ORLANDO, Fla. – If Jesse Wiggins is going to keep winning fishing tournaments, someone is going to have to put a rush order on his pro fishing jersey.
While most professional anglers are outfitted in fishing jerseys adorned with more sponsors than you can count, the Elite Series rookie sported a plain red T-shirt on Saturday when he climbed from fourth place to the top spot in the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open No. 1.
In many ways, the simple red T-shirt is symbolic of Wiggins’ meteoric rise in professional fishing – it’s straight talk, and no frills. The clothing choice was even more appropriate though, considering the only insignia on it (besides that of a B.A.S.S. patch over his right breast) was a Jenko Fishing logo flanking it to the left.
After all, Jenko is the maker of the crankbait Wiggins used to win the first Bassmaster tournament of the 2017 season here on the Harris Chain of Lakes. The 27-year old Cullman, Ala., native caught a three-day total of 59 pounds, 4 ounces to win his second Open in as many years.
Wiggins won a package including cash and a Nitro boat valued at $51,400. He also earned the first berth in the 2018 Bassmaster Classic, even before the location has been announced.
But before that, Wiggins will compete in the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic on Texas’ Lake Conroe in March thanks to his win in a Southern Open last season on Alabama’s Smith Lake.
“I expected to win that one on Smith Lake (close to home,)” Wiggins said to the crowd gathered at the Orlando Bass Pro Shops for the final weigh-in. “This one, I had no idea. I’m shaking like a leaf on a tree up here.”
That was when Wiggins sat in the hot seat waiting for Day 2 leader (and Elite Series pro) Justin Lucas to complete Saturday’s weigh-in. Lucas feigned that he might have a bag big enough to supplant Wiggins from the top spot, but he only had a 9-9 limit, which left him in fourth place with 53-2.
That made Wiggins’ Day 3 bag of 21-5 not only the largest of the day, but the eighth heaviest of the event. Combined with his weights on the first two days (17-5 on Thursday and 20-10 on Friday,) it was more than enough to win.
“It’s a great bag to finish with, and a perfect way to start the season,” he said backstage after the win. “I’m absolutely speechless.”
Wiggins let his fishing do the talking on the Harris Chain. He found several spots in practice that held quality bass using his Lowrance. But when most of his competitors were either working grass beds or trying to sight fish spawning females off of beds, Wiggins turned to the Jenko crankbait in the deepest areas of Lake Eustis – about a 15-minute run from the launch point in Leesburg’s Venetian Gardens.
“I was using a jig head, with a worm,” he said. “It was a Shaky Head 6-inch finesse worm in Green Pumpkin on the first day, and I got some good bites.
“Then I’d go to the Jenko CD20 in Citrus Shad. That crankbait was the key. In shallower stuff, I’d throw the CD15. The fish were both on top of the drops and right below them. I was fishing in about 20 feet of water, looking for drops.”
Wiggins said going with fishing styles (cranking, floating worms) he uses back home in Alabama was important to his win. While he admitted the techniques might be unusual during the beginning of the spawn in central Florida, they are the ones with which he is most comfortable – kind of like the red T-shirt.
“If I have one word of advice, it’s always bring with you something you know from home,” he said. “I’m used to cranking on the Tennessee River at ledge fish, and I’m used to throwing a worm on Smith Lake. I used both here. You don’t always win, but I knew that if I found the right stuff offshore, no one else was going to be doing it and I’d have it all to myself.”
He was right, and now he’s won two Open in as many years. In only a few weeks, he’ll be in Tennessee fishing Lake Cherokee for his Elite Series debut.
“I never figured it would happen this fast,” he said. “This just blows my mind. I just wanted to survive. This means so much to career. It’s hard out there trying to get the sponsorship money.”
Which leads us back to his pro jersey, onto which sponsors certainly will want a shot now.
“I’ve got it ordered,” he said. “It should be in next week or so.”
Behind Wiggins in the Top 12 were: second, John Pollard, 58-1; third, Hunter Shryock, 56-4; fourth, Lucas, 53-2; fifth, Marty Robinson, 52-10; sixth, David Kilgore, 46-8; seventh, Scott Canterbury, 44-13; eighth, Brandon Card, 43-9; ninth, Derek Hudnall, 42-15; 10th, John Cox, 41-11; 11th, Joshua Stracner, 40-11; 12th, David Hudson, 39-8.
Fred Rigdon of Belleview, Fla., won the co-angler division with a three-day total of 26-11. Co-anglers were allowed to catch three fish per day. Rigdon won a Nitro boat package for finishing first in his division.
Four hundred anglers from 27 states and countries started the Bassmaster Southern Open No. 1 on Thursday – 200 in each division. The Top 40 pros and co-anglers each earned a cash prize for their performance on the Harris Chain.
The five pros who finish atop the points standings after the three Southern Opens are complete will be eligible to join the 2018 Bassmaster Elite Series. The other two 2017 Southern Opens will be held April 20-22 on Tennessee’s Lake Chickamauga and Sept. 28-30 on Smith Lake in Alabama.
And just like Wiggins, the winner of each of those two tournaments will earn a spot into the 2018 Bassmaster Classic.