How Wong saved his Elite career

A lot of people have heard Matty Wong say, “Aloha.” Not surprising, as offering the traditional Hawaiian greeting from the Bassmaster Elite Series stage bespeaks the Honolulu native’s engaging personality.

That being said, throughout the 2023 season, Wong kept his composure in public appearances, despite inching closer to a tortuous application of that traditional term’s secondary meaning.

Sometimes, Aloha means “goodbye.”

Hold on to that thought. It will be worth revisiting shortly.

First, we need to look at how the 2023 season unfolded for Wong and how the final event replaced tears with triumph. (Nice spoiler, huh?)

The rocky road

No one wants a bomb, but Wong admits that starting the season with two — 88th at Lake Okeechobee and 86th at Seminole — was demoralizing, especially in the critical second season where new Elites either continue to year three, or they do not.

A 40th-place finish at Lake Murray provided a much-needed shot of rejuvenation, but with two more tough ones at Santee-Cooper (90th) and Lay Lake (84th), fate cruelly burst the bubble.

Carrying the mental burden of a faltering season into what most expected to be the schedule’s toughest event — the Sabine River — teed up one of the year’s greatest turnarounds. (Again, with the spoilers, right?)

By the numbers, Wong placed 56th on Day 1 after a stingy Sabine yielded only a small limit of 6-7. Figuring out a key Day 2 pattern, Wong surged up to fifth with 13-13 — the event’s second-largest bag — behind Day 1 leader Chad Pipkens’ 14-7.

Continuing his climb, Wong gained another spot by adding 8-13 on Day 3 and concluded with a limit of 10-7 that rewarded him with a third-place finish — the best of his Elite career. 

Cause for celebration, you’d think. Wong definitely enjoyed his achievement, but the joy was short-lived.

“After the Sabine River, I realized I didn’t move up as far as I thought I was going to,” he said. “That kind of surprised me, and I realized I had to absolutely catch them when I went up north. We had a little break, so I did as much research as I could, but I also started to prep myself for the potential outcome.”

Describing what he called a river of mixed emotions, Wong contemplated dueling realities. If he requalifies for the Elites, he gets to continue competing against the sport’s top talent. If he does not, more time with family and friends wouldn’t be a bad life.

“Do I still get to chase this dream, or do I get to hang out with the people that I love and that I’ve been missing?” Wong pondered. “Life on the road is very lonely at times. A phone call can be (comforting), but it doesn’t fill that void.”

Nevertheless, the title of Bassmaster Elite Series angler is not easily gained or yielded.

Roadblocks to redemption

When the Elites returned to action in late July, Wong carried a load of Sabine River momentum into the Lake St. Clair event. He felt prepared, but after losing several difference-makers, a 74th-place finish was nothing short of a gut punch.

Doing his best to shake off the sorrow, Wong focused his mental energy on making the most of the season’s final two stops. Lake Champlain honored his optimism and diligence with a 42nd-place total and a good check.

And then there was one. 

The mighty St. Lawrence River — a legendary fishery with a feast-or-famine reputation — offered a final shot to save his Elite career. Wong entered that final stop 79th in Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year points. Nine spots from the magic number (the top 70 requalify), he knew it was do-or-die time.

No more spoilers; you know where we’re going. 

But do you know how much difficulty Wong overcame during that final event?

“After an okay first day of practice, I only caught two fish on the second day,” Wong said. “That’s when the thought of almost accepting defeat started to creep into my head. That’s a voice I had to silence.

“Lee Livesay said: ‘You never know, those 3-pounders could turn into 4s.’ On Day 1 of the tournament, on a spot where I had 3 1/2-pounders, I caught a 6 1/2, which was my personal best and another 6-pounder. I ended up weighing my biggest bag of smallmouth in a tournament.”

Wong recalls his simple, yet fire-stoking thought: “I’m still in this.”

(Not) full speed ahead

With his Day 1 bag of 25-10, Wong started in fifth place. On the way in, he faced near disaster as bilge issues slowed his water removal and a throttle malfunction kept him from getting on plane.

“I made my last cull with 10 minutes to go, and when I went to leave, I couldn’t get on pad. I would push on the gas pedal and the boat would just plow,” Wong said. “I’m starting to panic because I can see the weigh-in, but I knew I was too far to idle back.

“I’m wondering, ‘What is my Plan B?’ I had a Top 10 bag and if I hadn’t made it back, I was done.”

Pumping as much water as he safely could out of his livewells, Wong was finally able to get on pad by stepping on the gas while leaning over his console. He made it to check in with a minute to spare.

At the service yard, Wong learned the crew did not have the part needed to fix his throttle issue. He could still run, but he was only able to reach 57 mph the remainder of the event.

Working with the limitation, Wong couldn’t recreate the Day 1 magic and a second-round limit of 20-19 dropped him to 19th. That’s when hope began fading.

A final farewell?

At the Day 3 takeoff, hearing Bassmaster Elite Emcee Dave Mercer announce his departure gave Wong another round of that throat-tightening, eye-dampening feeling he experienced during Day 2’s disappointing weigh-in.

“I thought, ‘This could be the last time Mercer announces my name,’” Wong somberly recalled. “I had to reel myself back from that.” 

Fortunately, Semifinal Saturday delivered a bag of 22-15 and Wong advanced to his second Championship Sunday of the season. He did so despite losing his trolling motor power late in the day. An outlet issue the previous night had left his batteries only partially charged.

With a Day 4 limit of 25-2, Wong finished ninth in the tournament and placed 67th in AOY points. A tournament win would’ve been nice, but saving his 2024 Elite season was right on par with winning the 2021 TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Championship, which earned his 2022 Elite Series qualification.

“What a relief,” Wong said. “Winning the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship and being part of an elite amateur angler group, you feel like you got lucky in a lottery. So, you have these doubts of whether you can hang with the rest of these (Bassmaster Elite) guys.

“Every (new Elite) gets two years, but in my head, my challenge, my goal for myself was to requalify for the third year because that proves, not only to yourself, but everyone else that you can hang with the best of them.”

The real victory, Wong said, was earning the chance to show how much he’s grown in two years on tour.

“Looking back at the angler I was two years ago, I feel like I could be dropped anywhere in the country now and have a decent idea of what to do and how to attack it, versus going into it as a rookie, just completely blind,” he said. “I’ve grown as an angler, and I think that’s all we try to strive for, as humans — to improve and to grow.”

Love of the game

One of the most memorable statements Wong made on that St. Lawrence River weigh-in stage was: “Keep aloha in your heart.”

As Wong explained, besides hello and goodbye, aloha can express love and fellowship. “I love you,” in some cases. 

“When I say, ‘Keep aloha in your heart,’ it’s the meaning of love,” he said.

The 2023 season put Matty Wong through the ringer. Tough times show us what we’re made of, and Wong’s clearly constructed from the stuff worthy of the title Bassmaster Elite.

A deep love for the sport kept him in the game, even when it looked like his time may be ending. 

Now Matty Wong can say “aloha” to his third Elite season.