HOUSTON — In 2013, Jordan Lee was a member of the Auburn University fishing team.
Today, he's on top of the professional bass fishing world.
The 25-year-old pro from Guntersville, Ala., stayed within striking distance all week at the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK'S Sporting Goods. Then during Sunday's final round at Minute Maid Park, he caught five bass from Lake Conroe that weighed 27 pounds, 4 ounces, pushing his three-day total to a tournament-best 56-10.
Lee earned $300,000 and the most coveted trophy in the sport, while Steve Kennedy — a resident of Auburn, Ala. — finished second with 55-1.
"To all of the guys fishing the college tournaments right now, this just says you can do it," Lee said. "It's hard work — and you're going to have a lot of days out here that aren't good.
"On this lake, I wasn't sure there was any way I could do it. But you're never out of it here."
Lee had every reason to fold after Friday's first round when he caught only three fish that weighed 8-6. But Saturday provided a revelation that would ultimately lead to his first B.A.S.S. victory.
He was fishing a point with a hard bottom that he found during practice, and he believed it would pay off during the tournament. After failing to catch a fish there in windy, cloudy conditions on Friday, he returned to the spot in calmer weather on the following day.
"With zero fish in the box at noon on the second day, I went back to that spot and caught a 7 1/2-pounder on the first cast," Lee said. "When I was landing that fish, there was a whole school of 5- and 6-pounders that came with it.
"Right then, I knew something was about to happen — and I caught two more that were both big."
Lee still didn't manage a five-bass limit on Saturday, but the four fish he brought to the scales weighed 21-0.
That moved Lee into 15th place with 29-6 and guaranteed him a spot in Sunday's Top 25. But he still didn't feel good about his chances of catching California angler Brent Ehrler, who had led the first two rounds of the event and entered Championship Sunday with 43-4.
Sunday began with Lee planning to fish his magic point all day — even if the fishing had fizzled. As it turns out, he didn't have much of a choice.
Engine troubles left him without the ability to run from spot to spot and forced him to milk every possible bite out of the point. He eventually had to hitch a ride back to the weigh-in with a spectator that he knew from Cullman, Ala. — a legal ploy in the Classic, as long as no fishing takes place in the spectator's boat.
Lee's main baits were a Strike King 5XD crankbait in the citrus shad color pattern, a football jig with a Rage Craw and a Space Monkey for a trailer and a Bullworm on a magnum shaky head.
"I stuck with it all day and caught fish on a football jig with a Rage Craw and a Space Monkey," Lee said. "I threw the 5XD and the Bullworm and didn't really get any bites on them. I caught all 27 pounds on that football jig."
Of the hundreds of points on Conroe, Lee said it was one section of hard bottom that seemed to make his point special. Casting across the point — rather than parallel to it — was the better play all week.
"I never caught any shells or anything, so I think it was a gravel or a rock bottom," he said. "It was really subtle. There was no brush. It was just kind of a flat point, and I was fishing probably 100 yards offshore."
Lee had to sweat through the final few anglers, including Kennedy who weighed in 21-15 and fell just 1-9 short of the title. The final angler with a chance to unseat Lee from the top of the leaderboard was Ehrler, who weighed in just 11-10 and finished third with 54-14.
Ehrler was trying to become just the sixth angler in Classic history to lead the event from wire-to-wire and the first since Cliff Pace in 2013. Instead, he became the second angler in a row to lead the first two days, only to fall short in the end.
"I'm disappointed," Ehrler said. "But what I really wanted to do coming in was be in position to win on the final day. I did that, but things just didn't work out today."
Ehrler earned the Berkley Big Bass Award of $2,500 for the largest fish of the event with a 9-12 largemouth he caught on Friday.
Ehrler also earned the GEICO Everyday Leader Award of $1,000 and the $1,500 GEICO Everyday Leader Bonus for leading both Friday and Saturday.
The event itself drew thousands of people to morning takeoffs at Lake Conroe Park, the Outdoors Expo presented by DICK'S Sporting Goods and the daily weigh-ins at Minute Maid Park, home of Major League Baseball's Houston Astros.