When Lester Wray crossed the stage at the recent St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma, the cheers from the crowd were as loud as they were at just about any other time in the derby.
And it wasn’t because Wray was hoisting bucket-mouthed bass for everyone to see. Far from it.
His catch that week was humble — a single bass on Day 1 weighing 1 pound, 10 ounces, and another on Day 2 for 1-7. His overall weight of 3-1 placed him 76th of 118 co-anglers entered in the tournament and left him buried beneath a bevy of visiting competitors.
The ruckus for Wray was as genuine as it comes though. The 75-year-old Native American, a resident of McAlester, Okla., which hosted the Open, is a bit of a legend in these parts. He’s spent his whole life in the area, unless you count the time he spent serving his country in the Vietnam War as a crew chief and door gunner with the Golden Hawks of the U.S. Army’s 1st Aviation Brigade.
Wray says he’s not a “hero”, but many people in McAlester and surrounding communities respectfully disagree.
They’re not wrong, and for reasons other than his military service. Wray hosts a benefit bass tournament for disabled vets each year on the sprawling water of Lake Eufaula. He also organizes jackpot tournaments on Tuesdays for local anglers, who come by the dozens for the chance to wet a line and share camaraderie in this bass-crazy town.
“He’s as good-hearted a person as you’ll ever find,” said Wray’s good friend Randy Nichols. “He helps neighbors mow their yards. I have Parkinson’s Disease, and he won’t let me pay him to cut my grass, just for the gas that goes in the mower.
“But he’s like that for everyone,” Nichols continued. “He’s on the Honor Guard of the VFW here, so he attends funerals for veterans when they pass. He keeps the Honor Guard guns clean. And he really would give you the shirt off his back if you need it. It’s just all out of the goodness of his heart.”
Wray said transitioning from soldier to civilian back in the early 1970s was difficult, and he had some tough times as a younger man. He “bounced around” a little bit, clowning for rodeos and working odd jobs here and there. He said his mother encouraged him to pursue a dream, to do something he loved. And that’s how he came to befriend Nichols — whose family own the Nichols Marine dealerships in Oklahoma — and rediscover his love of fishing.
“I just couldn’t find where I needed to be, and the Nichols family helped me find that place,” Wray said. “Just being down there at the boat shop, detailing pontoons, bass boats; it gave me direction.
“I was able to start fishing some Team Trail and Future Bass events,” Wray said. “I got my first boat from Randy, and I enjoyed doing the (trade) shows a whole lot. I got to meet Ray Scott one time, and I got my picture taken with Jimmy Houston.
“When I had a rod and reel in my hands, I really felt like I was at home.”
And Nichols said Wray is “a damn good fisherman”.
“His knowledge of the lakes around here, especially Eufaula, is up there with the best of them,” Nichols said. “He makes his own lures — jigs, buzzbaits. He’s meticulous, and he’s very persistent. When you put Lester in a boat he gets serious in a hurry.”
That definitely was the case when the St. Croix Bassmaster Open came to town in late June. Wray said whether he had to “beg or borrow” he wanted in at all costs. He got in as a co-angler and went to work, as he would on any other tournament on his homewater — from a weekend event or one featuring the likes of some of the sport’s greatest sticks.
Wray fished with Billy Smith of Day 1, but the duo struggled, catching only three keepers between them. Day 2 went better when Wray fished with Danny Ramsay.
“I gave him some (bladed swim jigs) I make myself, and we set up just right,” Wray said. “He slowed it down, and some big fish hit that bait just right. I was so proud of the four bass he caught that day.”
Nichols said it’s humility like that which endears Wray to so many. For his part, Wray said he would have liked to catch a few more bass in the tournament at Eufaula, but he wouldn’t change a thing about his outcome.
“I wanted to fish in a tournament that the great Ray Scott started, and I achieved that,” Wray said. In fact, he got emotional on the Bassmaster stage mainly because he was able to walk across it. “I did it!” Wray proclaimed to the crowd.
Later, Wray said, “I only had one fish on both days, but I was a winner. No one was a loser.”
Still, Wray wouldn’t mind another crack at a Bassmaster tournament, should he have the opportunity.
“I’m hoping they do come back to Lake Eufaula,” he said laughing. “I wouldn’t mind a shot at redemption.”
Nichols said the Sooner State will no doubt support their native son should that chance arise.
“When he showed me the paperwork to enter this Open, he was on cloud nine,” Nichols said. “It tickled me to see it. He’s such a good person.
“Everyone needs a Lester Wray in their life.”