There’s no place like home

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Thomas Allen

JASPER, Ala. -- Turns out that Dorothy was right when she said “There’s no place like home.”

You’d have a hard time convincing anglers anything else after a look at the Bassmaster Southern Open No. 3 presented by Bass Pro Shops leaderboard.

Six of the 12 anglers competing on the third and final day of the tournament are Alabama residents, and all of them live within an hour’s drive of Smith Lake where the event is being held.

Smith is a unique, if not fickle, place. It’s a 21,000-acre man-made reservoir in the hills of north-central Alabama and it measures more than 100 feet deep in spots. It’s a finesse lake and it’s not known for producing extremely large bass. But when it does turn on, usually when the weather is cool in early spring or throughout autumn, it can be a spotted bass paradise.

But it’s anything but cool in Jasper this week. Temperatures soared into the low 90s on Thursday for Day 1 of the open and the mercury tipped out in the high 80s again on Friday. Saturday’s high is expected to be a more temperate 84 degrees, but the slight cooling is not likely going to be significant enough to whip the Smith Lake bass into a frenzy.

And that means the same type of bags weighed the first two days of this tournament are likely to be repeated Saturday. On Thursday, the heaviest five-bass limit belonged to Shin Fukae with 15 pounds, 4 ounces. On Friday, Stetson Blaylock had the heavy sack at 13-10.

Could someone weigh a limit on Saturday that goes north of 15 pounds? Of course, but it’s unlikely.

How stingy has Smith Lake been this week? Well, 31 pros were skunked on Thursday and a whopping 48 of 174 (28 percent) of the pros didn’t bag a keeper on Friday. Sure, some of those guys likely didn’t give it everything they had on Day 2 after underperforming on Day 1. But still – that’s a lot of good sticks to zero in a tournament of this magnitude.

And the list of pros that didn’t catch a keeper bass on Friday included several of Thursday’s top performers – Lucas Ragusa (who was in third after Day 1,) Hunter Shryock (the Southern Open points leader who was in 10th,) David Fritts (11th after Day 1,) William Smith (12th) and Jayme Rampey (14th.)

Those results mean one thing, and one thing only. Just when you think you have Smith Lake figured out, you can be proven wrong in a hurry.

That’s probably why the guys who know the lake best (the locals) have performed so well here this week. Experience helps, but knowing how to fish the lake has been just as important as knowing where to fish.

It’s little surprise that the leaderboard starts with Jesse Wiggins, who at 27 years old, is fishing with wisdom beyond his years. Wiggins just finished his rookie season on the Elite Series and he lives in Cullman, which is only 20 miles from Jasper. His two-day total of 26-7 gives him a 2 ½-pound lead on his closest competitor and he’s in prime position to win his second Southern Open of the season (he also won on Florida’s Harris Chain of Lake back in January.)

Wiggins is fishing structure on Smith’s shorelines and the formula has worked for him. On Friday, he said he was more worried about angling pressure than the unseasonably warm temperatures which many said were causing slack bites.

While there’s no telling how many boats will be on Smith Lake on what promises to a postcard-perfect weekend, there most certainly will be 162 fewer professionals for Wiggins to face Saturday.

Virginia’s Rick Morris is in second place with 24-0 and like Wiggins, he too has won an open this year and locked up a spot in the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’s Sporting Goods. The former Elite Series pro likely has fished his way back onto that circuit by virtue of a strong 2017 opens showing, and he’s fishing with the confidence it will take to catch the local favorite.

Behind that duo, the tournament appears to be wide open. Will Davis Jr. of Sylacauga, Ala. is third with 23-7 and Fukae lurks in fourth with 23-5. Fukae is a renowned drop-shot master, and if that bite turns on Saturday and Wiggins falters, the Japan-born pro could wind up with a Classic berth of his own.

Greg Pugh (fifth, 23-2) also lives in Cullman and his 13-8 limit tied for the second-heaviest bag of the day on Friday. Justin Lucas is an Elite Series pro from nearby Guntersville and he’s less than four pounds behind Wiggins at 22-13. David Kilgore, who lives on Smith Lake right here in Jasper, is seventh with 22-2. He’s won an open on Smith Lake before and has the local know-how
that could assist a come-from-behind victory.

Florida’s Kyle Monti (eighth, 21-10) is in the hunt for an Elite Series invite by virtue of his performance in the Southern Open points standings. South Carolina’s Todd Auten is ninth at 21-7 and he is followed by reigning Bassmaster Classic champion Jordan Lee who lives in the Guntersville area himself.

Lee is in 10th place with a 21-4 total over two days.

Rounding out the Top 12 are Kentucky’s John Hunter Jr. (21-0) and Brandon Lester (20-15). And while they may be a bit too far back to challenge Wiggins, Morris and company for the tournament title, stranger things have happened.

And Smith Lake seems like the kind of place where they can again.