GAINESVILLE, Ga. – After a grueling, five-event 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Southern Tour schedule, three pros emerged with what most bass anglers consider to be the ultimate prize: a chance to become the next CITGO Bassmaster Classic champion.

James Niggemeyer, 34, of Lindale, Texas; Tom Hamlin, 50, of Lizella, Ga.; and Boyd Duckett, 46, of Demopolis, Ala.; earned the first three of 50 berths to be awarded for the 2007 CITGO Bassmaster Classic on Lay Lake in Birmingham, Ala., Feb. 23-25.

The three Southern Tour pros will join another 47 as-yet-undetermined qualifiers in the battle for the Classic title and winner’s prize of $500,000.

“This has been a dream of mine since I started competitive fishing,” said a stunned Niggemeyer when he realized he’d qualified for the Classic. “I am truly elated at the thought.”

Southern Tour pros opened the season in January on Lake Okeechobee in Florida, then went on to Sam Rayburn Reservoir in Texas, Santee Cooper Reservoir in South Carolina and Lake Eufaula in Alabama before closing the season on Saturday at Lake Lanier in Georgia.

Anglers accumulated points at each event. Each competitor’s lowest finish was dropped before the final points standings were calculated late Saturday after the Lake Lanier event’s conclusion. The top three earned Classic berths. The top five qualified to compete in the 2007 CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series.

Niggemeyer, a full-time guide on Texas’ Lake Fork, won the Southern Tour points race with a total of 1,121 points. At one time during the season he led the points standings. He slid into the No. 2 spot after the Lake Eufaula event, but his season-long consistency led him to a Classic debut.

His record on the Tour trail proves he is Classic and Elite material: fourth at Lake Okeechobee, ninth at Sam Rayburn, first at Santee Cooper, and 11th at Lake Eufaula. The final stretch on his road to the Classic was a bit rocky — he finished 28th at Lake Lanier — but because his worst finish was dropped, his Classic berth and Elite qualification were secured.

“Making a living at professional bass fishing is something I’ve always wanted,” said Niggemeyer. “My goal this year was to qualify for the Elite Series — and now I’ve made the Classic.”

Unlike the other two qualifiers, Hamlin is no stranger to the CITGO Bassmaster Classic. The 2007 Classic will be his second; his first was in 2003 on the Louisiana Delta, where he finished 25th.

“The average fisherman likes to see an ‘average Joe’ like me do well,” said Hamlin, who owns a marketing company in the shooting sports industry. “My personal goal was to make the Classic and compete against the world’s best. To compete against those guys will be a thrill.”

With two top-10 finishes, Hamlin’s Tour season shaped up well. His best finish was fourth on Sam Rayburn. He followed it up with a 26th place finish on Santee Cooper, a fifth on Lake Eufaula and a 10th on Lake Lanier. His lowest finish of 44th on Lake Okeechobee was dropped and he ended up with a total of 1046 points.

Duckett ranked third in Southern Tour points with 1,035, just edging Elite Series pro Terry Scroggins by seven points.

Duckett, who also fishes the CITGO Bassmaster Northern Tour, had a solid Southern Tour season. He was 18th at Sam Rayburn, third at Santee Cooper, eighth at Lake Eufaula and 21st at Lake Lanier. His lowest finish, 53rd on Lake Okeechobee, was dropped.

“This is what I fished for all season,” said Duckett, who owns a company that leases chemical-tank trailers. “The Classic is an unusual way to start off my season in the Elite Series, but I’m ready.”

The points contest went down to the wire. Scroggins of Palatka, Fla., led in Southern Tour points heading into the Lake Lanier event. But after finishing 57th at Lanier, he ended in fourth place with 1,028 points, just shy of landing a Classic spot through the Tour.

Another Elite Series pro, Chris Lane of Winter Haven, Fla., was third in the Southern Tour points standings going into the Lanier event. His 70th place finish on Lanier didn’t help his bid to score a Classic berth via the Tour; he ended in sixth with 996 points.

Elite Series Qualifiers

While earning a place in the Classic was the top goal of many Southern Tour pros, many also aimed to be one of the five who qualified to enter the 2007 CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series. Hitting the mark for the first time — besides Niggemeyer, Duckett and Hamlin — was Cliff Pace of Petal, Miss.

Southern Tour anglers who just missed the cut to qualify for the Elite Series — that is, those who finished in sixth through 25th place — can compete in the wildcard qualifier on the Harris Chain of Lakes in Leesburg, Fla., Nov. 16-18. They will be up against other pros who did not qualify for the Elite Series through the BASS circuit they fished in 2006. The prizes are the final 10 spots in the Elite Series of 2007.

Also eligible for the wildcard qualifier will be CITGO Bassmaster Northern Tour anglers who finish their season in sixth through 25th place. Two more events remain in the Northern Tour: Lake Erie, Oct. 5-7, and Smith Mountain Lake, Oct. 26-28. After the Smith Mountain event, three more Classic berths will be filled and five more Tour pros will qualify to become Elite anglers.

But the next set of Classic qualifiers will be determined after the final CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series event of the season, The Rock presented by TheraSeed on Table Rock Lake, Sept. 14-17, in Kimberling City, Mo. The results of The Rock will determine which 37 Elite Series pros go to the 2007 Classic.

Co-anglers: Another Set of Winners

The conclusion of the 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Southern Tour also produced another set of winners. The five co-anglers at the top of their division’s points standings earned entry fees into either the Southern or Northern Tour circuit. They were Mark Richard of Bridge City, La., 1,122 points; Howard Stephens of Columbia, S.C., 994 points; Bradley Dortch of Bay Minette, Ala., 948 points; Robert Dice of Florida, 911 points; and John Moon of Michigan, 901 points.

Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Toyota, Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Berkley, Lowrance Electronics, MotorGuide, Advance Auto Parts and Theraseed®.

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