Fishing for a college team gave Bassmaster Elite Series rookie Brandon Lester the opportunity to compete at the national level before he turned pro.
The Tennessee angler has always aspired to become a professional fisherman. “I grew up watching guys like Roland Martin, Bill Dance and Jimmy Houston, and I knew at a fairly young age that this was something I wanted to do for a living,” said the 25-year-old Lester.
When he was 16 years old, Lester won the first tournament he ever competed in while fishing with his boss at Tims Ford Lake. The local derby was a Friday night open tournament that drew nine boats.
Lester teamed up with his high school friend, Robby Crosslin, next and started fishing competitively in two independent bass clubs. “We started having a lot of success,” Lester recalls. “We went to community college together and then went to UT (University of Tennessee)-Chattanooga and fished there at the collegiate level together.”
The UT-Chattanooga duo competed in the Southern Collegiate Bass Fishing Series in 2009, the FLW College Series in 2010 and the Tennessee Collegiate Bass Fishing Trail (TCBFT) of the Cabela’s Collegiate Bass Fishing circuit in 2010. “We had some good finishes,” Lester said. “We never really did win anything major but we got on TV a couple of times, which was pretty cool.”
With Crosslin serving as the boater, the duo finished fourth in the 2009 Southern Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship on Wilson Lake. They placed eighth in a 2010 FLW College Fishing event at Pickwick Lake and finished third in a TCBFT qualifier at Tims Ford Lake in 2010. That same year they qualified for the BoatU.S. Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship and placed 28th out of 138 teams.
When he met his future wife Emily in 2011, Lester got homesick and decided to drop out of college. “I had to drive back and forth from Chattanooga to home (in Fayetteville, Tenn.) to see her, and I actually stepped away from college to pursue my fishing career,” said Lester. Since he was only a couple of semesters short of graduating with a marketing degree, Lester gambled on starting his fishing career then and getting his college degree later.
So Lester jumped into the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Opens as a boater in 2012. “I thought about doing it as a co-angler, but I really felt like once I got in there and got comfortable I could compete as a boater,” Lester said. “I just wanted to try my hand at that for a couple of years and see how it went.”
The first year didn’t go all that well. Lester's best finish was 37th in the Southern Open finale at Smith Lake. “One big lesson I have learned is every time I made a jump from the club level to the collegiate level to the Opens and now to the Elites, it takes a little bit of time to get adjusted and really kind of find my place and get comfortable,” said Lester who advises other aspiring anglers to avoid getting discouraged by slow starts. “You are fishing against a whole different class of guys at each level.”
Lester apparently got real comfortable in 2013 as he finished at the top of the Southern Division point standings and was invited to join the Elite Series. He racked up three solid performances in last year’s Opens — third at Lake Tohopekaliga, 15th at Douglas Lake and 16th at Logan Martin. He also qualified for the 2013 Bassmaster Classic Wild Card event on Lake Okeechobee where he finished 22nd.
The Tennessee pro considers himself a shallow-water angler. “Anytime I can get up on the bank and fish shallow, I really feel at home,” he said. His successes on his home waters of Tims Ford Lake and the TVA lakes of Wheeler, Wilson and Pickwick helped pave his way to the Elite Series.