To the last man, to the last moment, he didn’t expect to outpace his mentors, but he did. He embraced his family on the biggest stage in competitive bass fishing. Then his mother choked back tears and touched hearts throughout Houston’s Minute Maid Park, and across the country, with her own announcement.
“Every parent out here knows what it means to watch your child’s dreams come true,” she said. “Jordan Lee just won the Bassmaster Classic.”
Lee, 25, of Guntersville, Alabama, rose quickly into the pro circuits after winning on the B.A.S.S. college circuit just four years ago. Sunday, fishing his third Classic, he wowed the crowd as he vaulted from a soul-crushing 37th place after the first day to hoisting the coveted 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic trophy and landing a $300,000 payday.
Lee was the favorite underdog but unlikely winner given his status on the leaderboard as the sun rose over Lake Conroe, about an hour north of Houston. He was in 15th place and nearly 14 pounds behind Brent Ehrler of California. The successful former FLW Tour pro and Forrest Wood Cup champion led the tournament the first two days and seemed unstoppable. This would be Lee’s first-ever pro tour win, and ahead of him were Ehrler and champions representing six Classic championships and dozens of tour wins; names like Kevin Van Dam, Michael Iaconelli, and defending 2016 Classic champion Edwin Evers.
“I felt like if I caught thirty to thirty-five pounds, which sounds ridiculous . . . that there would have been a chance,” Lee told the press corps after his win.
He continued, intending a compliment but throwing the room of reporters into laughter, by saying, “Ehrler, Evers, I mean, those guys had twenty pounds a day. You would surely think that somebody would catch—something.”
His win fit the narrative of the week, however, as a tough-fishing lake under weather that changed daily set a scenario for a topsy-turvy leaderboard. Going in, most anglers predicted a winning total weight between 60 and 65 pounds, with the champ perhaps catching something in the teens one day, near 20 the next, and then someone, somewhere in the field, would top off the tournament with a huge bag of fish between 25 and 30 pounds.
Second-place finisher Steve Kennedy—literally a mentor to Lee as he came up through the Auburn University bass club—fell only two pounds short as he caught bags of 17 pounds, 15 pounds, and 21 pounds for a total of 55 pounds and 1 ounce.
With the exception of Ehrler, Evers, and Iaconelli, anglers could not find consistent limits of five bass in that 20-pound range in spite of Lake Conroe’s reputation as a home to double-digit bucket mouths. Ehrler launched into the lead on day one courtesy of the biggest bass of the tournament, which rolled across the scales at 9 pounds, 12 ounces.
Even Lee admitted he ended up with an unintentional advantage on Sunday because he truly believed he had no chance to win. That attitude allowed him to relax, fish slowly, and just let the bites come.
“I mean on the first day I only had 8 pounds, and by noon on day two I still hadn’t caught another fish,” he said. “Think about that.”
On Saturday he had still only caught four fish, but they were big ones worth 21 pounds that afforded him his title shot on Sunday.
Unlikely events led to his impossible win. On that second day he was warm, and he let his line sit as he removed his jacket. He picked up his rod and a bass was on it. That told him he needed to slow down and let his football jig tipped with a Rage Craw and a Space Monkey for a trailer soak a bit longer each cast. He also found the right spot: a hard, rocky surface at the entrance to a cove about six feet deep. He said he is never the angler who finds “that one right spot.”
In fact, during practice and on the first day of the tournament, his winning spot produced little or nothing. On Sunday that all changed. He brought five fish to the scales that totaled 27 pounds, 4 ounces, becoming the one to land the big bag everyone talked about.
He posted a three-day total of 56-10, and one by one he watched his mentors fall short of that 60-pound mark they had predicted. VanDam only needed 21 pounds to win, but he caught only four fish for 9-15. Iaconelli needed 19 pounds to win but caught just two fish worth 10-15. Evers needed 17 pounds to win, but he only caught two fish for 6-11. Ehrler could have won with 13 pounds, 7 ounces. He caught five bass, but they totaled only 11 pounds, 10 ounces, and that sealed Lee’s victory.
With his hometown high school bass team cheering from the stands and his family on the stage, the kid who four years ago was a Carhartt College B.A.S.S. standout lifted bass fishing’s most coveted trophy over his head and became the newest mentor on the Bassmaster tour.