good showing could earn him a spot in the Top 5 of the overall Southern Opens standings.

The anglers who occupy those Top 5 spots will qualify to fish in the 2018 Bassmaster Elite Series.

Jesse Wiggins of Cullman, Ala., who fished his rookie season on the Elite Series this year, isn’t fighting for a Classic berth because he already won the season’s first Southern Open on Florida’s Harris Chain of Lakes to lock up his spot.

Instead, he’s fishing for a generous cash prize, as well as a Skeeter boat/Yamaha motor package that would accompany yet another Opens victory for the pro.

Wiggins is in second place after Thursday with a limit that weighed 15-2. He’s already proven he can win big tournaments on his home lake — he won the 2016 Southern Open on Smith Lake to gain a spot in the 2017 Bassmaster Classic — and another win here would further cement his bragging rights on the reservoir.

“I actually had more weight today than I thought I did,” Wiggins said. “This lake is awesome and we saw that last April. We’re waiting on the weather that would really turn this place on, but I’m happy with the start today. One-third of the work is done.”

Besides Fukae, Lucas Ragusa of Gonzales, La., was the only non-Alabama angler to crack the Top 5, and he too had a 4-15 bass in his bag. Ragusa’s Day 1 total of 13-14 put him in third place.

Defending Classic champion Jordan Lee lives in nearby Guntersville, Ala., and fishes Smith often. The experience paid off as he caught 13-11 to land in fourth place.

David Kilgore lives even closer to Smith Lake than Wiggins or Lee. The Jasper, Ala., resident is tied for fifth place with Helena, Ala., pro Bill Weidler. Both caught 12-12 limits.

Benjie Seaborn of Guin, Ala., is leading the co-angler division with a three-bass limit that weighed 8-3.

Brent Crow of Hartselle, Ala., leads the pro division for the Phoenix Big Bass Award after the first day of competition with a 5-6 largemouth. Leading the nonboater division for the Phoenix Boats Big Bass Award is Charles Fochtman of Moneta, Va., with a 4-15 spotted bass.

Friday’s takeoff is scheduled for 6:30 a.m. CT at Smith Lake Dam Access. The weigh-in will be held at the same location at 2:30 p.m.

The event is hosted by the Walker County Chamber of Commerce.