In his short, 66-event career with B.A.S.S., Robert Lee, of Angels Camp, Calif., did what no other competitor has done. Multiple anglers have won more total events than he did, but none matched his feat of winning four times on the same body of water.
Among his 25 Bassmaster wins, Kevin VanDam has won three times on the St. Lawrence River, with the first and the third occurring a remarkable 22 years apart, but he’s fallen short on other attempts. Likewise, Shaw Grigsby has won three times on big Sam Rayburn but hasn’t been able to complete the “fourpeat” in multiple other attempts. Roland Martin won twice each on Okeechobee, Watts Bar and Seminole, plus two Eufaula wins – one in Oklahoma and one in Alabama – but couldn’t get to three on any one fishery.
Meanwhile, Lee was a perfect four-for-four on the California Delta. He won Western Invitationals in 1997, 1999 and 2001, and a Tour event (predecessor of the Elite Series) in 2003, qualifying for two Bassmaster Classics along the way. He then left the game 31 months later at the conclusion of the 2005 season. That’s not exactly true. He didn’t vanish into the ether or disappear from the sport altogether. Lee, newly divorced, left the tour to participate fully in raising his then-young son and to continue to run his namesake construction company, but he never gave up on the sport. He may fish much less, but he’s still deadly on the water, as evidenced by two Forrest Wood Cup qualifications (2010 and 2011) and a Costa Western series points title last year.
Now 50 years old, no matter what heights he scales in the future, though, the “General” will most likely continue to be best known for his Delta dominance.
Not bad for a self-described “bank beater.”
While most of the history of B.A.S.S. was made in the southeastern United States, the San Joaquin River Delta, known to fishing fans as the “California Delta” or just “The Delta” (sorry residents of New Orleans and Mobile), has an important role in the sport’s development. Its miles of tule-lined canals led directly to the “flippin’” technique, as pioneered by “Delta Rats” including Dee Thomas and Dave Gliebe. They in turn mentored a young Gary Klein, the first successful pro to make the leap directly from high school to the B.A.S.S. life.
Except for the occasional foray to the desert Southwest, though, B.A.S.S. rarely gave the western pros an opportunity to compete on their home court. Indeed, the long drives prevented all but a few like Mike Folkestad and Rich Tauber from taking a serious stab at it.
That changed in the fall of 1997, when B.A.S.S. expanded its Invitational circuit to include a Western Division. It provided a potential path for a group of young pros including Skeet Reese, Aaron Martens, Byron Velvick, Ish Monroe, Dean Rojas and the “old man” of the group, John Murray, to qualify for the Classic and the tour on their home turf. Robert Lee, not yet 30 years old, and not quite as flashy as some of the others, competed against them, too.
Lee’s advantage, and his disadvantage, was that he liked to power fish shallow. “I’m a bank beater at heart,” he said. He recalled pulling up next to Murray at deep, clear Lake Mead. Murray was incredulous that Lee had the same three rods on the deck he’d likely have at the shallower, murkier Delta: a spinnerbait, a crankbait and a jig. Despite his friend’s entreaties to study finesse, Lee stuck with his comfort zone.
That’s probably why he finished last as often (or more often) than he finished first – “If you go for the win, sometimes you’re not going to get five bites,” he explained. “And I always went for the win.” On the Delta, that meant concentrating exclusively on known big fish areas, and then dialing in the intricacies of those areas to the max. He’d meander around those areas with a flipping stick in his hand, poking it into the bottom, convinced that the best areas were “always shells or sand, never mud.” The fish would feed and spawn in the same areas, which made them easy pickings once he’d established the lay of the land
“It took years to figure it out exactly, and then you wouldn’t catch four or five on a stretch. You’d pull up on the best part and they’d either be right there or nowhere.”
All four of his wins came within a 2 square mile area, which is remarkable for a system as vast as the Delta, but he noted that “you still had to put it together.”
