MANNING, S.C. – It’s always been a dream of Texan James Niggemeyer to fish in the CITGO Bassmaster Classic and to compete in the top level of Bassmaster competition, the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series. If the 34-year-old can continue his recent success on the CITGO Bassmaster Southern Tour — he is currently leading the all-important points race — that dream soon will become reality.

With one competition day to go, the West-Coast transplant sits atop the Santee Cooper Tour standings with 50 pounds, 6 ounces — a commanding lead of 8-plus pounds over Alabama pro Boyd Duckett (42-5).

“I’m speechless at the thought of finishing the Tour well and qualifying for the Classic and the Elite Series,” said Niggemeyer, who moved from Glendale, Calif., to Lindale, Texas. “That would be a dream come true. Winning a Bassmaster event on top of all that would be icing on the cake.”

The top-five points leaders from each Tour automatically qualify for the Elite Series and the top three from each Tour also qualify for the 2007 CITGO Bassmaster Classic — accomplishments well within Niggemeyer’s reach if he can stay on the fast track he’s created for himself.

Starting with an ESPN Outdoors Bassmaster Series Tournament win on Red River in Louisiana late last year, Niggemeyer has been red-hot, registering two top-10 finishes on the first two Tour events of 2006.

At the Santee Cooper event, Niggemeyer has fished areas unique to the rest of the field, primarily keying in on vegetation. Although heavy boat traffic has been a hitch in many contenders’ game plans, including Niggemeyer’s, he continues to persevere.

Two days in a row, he has had a banner day despite starting with limited expectations. He is using a soft plastic bait produced by Lake Fork Trophy Bait and Tackle, which is near Lake Fork, his current hometown lake.

“Looking at my weights, it would seem like I am on a pile of fish,” Niggemeyer said. “But I only caught six keepers today and I feel blessed to be getting the big bites I have been getting.”

On Saturday, Niggemeyer said, he will have to search for new water because the weather forecast calls for heavy thunderstorms to pound the reservoir. If past performance is any indication, Niggemeyer will be able to find productive water.

Considering that Niggemeyer is not on a solid pattern, first-day leader Duckett could pull out a win with a magical day Saturday. Although the superstitious Duckett attributed much of his Thursday success to a pair of “lucky” bright-red athletic shoes, the Demopolis, Ala., pro said he will dig out a pair of sneakers he reserves for final days of competition. He apparently lost confidence in the red shoes after a disappointing Friday catch of 13 pounds, 3 ounces.

“Gerald Swindle says they look like 1963 Corvettes,” Duckett said, referring to what the quotable Elite pro said about his final-day shoes. “To tell you the truth, I wish I did a better job today, but tomorrow is another day and I will swing for the fences tomorrow.”

Much like Niggemeyer, Duckett, who owns a tanker-truck leasing business, said he will have to start over Saturday in his search for productive waters. The threatening weather conditions will force him to key in on extremely shallow water, he added, in an attempt to salvage a sight-bite.

“I have a shot and I’m certainly happy about that,” Duckett said. “Hopefully, I can find some nice areas and take this thing home tomorrow.”

Tour contenders have run into a bit of a down period on Santee Cooper Reservoir. Just last week, records were shattered at the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series event, but with the lack of the spawning wave that hit for the Elite tournament and increasingly difficult weather conditions, the Tour pros have been unable to locate large bedding fish.

Rounding out Day 2’s top five pros were two South Carolina anglers, Cecil Wolfe (41-4) and Jason Williamson (41-1). In fifth is Mississippi’s Cliff Pace (39-11).

Purolator Big Bass honors were captured Friday by pro Craig Dowling of Many, La., with his 9-5 bass; and by co-angler Vernon Silver of Boutte, La., whose single fish Friday was a 5-14.

With a two-day total of 12 pounds, 6 ounces, Silver is leading on the co-angler side, where a Triton boat package valued at $30,000 is at stake. Two Palmetto State anglers, Glenn Kimbrell (11-5) and Billy Schwach (10-0), trail Silver.

For Saturday’s competition — the event’s final day — the field was cut to the top 50. Pros are fishing for a total purse of $324,650 and co-anglers are competing for $68,880. The champion pro will take home a fully rigged Triton boat valued at $45,000, plus $30,000 in cash. The champion co-angler will receive a Triton boat valued at $30,000.

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