JASPER, Ala. -- “Two-thirds of the work is done.”
That’s what Jesse Wiggins told the crowd on Friday during the second day of competition at the Bassmaster Southern Open No. 3 presented by Bass Pro Shops.
Now the 27-year old fishing phenom needs to finish strong to win yet another open tournament – and this one is on his home lake, to boot.
Wiggins, who just finished his rookie season on the Bassmaster Elite Series, jumped to the top of the leaderboard after the second day of competition on Smith Lake here in north-central Alabama. His two-day total of 26 pounds, 7 ounces gave him almost a 2 ½-pound lead over Rick Morris, who is second among the 12 anglers who survived the cut to fish Saturday.
The winner of the tournament will clinch a berth in the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods, but Wiggins already has secured a spot in next year’s “Super Bowl of Bass Fishing.” He won the first Southern Open of the season on Florida’s Harris Chain of Lakes which he admitted took the pressure off him this week on Smith.
“It really did make things easier for me,” said Wiggins, who lives in Cullman about 20 miles from the weigh-in site at Smith Lake Dam. “I already had qualified for the Classic, but I’m greedy. I always want to win, especially if there’s money on the line.”
And there is. Not only will the Southern Open winner earn a generous cash prize, but there’s also a Skeeter boat/Yamaha motor package up for grabs. The grand total in cash and prizes is valued at approximately $50,000.
“Hopefully I’m in position to win,” Wiggins said. “It’s going to be close, but I’ve got a chance.”
While some other leading anglers are fishing suspended fish offshore, Wiggins said he’s fishing structure along shorelines to catch his bass. He said he’s labored for every catch he’s had too, as unseasonably warm temperatures (it was in the upper 80s again Friday on Smith Lake,) have made getting bites difficult.
Wiggins said he had four bass in the boat with an hour left to fish, but he changed locations and hooked two keepers in the final minutes of Friday’s competition. He likely would have survived the cut to 12 without those catches, but the extra weight propelled him into the top spot. He caught a limit that weighed 11-5 on Friday, following his 15-2 total on Thursday.
Wiggins is used to winning on Smith. He’s been a force in local tournament here for years, and he proved his mettle against other pros last year when he won a Southern Open on the lake to qualify for the 2017 Bassmaster Classic. His knowledge here, despite his youth, is practically unprecedented.
“We had a cool snap in August and the water temperature dropped about five degrees then,” Wiggins said. “They started biting, but then it warmed up again and they stopped. But I tell people the main reason they stop biting on Smith Lake is because of all this boat pressure. That’s why I fish for fish that people can’t buzz over.”
The remainder of the 12 pros competing Saturday are Morris (24-0), Will Davis Jr. (23-7), first-day leader Shin Fukae (23-5), Greg Pugh (23-2), Justin Lucas (22-13), David Kilgore (22-2), Kyle Monti (21-10), Todd Auten (21-7), Jordan Lee (21-4), John Hunter Jr. (21-0) and Brandon Lester (20-15).
When the tournament wraps Saturday, the Top 5 anglers in the Southern Open overall points standings will earn invitations to compete in next year’s Bassmaster Elite Series.
On the co-angler side (three bass limit per day,) Todd Lee of Jasper leads with a two-day total of 13-4. Other non-boaters fishing Saturday are Chris Farmer (11-5), Carlton Tipp (11-0), Michael Vice (10-9), Curtis Hall (10-6), Benjie Seaborn (10-5), Kent Biggs (9-13), Chuck Thurlow (9-6), Mark Wethington (9-2), Ricky Congero (8-15), Mark Bartosch and Chad Viator (both with 8-9.)
Clayton Batts of Lizella, Georgia caught the big bass on Friday (4-8). Brent Crow of Hartselle, Ala. has the big bass of the tournament with a 5-6 caught Thursday.
The final day of the Bassmaster Southern Open No. 3 will begin with a 6:30 a.m. launch at Smith Lake Dam in Jasper. The tournament’s final weigh-in will take place at the Bass Pro Shops location in Leeds, Ala., 5000 Bass Pro Drive.
The Bassmaster Southern Open No. 3 is hosted by the Walker (Ala.) County Chamber of Commerce.