CONWAY, Ark. — The emotions were running as high as the central Arkansas thermometers when Auburn brothers Matt and Jordan Lee stepped to the weigh-in stage for the Carhartt College Series Bassmaster Classic Bracket final Sunday morning.
"This is painful," said Leigh Lee, mother of Matt and Jordan. "When you see your children get so close to their dreams, and it slips from one of their hands, it's painful as a parent."
Indeed the mood was more like a funeral than a coronation when Matt Lee earned the Bassmaster Classic berth by beating his brother Sunday. Matt had two bass that weighed 5 pounds, 6 ounces. Jordan finished with two bass weighing 2-4, after another tough 4 ½ hours of fishing on Beaverfork Lake.
"If we fished 20 times, he'd win 18," Matt said. "I hate it for him, but I'm happy for me.
"I know right now he's hurting, and I'm hurting for him."
In a flashback from last year, Jordan Lee had the winning fish on in the final minutes Sunday. He cast a 3/8th-ounce Buckeye Mini-Mop jig with a NetBait Paca Craw trailer near a boat dock in one of the back pockets of the 960-acre lake. He saw a 5-pound bass suck the bait in, and Lee set the hook only to see the fish break his line.
"That was a game-changer," Jordan said.
Two years ago, Jordan was teamed with Shane Powell of Auburn when they lost a 4-pounder in the final minutes that would have given them the B.A.S.S. Collegiate National Championship. Instead, they had to settle for second place to Stephen F. Austin.
Again this year Jordan was part of the Auburn team, with his brother Matt, that finished second to Oklahoma State in the team championship that was decided Friday.
After 10 straight days of fishing, five in practice and five in competition, under an unrelenting sun that swelled temperatures into triple digits every day, and to walk away with two second-place finishes — anyone could understand why 21-year-old Jordan Lee was emotionally spent Sunday morning. And his 23-year-old brother wasn't in much better shape.
"I just know my brother wanted this more than anything," Matt said. "He was reading Bassmaster magazine when he was in middle school."
Then Matt, for the second time on stage, gave way to tears and had to walk away from the microphone.
Their father, Bruce Lee, tried to put the best spin on the situation, saying, "It's the best of all dilemmas you could have. You don't want either one to lose, but you're glad that they've both got a chance to pursue their dreams."
Ultimately, Matt Lee deserved the title, not only for topping his brother Sunday, but for catching the biggest bass in both the morning and afternoon sessions Saturday at Beaverfork, when the field was whittled from eight, to four, to two.
He found a hump in the lake that had several small brushpiles on it. On three sides of the hump, the water dropped off to a depth of 15 feet. He concentrated on the other side, where the depth plunged to 22 feet and a big tree was resting on the bottom.
Using a Strike King Sexy Shad five-inch spoon, Matt caught a 4-pound, 14-ounce bass, which was the biggest of the four quarterfinal matches Saturday morning. Employing the same lure, he landed a 5-pound, 7-ounce largemouth Saturday afternoon, which keyed his advance to the final against his brother.
Matt stayed on that hump Sunday. He caught his two bass in the first 30 minutes on a Jewel ½-ounce mop jig with a NetBait Paca Craw trailer.
Saturday's 5-7 took Carhartt Big Bass honors for the two-day individual tournament at Beaverfork Lake. Lee was also presented with a $5,000 check from Carhartt Sunday to further his efforts in preparing for the 2013 Bassmaster Classic, which will be held on Oklahoma's Grand Lake next February.
Matt and Jordan are Bruce's and Leigh's only children. It's a long drive from central Arkansas back to their Cullman, Ala., home. Undoubtedly there will be many more moments of mixed emotions for every member of the Lee family on the way home.
But the overriding emotion is joy: 23-year-old Matt Lee has earned a spot in the 2013 Bassmaster Classic.
After starting Wednesday with 110 anglers representing 57 colleges and universities, it came down to an all-Auburn, brother vs. brother final day.
"College fishing has blown up with the help of B.A.S.S.," Matt Lee said. "It has really come on the scene. It's a great opportunity, and everybody knows that now."