In an age where most Opens-level anglers, many college anglers and even some high school kids are used to running current year boats with every bell and whistle known to man, Jesse Wiggins stands out. He’s never had a new boat.
In fact, by his own reckoning, he’s “never had a new anything.” Not a boat. Not a truck. Much has been made of the fact that he’s qualified for two Bassmaster Classics before competing in the first, but it’s equally significant that he’s proven that it can be done with more elbow grease and want-to than glitter.
He’s won two Bassmaster Southern Opens out of a 2008 Stratos, except for the last day of the second win, when he borrowed fellow Elite pro Matt Lee’s boat to help his chances. The “something borrowed” game is one that he’s mastered. In order to complete the slate of Opens in 2014, he needed to borrow a friend’s truck. With the money that he won, he placed the down payment on a 2013 GMC Sierra, which at the time of this writing had 85,210 miles on it. That’s what he’ll use to travel the 2017 Elite Series, but behind it there will be 20 feet, 4 inches of gleaming new fiberglass bass boat.
For most Elites a new boat is akin to a New Year’s kiss, a marker of the passing of time without much real significance. They consider it their “office” or a “tool” to get a job done. Pros like Rick Clunn and Gary Klein have had more new boats than the 27-year-old Wiggins has had birthdays. That’s why he was grinning ear to ear when he turned his truck away from the Bass Cat factory with his new ride in tow and no one called the cops or otherwise tried to stop him from hauling it back to Alabama.
The reason that he borrowed Lee’s boat at the Harris Chain was because it had Power-Poles and his own did not. His new one is “loaded to the gills. I don’t know that you could put anything else on it,” he said. That includes TV screen-sized Lowrance graphs, which will be a huge improvement over the single HDS10 he had on the Stratos that “would cut out half the time.” Of course, even that single HDS10 was a monster upgrade over his previous boat, a hand-me-down from his grandfather that had no depthfinder at all.
Wiggins is in awe of this whole process, soaking in every bit of information that he can. He listened with rapt attention as former Elite pro Kevin Short took him on a tour of the Bass Cat factory, explaining the building process and how the company goes above and beyond in every aspect of construction. Then he became the literal kid in the candy store when they dropped him off in the clothing shop and told him to pick out a selection of logoed apparel. “I’d always dreamed of something like that,” he said. “I’m extremely blessed and humbled to work with this kind of company.”
Wiggins won’t be the only Elite Series pro who might look out of place in a new Cat this season. Steve Kennedy, long the sole “independent” in a world where sponsorship by a boat company is expected, has one too. After years of competing in gelcoat-challenged boats of various origins, he is enjoying the smell of fresh fiberglass.
Anyone who thinks that Kennedy or Wiggins has been at a disadvantage by competing out of older craft need only look at their tournament results. In fact, Kennedy’s career has been marked by success out of boats of mixed vintage. He won the May 2003 FLW Tour event on Kentucky Lake while fishing out of a 1988 Ranger with a 150 on the back. In his rookie season on that tour, he fished out of an aluminum boat powered by a 50 HP outboard and had a string of BFL-level successes and victories out of that same tin tub. Indeed, by caring less about the cosmetic appearance of his boat and more about how it fished, Kennedy may have been at an advantage over those in the shiny glitter rockets.
After the 2015 Elite Series tournament on the Upper Chesapeake Bay, I asked him why he’d chanced a run up to a boulder-strewn section of the Susquehanna River that week. “A $10,000 check will buy a lot of fiberglass work,” he said. Wiggins had a similar attitude: “I’m not going to be tearing this boat up,” he said. “But I’m going to do what’s necessary to catch fish.”
The point of all of this is not to say that either an older boat or a newer boat provides a distinct advantage or a distinct disadvantage. If you don’t have the skills to be competitive, or the ability to win, no boat, graph or accessory will get you there by itself. On the other hand, if you’re already a hammer like Kennedy or Wiggins with a proven ability to win, some additional speed, reliability or features can take you from good to great.
As he prepares to embark upon his first Elite event at Cherokee, the biggest problem Wiggins has it that the ear-to-ear smile might cause a little bit of extra wind resistance and slow him down by a couple of miles per hour.