Matt Lee was the youngest and the only full-time college student in a field of 53 anglers who competed for the $500,000 first place prize in the 43rd Bassmaster Classic. Aside from fishing in frostbite weather against 52 human ospreys – being there was the easy part. Getting there was far tougher.
Not only did the 24-year old engineering major from Auburn have to climb past hundreds of other college kids in the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series elimination style format, but to a bitter end –and a hint of Cain and Abel– the last man Matt had to beat en route to the Bassmatser Classic was his own bass-obeseseed younger brother, Jordan Lee.
The bittersweet story is well documented. The deep connectedness of the Lee family is not, but in the pre-dawn darkness of a 25-degree morning at the Bassmaster Classic it began to reveal itself.
In a hotel lobby in downtown Tulsa preparing to share a 90-mile boat-towing ride up the interstate to Grand Lake was Matt and his father Bruce, a generous and personable veterinarian wearing Carhartt dungarees and a duck jacket atop a mix of preacher-like calmness and the dad we’d all love to call our own.
A diabetic, the younger Lee finishes a self-injection, takes a swig of Diet Coke, compliments it with a granola bar, and after hitching the Triton to his Tacoma, crawls into the cab where dad has the heater cranked, and Brad Paisley’s “Southern Comfort Zone” is playing. “That’s appropriate,” says Matt of a song whose lyrics seem written to calm the nerves of a young amateur in a sea of seasoned veterans.
Anticipation won’t allow for sleep, but instead out-loud reflection of the road that led to this morning’s cold dark highway. “Like a lot of kids we started fishing in a farm pond, but when dad customized a 12’ jon boat for Jordan and I to fish tournaments at Lake Catoma, that’s when it started to get serious,” says Matt. “It had an 8-horse engine and a 100-gallon cooler for a livewell.”
Quickly, Dad deflects credit to the boy’s mother, Leigh. “The boys involvement in competitive fishing is 100-percent due to their mother hauling them everywhere they wanted to go, and jerking on their ears when they acted-up. It’s a wonder they don’t look like bloodhounds, as many times as she tugged on their ears,” he jokes with total truth, and a reference to the veterinarian world he loves.
Nearly to Grand Lake, at 4:35 a.m., Matt’s elbow rests on his dad’s shoulder, a connectedness rich with love and respect, and body language to say “I’m just glad you’re here, Dad” before turning his thoughts to fishing.
“I know the bass are eating big gizzard shad, but I can’t get them to bite a swimbait – all my bites are coming on either a jerkbait or a jig. I just have to be myself. Fish the only way I know how.” says Matt.
Once at the ramp, Dad takes off the crunchy frost-covered boat tarp, as Matt adds layers of clothes and prepares to launch. “Dad hauled wood shavings to chicken houses to pay for his college education. He was a worker. Me and Jordan run around burning high-dollar fuel out of bass boats,” says Matt with mature perspective to indicate he’s nearly embarrassed by how hard his dad has worked to give he and Jordan the chance to realize their dreams.
Matt launches and makes his way to a boat dock where television crews wait to climb in his boat and wire him-up for audio to compliment the day they’ll spend filming him, but Matt’s just as concerned about talking to his mom, dad, Jordan, girlfriend Katie, and Nessie the family dog, who’s dressed in Auburn colors and trying not to let the pads of her feet stick to the frozen dock.
Matt’s day on the water is a struggle, and the second day falls short of his angling hopes too, in turn eliminating him from the third and final day of competition, which he spends signing autographs inside the consumer outdoor show.
All is kept in perspective. No big heads. And a forever grateful appreciation for the chance to fish in bass fishing’s biggest event among heroes, with memories of a 12-foot jon boat on Lake Catoma never far away. “Some folks think I’ve spoiled my sons by buying them boats and trucks, but really I’ve tried hard not to spoil them,” says Dr. Lee.
“I know Matt’s my son, but really, truly, I’m not sure you could find a more humble, even-keeled individual to be in this position this week. And we as a family really appreciate everything the fishing industry has done to support he and Jordan. I know this … my boys could be involved in way worse things … but it’s hard for young guys to act foolish when they have to get up at 4:00 a.m. to go fishing, and with a momma like Leigh tugging on their ears.”