After building credentials with Red Man, WON Bass and other localized circuits, Lee described himself as “all-in” when B.A.S.S. announced their plans for a western circuit. He’d won a boat on the Delta previously throwing a rat, back when relatively few people were frogging, but he described that victory as “lucky.” It was his practice regimen that led to winning that first Western Open.
“I committed to it and practiced 13 days in a row,” he said. “I had them coming on high tide and going on low tide. I even had a backup pattern.” By the time practice ended he was exceptionally confident, even telling his father that it was “time to get famous.”
Then he got to the big dance.
“I had never been filmed before,” he recalled. “That was the most stressful time, not because of the fishing but being up there with all the cameras and Ray Scott. I was so exhausted from stress.” That fall event didn’t produce characteristically massive Delta weights, but Lee’s 51 pounds was enough to beat runner up Steve Sapp by nearly 3 pounds, and a host of established and future legends by even more.
When B.A.S.S. came back to the Delta in the spring of 1999, Lee was confident. “I expected to win the second one,” he said. "I didn’t need to prefish for that time of year, but I did anyway. I had so much experience fishing there the first week of April, so much time on the water.” He stayed at the home of Mark Tyler, who’d finished third in 1997, and both of them had big weeks. Tyler caught the largest bass ever landed in B.A.S.S. competition, a 14 pound, 9 ounce brute, and Lee, true to his expectations, won again. This time he averaged 26 pounds a day to total 78-03.
By the time the Invitationals came back in 2001, the pressure returned with it. His father practiced with him and noticed other boats eyeing him carefully and occasionally following him. That didn’t faze him, because it just “means you’re winning.” At the same time, he desperately wanted to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic, and this would be his ticket.
“I knew I was in the area with the biggest fish,” he said. “I upgraded the size of my bait to a 6-inch Tora Tube. The tide was super high, and I drew a guy from Japan. He was hammering them behind me and probably had 17 or 18 pounds. I told him, ‘Those are the males.’ I hardly had anything but I knew that when the tide got down it’d go off. Within two hours I had 35 pounds. It wasn’t pretty.”
The pressure dissipated thereafter. A cold front rolled in and brought a storm with it, killing the bite for just about everyone but Lee. He led by 14 pounds heading in the final day and had saved a place where he knew he could easily catch 14 or 15 pounds on a little pink wacky worm, which allowed him to maintain that lead to the end. Once again Sapp was the closest angler in his rearview mirror, but Lee’s 71-02 constituted a rout. Lee was in the Classic, too, headed to the “other” Delta below New Orleans, where he’d finish seventh.
When B.A.S.S. came back to the Delta in 2003, it was not for an Invitational, but rather for a Tour event, which meant that Lee would finally get a chance to fish against the giants of the sport on his home waters.
“There was a lot of talk about how the western guys would hold up,” he said. I’d been in Alabama for two years, lost, smashing logs, and breaking props. I was so lost on tour. This was really before GPS and all of that business. We had little handheld models with inch and a half screens, but they were slow and not accurate. Now they were coming to the Delta and the maps are only so good. They didn’t have contour lines, and it’s a maze. And it was April, primetime for everything. I thought that if I didn’t win, I still knew that I’d be in the top five.”
He started the event with 18 pounds, then caught 26 the next day, including the day’s big fish, but still wasn’t convinced he’d hit his stride. “The locals catch 26 pounds there every day,” he said. “And I was fishing against people like Aaron (Martens) who do well when the bite’s tough. All I know is that I figured things out as the tournament went on.” Lee took lunker honors again on Day 3, but Louisiana pro Roger Boler led heading into the fourth day of competition. Fishing against five other anglers, Lee notched another 26 pounds to weigh a four-day total of 86-08. Boler managed only four squeakers and fell to third, while Jimmy Mize moved into the runner-up spot, nearly 13 1/2 pounds behind Lee, who called it his most satisfying victory.
“The first three, I felt like I wasn’t happy with the weights or the results, even though I won,” he said. “In the fourth one, I started slow, and every decision I made was the right one. It was the best tournament I’ve ever fished in my life. I’ve only done it once.”