When Jesse Wiggins moved to the top of the leaderboard on Friday after Day 2 of the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open No. 3, he told the crowd that “two-thirds of the work is done.”
In the final round of the tournament, Wiggins finished the job.
Wiggins slammed the door on the 11 other competitors who survived the cut to 12 on Smith Lake here in north-central Alabama. He weighed a five-bass limit of 13 pounds, 8 ounces today to give him a three-day total of 39-15.
That was more than enough to earn the 27-year-old Wiggins his second win in three Southern Open tournaments of the season (the first Southern Open on Florida’s Harris Chain of Lakes in January marked his earlier win).
But this victory was especially sweet because it earned the Cullman, Ala., native the rare honor of “triple qualifying” for the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods, which will be held on South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell in March.
Technically, he qualified for the next Classic by winning Opens on both the Harris Chain and on Smith Lake. But Wiggins also finished 37th in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings during his rookie season on the Elite Series, which alone would have been good enough to punch his ticket to the 2018 Classic.
“This is what I dream about every time I go bass fishing,” Wiggins said to a weigh-in crowd that included dozens of family members and friends. “I wanted to win so bad, and now that it’s here, I’m speechless. I just love bass fishing.
“But I really want to hold that trophy,” he said, as he hoisted the Southern Open championship hardware.
Wiggins has fished on Smith since his childhood. He has a deep knowledge of the sometimes-fickle 21,000-acre reservoir and he put it to good use this week.
While many of the 175 pros in the field struggled to even catch a fish during the first two days of competition, Wiggins was steady. He boated a five-bass limit on Thursday that weighed 15-2 and put him only 2 ounces out of first place. Wiggins caught another limit of 11-5 on Friday, and that gave him a 2 1/2-pound edge on the field heading into the final day of competition.
Wiggins’ local smarts were really on display today, as he was one of only four anglers to catch a limit. The others (Justin Lucas, Kyle Monti and Brandon Lester) didn’t have enough weight to vault into the pole position, though Lester did make a move from 12th on Friday to third overall.
Wiggins still won the tournament by more than 5 pounds.
Unseasonably warm temperatures in the low 90s on Thursday and mid to upper 80s on both Friday and today, had some anglers fishing offshore ledges for suspended bass. Wiggins, however, pounded Smith’s shorelines with buzzbaits and worms and looked like a seasoned veteran doing so.
“I started with a black and white Horny Toad first thing in the morning going down the banks and would catch a couple key fish on that,” Wiggins said. “And then in the evenings I would throw a worm; a Shaky Head (green pumpkin) with a Zoom Fluke stick on it around docks. I also threw a Jenko CD Squared some on rocky banks and another unnamed 1.5 crankbait on rocky banks.”
Wiggins said that would have been his usual game plan given the weather conditions on Smith this week. Being on familiar water allowed him to fish more relaxed this week and let instinct guide him.
Still, anytime he competes, Wiggins pushes himself.
“I don’t ever relax because I always want to win,” Wiggins said. “But it was great to have this tournament on Smith. I know the place. I’ve been fortunate.”
The win netted him more than $7,000 in prize money, plus a Skeeter ZX200 and Yamaha SHO 200 boat/motor package for total winnings of more than $50,000.
He also claimed Saturday’s Livingston Lures Day 2 Leader Award of $250 for being the top finishing pro Friday. Finishing as the Day 2 leader on the co-angler side, Todd Lee of Jasper received a Livingston Lures gift pack worth $250.
Brent Crow of Hartselle, Ala., won the $750 Phoenix Boats Big Bass Award on the pro side with a 5-6 largemouth he caught on Thursday. Charles Fochtman of Moneta, Va., weighed in a 4-13 spotted bass to earn the $250 Phoenix Boats Big Bass award on the co-angler side.
Rick Morris of Gaston, Va., won the Power-Pole Captain’s Cash Award of $500 for being the highest-placing angler who is registered and eligible and uses a client-approved product on his boat.
Five anglers qualified for 2018 Elite Series by virtue of their point totals in the 2017 Southern Opens. They are Kyle Monti, Hunter Shryock, Bill Weidler, Morris and Shin Fukae. Justin Lucas and Marty Robinson were among the Top 5 in Southern Opens points, but are already qualified for the Elite Series.
Benjie Seaborn of Guin, Ala., won the co-angler division. He boated a three-bass limit that weighed 10-10 (the heaviest co-angler bag of the week) and that gave him a three-day total of 20-15. Seaborn, who fished with Morris today, earned a Triton 179 TrX boat and Mercury 115 ELPT 4-stroke motor with the win.