With the Bassmaster Elite at Cherokee Lake having reached its halfway point, a trio of Elite Series newcomers are sitting atop the standings with a chance to make their mark on the trail very early in the season.
Jesse Wiggins of Cullman, Ala., came to eastern Tennessee this week, having already won two Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens in the past 10 months. Now, after catching 35 pounds, 15 ounces the first two days, Wiggins is leading his first-ever Elite Series event with a 1-6 advantage over Indiana pro Jacob Wheeler — a newcomer to the Elite Series who doesn’t qualify as a rookie because of his past career earnings on other trails.
Wiggins has relied on one incredible spot the first two days — and probably hasn’t spent more than three hours fishing it in 16 total hours of competition.
“I was done a little after 9 a.m. today,” said Wiggins, who has been catching big limits off the spot early and then ceasing fishing in hopes of “saving” more bass to catch on the remaining days of the tournament. “After that, I just backed off it and kept guarding it.”
The place is easy enough to guard, considering how small it is.
“It’s only about the size of three boats,” said Wiggins, who caught 19-1 Thursday and 16-14 Friday. “It’s just a hole in a pocket that stuck out like a sore thumb on a map. I can’t believe no one else found it.”
Wiggins said he had a tough time locating fish in practice because the lake is so full of rocks, and it can sometimes be hard to differentiate between fish and rocks on his depthfinder. But his magic spot has nothing but a clay bottom, and that makes the fish easy to see.
“I just go around in circles until I see one — and then I know it’s a fish, so I just drop down to it,” Wiggins said. “The fishing was a little slower this morning, and it took me a little longer to get a limit. But every time I set the hook on one, it was a 3-pounder.”
Wheeler began the day on a sour note, realizing he had lost about half of the waypoints he marked during practice on Cherokee because of a glitch in his GPS system. But once he moved past the shock, he managed to find enough of his good spots to catch 16-15.
“It was just a jacked-up deal,” Wheeler said. “Sometimes you just have issues like that. I learned a valuable lesson — now I know I need to have an extra card for my depthfinder with me at all times, even right before the tournament.”
Wheeler said he benefitted greatly from “sneak holes” — inconspicuous areas that were being overlooked by many anglers.
“I’m not just fishing points or flats or big areas,” Wheeler said. “I’m fishing little subtle places on those bigger areas where, if you find fish, you’re going to get bit.
“Today, I felt like the experience I’ve gained on this lake just allowed me to pull it together at the end.”
Jamie Hartman of Newport, N.Y., who is designated an Elite Series rookie, has a lot of experience fishing for smallmouth bass. Many people assumed he would feel right at home fishing deep water for smallies this week.
He said that hasn’t been the case.
“The kind of fishing I’m doing this week — I’ve never even seen this kind of fishing,” Hartman said. “The structure that’s here is awesome, but I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
So why has he been able to catch 17-10 and 16-13 the first two days?
“I went in with a game plan that they’re wintering fish, and they were going to be deep,” Hartman said. “That’s the way I’ve been fishing. It’s worked so far, but who knows how long it will hold up.”
Minnesota angler Seth Feider is in fourth place with 33-11, and Tennessee pro David Mullins is fifth with 33-10.
The tournament will resume at 7:15 a.m. ET Saturday with the Top 51 remaining anglers taking off from Cherokee Lake Dam and TVA Boat Ramp. The weigh-in will be held at the Knoxville Convention Center at 4 p.m.
The field will be trimmed to the Top 12 after Saturday’s round, with those anglers vying for the $100,000 first-place prize Sunday.
Randall Tharp of Port St. Joe, Fla., is in the lead for the Phoenix Boats Big Bass award with a 5-5 largemouth.
The event is hosted by the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County and Visit Knoxville.
2017 Bassmaster Elite Series Platinum Sponsor: Toyota
2017 Bassmaster Elite Series Premier Sponsors: Nitro Boats, Skeeter Boats, Triton Boats, Shell Rotella, Humminbird, Mercury, Minn Kota, Power-Pole, Yamaha, Berkley, Huk
2017 Bassmaster Elite Series Supporting Sponsors: Carhartt, Dick Cepek Tires & Wheels, Lowrance, Phoenix Boats, Shimano, Livingston Lures, T-H Marine, Academy Sports + Outdoors