By Todd Ceisner
The kitchen and dining room blended together nicely at the rental house on the shores of Smith Lake. The aroma from the barbecue dinner lingered in the air. Most everyone had scattered to their rooms, but still seated around the dining room table were established pros (and Alabama residents) Matt Herren, Russ Lane and Scott Canterbury, along with former FLW Tour competitor Brent Crow and Opens angler Jimmy Mason, who now works for T-H Marine.
The conversation topics ran the gamut and often touched on issues affecting the sport at the pro level. They also told tales of tournament experiences they’d had. It was the ultimate "bull session."
Seated on a kitchen stool a few feet away and leaning his elbow on the kitchen island was Jesse Wiggins, a local angler from nearby Cullman, who’d won the Smith Lake Southern Open earlier this year and qualified for the Elite Series for a second time. He was soaking up the scene, observing and listening to everything being said. He never once injected himself into the conversation. He was a curious observer, a sponge of sorts.
“I was just sitting around listening,” Wiggins would say later. “I didn’t know any of those guys hardly.”
Soon, he hopes, they’ll get to know him through his performance on the water.
For Wiggins, who also answers to “Crank,” 2017 will be an incredibly important year. Not only will he get to compete at the sport’s marquee event, he’s decided to see how he stacks up against Elite Series competition. He will be one of 11 rookies on the circuit next year after qualifying through the Southern Opens. He previously qualified for the 2015 Elites Series through the 2014 Southern Opens, but financial limitations kept him from committing.
“At that point, I’d only had a boat with a depthfinder and GPS on it for 2 years,” Wiggins said.
By then, anglers around Alabama were well aware of Wiggins, whose nickname has followed him around since a childhood mishap with a crankbait.
“I was playing on the porch when I was 5 and I stepped on a crankbait and it got hung in my foot,” he said. “When we got to the ER, my dad said, ‘I guess we’ll call you crankbait from now on.’”
It’s stuck ever since.
“Even my teachers at school called me that,” he added. “There are some guys I’ve fished against that don’t even know my real name – they just know me as ‘Crank.’”
Fishing in his Blood
Wiggins was born and raised in Cullman and can’t remember a time when fishing wasn’t a part of his daily life.
When he was younger, his mom had a job painting houses around Smith Lake and he would tag along and fish off the boat docks of the houses she was working at.
“The biggest spot I’ve ever caught was on one of those days,” he said.
As he and brother Jordan, who’s 18 months younger, got older, they were introduced to fishing tournaments. They’d fish any chance they got, whether from shore or with their dad, uncle or grandfather, almost always at Smith Lake.
“Dad had us fishing from the youngest age I can remember,” he said. “He fished tournaments, but once my brother and I got involved, we took it to a whole new level.
“Our house was five minutes from the water. We’d drive our 4-wheelers down to the water or fish out of the pond we had. Once we realized we could make money fishing, there was no doubt in my mind what I wanted to do.”
Been a Struggle
Wiggins is not shy about talking about how challenging his pursuit of sponsorship for next season has been. He’s been qualified for the Elite Series since May and he thought having some additional time to secure support would give him a leg up on other Open qualifiers. Not so.
“It’s been the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “At times it feels like my email address doesn’t work. I knew it would be like this, though. I wasn’t blind to the fact, but I didn’t realize I wouldn’t get a response out of people.”
Wiggins says he doesn’t have a strong network of contacts in the industry, but he figured with an Open victory, a Classic berth and having twice qualified for the Elite Series to his credit he’d have found a more fertile environment.
“For one, I’ve never looked for sponsors so I’ve never had my foot in any doors,” he said. “Calling people blind is almost impossible.”
He listed T-H Marine Products, Lowrance and Jenko Fishing as companies that have lent support, but the sponsor hunt has made him yearn for the start of the season.
“As far as the process goes, I’m ready to start fishing because I’m tired of doing all of this,” he added. “I knew it’d all be on my shoulders. That’s why I’m ready to get it started to see if I can do it or not.”
Ready To Get Started
When Wiggins would prepare for an Open, he’d limit himself to 2 1/2 to 3 days of practice, which is what the Elite Series practice sessions are. He hasn’t previously been to any of the venues on this year’s schedule, but that doesn’t bother him. Before he started fishing the Opens, he hadn’t fished outside of Alabama.
“It doesn’t scare me,” he said. “I should be able to figure something out. Don’t get me wrong, I would love one to be on Smith or Neely Henry, but it doesn’t worry me, though. I feel like if I catch them, I earned it. I’m not scared, but excited to learn to see if I can compete on a lake I’ve never been to.
“I’m good enough at studying and will have a decent game plan going into them. In the Opens, it didn’t bother me knowing people were down there for a week because in those tournaments, you only need to catch them for 2 days.”
Wiggins is eager to get the 2017 season started, but he admits the fact that he’ll be part of the Classic field at Lake Conroe in March hasn’t totally sunk in yet.
“When I won at Smith, I know how hard it is to beat those locals,” he said. “It felt like I really won something equivalent to the Classic. It felt so good.
“I know I’m going to the Classic but I’m trying to keep a level head and know I need to catch them at the first two. I’m just looking forward to getting to fish. I’ve had zero luck in the sponsor department so the only thing there is for me to do is catch them and promote who I have and do the best I can with that.”
> Wiggins and his brother, Jordan, are competing at the Toyota Bonus Bucks Bassmaster Team Championships this week at Kentucky Lake. If Jordan wins, he'll join Jesse in the Classic field.