Wong’s wild start to bass fishing

Matty Wong of California when he finished 3rd in the TNT Fireworks 2021 B.A.S.S. Nation Western Regional on Lake Havasu.

(Editor’s note: Matty Wong won the TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Championship on Nov. 5, 2021 qualifying him for the Bassmaster Elite Series and the Bassmaster Classic. Below is the story of his life written earlier this year.)

Matty Wong is a 32-year-old angler fishing from a 31-year-old bass boat.

Unconventional, perhaps, but little about Wong, starting with his home state of Hawaii, says “standard issue competitive bass angler.”

Wong impressed friends and family with the angling skills he learned growing up on the island of Oahu, but he was equally adept at spear fishing and surfing. The latter two pursuits might seem like exotic pastimes to some, but they’re tame compared to freediving — literally a breathtaking challenge that involves plunging dozens of yards underwater and remaining there for minutes at a time without the aid of scuba gear.

Someone who enjoys that kind of thrill might seem better suited for a newer, faster bass boat, but there’s a story behind the old Ranger 365V Comanche that binds Wong to his formative years. He hears echoes of the past when he starts the 150 horsepower, 2-stroke Yamaha outboard, and he sees it in the relatively primitive blips of his 15-year-old Lowrance.

Wong almost won the TNT Fireworks 2021 B.A.S.S. Nation Western Regional from the bow of his Ranger early in February on Lake Havasu. After leading Day 1 of the tournament, he slipped to third overall, but still qualified for the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship which will be held later this year on a fishery yet to be disclosed.

For Wong, that showing was confirmation he belongs. His journey has been about geography in a sense, since he relocated from Oahu to the Los Angeles area in 2013 to pursue work as an actor and musician. But it’s been an emotional and spiritual trip, as well, as he finally taps into the promise he first showed as a young angler two and a half decades ago, and two and a half thousand miles away.

Matty Wong as a kid with a tilapia he caught on Hawaii’s Lake Wilson.

Sharpening skills

The Ranger Wong fishes from has been sort of a metaphorical bridge between present and past. Its previous owner is an important link to Wong’s time in both Hawaii and California.

The boat first belonged to Bob Grbac, who made an immediate impression on young Matty when he visited the Wongs in Hawaii in the 1990s. Grbac was fishing buddies with Matty’s father, Jordan, when the men attended the University of Southern California, and they maintained the friendship when Jordan moved back home.

Matty adopted his dad’s love for fishing, and he showed skills that often belied his youth. Grbac was a believer when he saw the 8-year-old deftly handle a spinning rod and baitcaster while bank fishing for tilapia and red devil cichlids. A few years later, he was there when Matty started hooking peacock bass on Lake Wilson at the Wahiawa Freshwater Reservoir.

“Uncle Bob,” who fished competitive club events on the mainland, sparked Matty’s imagination with stories of catching bucket-mouthed bass back home in California. He made sure to bring new lures and techniques on his trips to Hawaii, too, which created learning opportunities for the budding angler.

“Uncle Bob turned me on to a Texas-rigged Zoom Fluke when I was 12 years old,” Wong said. “He told me to try it on the bedding peacock bass, and I went out and had an absolute smash day. Our tackle shop had small Rapalas, some spinner baits, but nothing like what he showed me. I was super intrigued by how it worked and in different rigging techniques.”

Wong soon was catching rides to the nearby Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden where he caught his first smallmouth – a 2-pounder that whet his appetite for more hard-hitting bites.

“My brother and I must have caught 30 or so that day, all 1 to 3 pounds,” Wong said. “I’m thinking, ‘How can I spend more time here?’ The thing was, you could only fish (at the botanical garden) if you were a volunteer. So I signed up.”

When Wong was 14, he caught a 4 1/4-pound smallmouth at Ho’omaluhia that was only a couple ounces from the state record.

“I had no idea there was this epic smallmouth fishery right there,” he said. “I learned how to walk a Spook in there, throw a spinnerbait, a topwater bait.” 

Grbac heard all about the big catches he missed, of course, but he got to see a few when the Wongs visited him in Roseville, Calif., just outside of Sacramento. Grbac was happy to return the favor of his own fishing excursions to Hawaii, creating more lasting memories with the Wongs on hotspots like Folsom Lake and the California Delta. 

“I had a blast every single time fishing with him,” Matty said.

Wong with his first 5-pound bass, and his fishing mentor Bob Grbac.

When tomorrow comes

Wong’s Instagram page lists him as a lighting specialist in the photo industry, and his website MattyWong.com is filled with images that prove he’s a pro with a camera in hand as well.

He’s passionate about those things, but they are his occupations. Bass fishing is what calls to him most, and he’d like nothing more than to make it his career.

Wong finished atop the California B.A.S.S. Nation standings in the pandemic-shortened 2020 club season to reach the regional at Lake Havasu City.

A host of well-wishers called or texted when he took the Day 1 lead there, and Grbac surely would have been one of the first to reach out. He lost a 14-month battle with brain cancer in late 2015, however, and it’s a blow that still hits hard.

“I was trying to work, getting a commercial or playing a gig, when I moved to California in 2013,” Wong said. “But I was able to get back into fishing when I moved here too. Being here and being close to (Grbac) ignited this thing inside me again. And within two years, he was gone. That was a rough year.”

The brain tumor had taken a dramatic toll on Grbac the last time Wong saw his friend and mentor. He drove up from L.A. to find a man he said “looked like he was 25 or 30 years older.” They went fishing that day, but only caught one bass.

Still, Wong said that last fishing trip provided the closure both men needed.

“I can see him in his favorite shirt, smiling,” he said. “That’s how I remember him.”

After Uncle Bob died, Wong asked Grbac’s wife Lori if he could buy the Ranger. Wong didn’t have enough money to buy a new bass boat, but he also didn’t have a truck to tow one either. That’s why Grbac’s Ranger made sense – leave it in Roseville and drive up from LA whenever he could to fish the lakes Uncle Bob introduced him to years before.

“I got out on the Delta and learned how to punch mats, throw a ChatterBait, throw a frog,” he said. “It made me so much more versatile. I couldn’t do any of that in Hawaii.”

Wong (left) with his younger brother Adam (right) and Bob Grbac (center).

Wong’s newfound skills were put to the test when he joined the Ventura County Bass Club in 2019. He fished as a co-angler that year and struggled before making the decision to enter the club’s boater division in 2020.

The move paid dividends. Wong finished second among boaters at a California Nation tournament on Pine Flat Lake in early 2020 and fourth at another event on Lake Nacimiento. Though he only fished two derbies, it was an impressive start for a guy fishing his first season in one of the country’s most competitive leagues.

Wong is considering more moves now that he’s fished his way into the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship. They include relocating from Culver City to Ventura County to be “closer to nature and good fishing,” he said, and also entering the 2021 California Nation events with hopes of maintaining his recent string of success.

Wong’s also considering upgrading his boat, motor and electronics, believing he may need the benefit as the level of competition improves.

“I know without a doubt I would upgrade my fish catch percentages with new electronics, a new boat,” he said. “But I wanted to learn how to make good decisions based on conditions, not on what my electronics said.”

That sounds like a page out of Uncle Bob’s playbook – “Use your head. Trust your ability. Don’t be afraid to try new things”

Wong knows he’ll never be able to upgrade that advice.

“He wouldn’t be bummed out if I sell it and upgrade, especially after I did so well at Havasu,” Wong said. “Qualifying for Nationals gives me the confirmation of, ‘Hey, you’re on the right path.’”

Uncle Bob certainly would agree.