By Todd Ceisner
Don’t count Jesse Wiggins among those pro anglers who after the season feels the need to “unplug” from fishing and stay off the water to recharge. Nope, he actually fishes more.
Wiggins’ Bass Pro Tour season ended on June 27 after failing to advance out of the Group A Shotgun Round at Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. In the almost three months since, he’s continued to fish competitively whenever he can, dipping into a slew of local tournaments at Smith Lake near his home in Addison, Ala. He’s won a couple daytime events and his success rate in evening or nighttime derbies has been more hit or miss.
While his struggles during the first BPT season were certainly frustrating at times, they did nothing to quell his flat-out love for bass fishing.
“I just love fishing and Smith is the closest lake to my house, so I can be there in 10 or 15 minutes,” Wiggins said. “It’s not like the fishing has been spectacular, but I always know I can catch some. It wouldn’t matter if there weren’t any tournaments, I still would’ve gone. I just love catching ‘em. It’s just more fun if there’s something on the line.”
There wasn’t much to love about how Wiggins started the BPT season as he failed to make the Knockout Round in any of the first three tournaments. The low point came at Lake Conroe, where he zeroed in five of the six periods he competed in and wound up finishing 80th.
As the calendar turned to April, though, Wiggins began to show signs of catching on to the MLF format and catching up to his competitors. He made the KO Round in four straight events, highlighted by a ninth-place finish at the second Table Rock Lake stop, and wound up 51st in points.
“I stunk it up in the first half and then finally started catching some later on,” Wiggins said. “Those first (few) tournaments, I couldn’t get it figured out. It wouldn’t have mattered if they had been five-fish, 10-fish or everything counts (formats), I just didn’t catch anything.”
Finally Found Footing
Wiggins wasn’t quite sure where to lay the blame for his early-season struggles. Possibly, it had to do with adjusting to a totally new format as he had zero previous experience in MLF events. Another factor he floated were the venues and the timing of the tournaments, especially the season opener at the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes and Conroe.
“At Conroe, I just wasn’t around any fish. I laughed it off because I knew how bad that lake is,” he said, noting that Brandon Palaniuk also zeroed for an entire day there. “You can miss them there because there are just not very many bass in that lake. It was a similar deal in the (2017 Bassmaster) Classic there. I knew it was possible and I tried my best to not do it again.”
He posted a third-place finish in the Classic at the Tennessee River in March, but placed 65th in Raleigh, N.C., when the BPT schedule resumed 10 days later. Understandably, his frustration began to build, but he didn’t have any second thoughts about his decision to leave B.A.S.S. for MLF’s new circuit. His turnaround began at Lake Chickamauga, where he finished 30th and cashed his first MLF check.
“I never had any regrets, but I knew had to do something different,” he said. “I also knew some of the lakes weren’t good. With Toho, you had to be there at right time and if you miss it by a week, it’s not great. At Chickamauga, I caught tons of them, but figured I had to wait my turn. I don’t have a lot of experience on those lakes, so figuring it out in 1 1/2 days, I couldn’t get it done.”
Moving forward, Wiggins says he needs to focus more on finding areas that have multiple groups of fish in them. Gone are the days where a couple bites here and there will keep him in contention. He said his strategy and decision making will be much different in 2020.
“I don’t think I’m comfortable even now,” he said. “I ;ove the format but with the ScoreTracker, you’re not allowed to be comfortable. Nothing is ever enough until you’ve doubled the weight of the guy on the cut line.
“In a five-fish event, you can shake off two on a stretch and be fine. In this format, you can’t survive. A couple bites won’t cut it. You have to figure out what’s going on. I feel like I got better at it, but I don’t know if it was just lakes that fit my style and I figured it out quicker or I figured it out. Now that we have had a season, even if it’s tough to get a bite, you get a feel for how many bass these guys actually catch.”
The one event Wiggins had highlighted on the schedule was the late April stop at Smith Lake in his backyard. Many of his competitors figured Wiggins would be a factor from start to finish and his 72-pound Shotgun Round proved them right. After finishing atop Group B in the Elimination Round, Wiggins struggled in the Knockout Round as he vied for a top-10 finish and a spot in the Championship Round.
He managed just seven fish and none weighed more than 1-11. He finished a distant 38th and came away bitterly disappointed.
“It was no doubt disappointing,” he said. “That last day was one of the worst days I’ve had on Smith. I could go out there right now in the blazing heat and catch seven bass.”
In retrospect, he says he took a Shotgun Round mentality into the KO Round and it worked against him.
“I was fishing to blow it out like the first day and I kept fishing stuff where I could blow it away on one or two spots,” he said. “Then we got word the day was going to be shortened [due to weather], but even until the last 20 minutes I thought I’d run into them. I just never did.
“You don’t get many chances to win $100,000 and I thought this was my time. … It was one of those days. I don’t know if I could ever go out there again and catch just seven. I’ll never let that happen again (if we go back). I won’t make those mistakes again.”
Several days after the tournament, Wiggins and his girlfriend hit the lake for some fun fishing. She insisted they check the areas he had fished during the tournament. He was convinced the fish had moved on.
“We went over there and caught them nonstop for an hour,” he said. “I had to sit down because I was about to be sick.”