At fork in the road, Livesay plows straight ahead

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Lee Livesay (17th [TIE],11-11)
James Overstreet

After three years of fishing the Opens, six years of guiding, and nearly a lifetime of watching VHS tapes of old episodes of The Bassmasters sent to him by an uncle, 32-year-old Lee Livesay obtained the golden ticket, an invitation to fish the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2019.

That would be the culmination of any young angler’s dream, casting for cash at the longest-running professional circuit, aiming to stand sooner-rather-than-later on the stage at the Bassmaster Classic. It couldn’t have come at a better time, either. While there have been changes to the tour’s composition over the past couple of months, smaller field size and better paybacks can’t help but combine to give any rookie a substantial push in the direction of saying “yes.”

Livesay didn’t need any more convincing, but in case he did, there’s one more element at play – Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest will be held on Lake Fork, his home waters, from May 2 through 6.

The chance to show off his skills and knowledge on his home lake so early in his career is a blessing that he’s hoping to capitalize on. He said that time should be an “in between” period, when the fish haven’t yet moved out deep en masse, but when almost all of them have left the spawning grounds. “I’ve got a hundred spots for the shad spawn, a hundred spots deep and a hundred spots to junk fish,” he said, hedging his bets.

Because it’s Texas Fest, which features an off day during competition, he’ll also be able to entertain both local and national sponsors who come in specifically for the event. He receives support from the Taos Pueblo Indian Nation, and some of their hunting guides will fly to Texas specifically to watch him fish and to take in the atmosphere. Livesay plans to host a come-one-come-all crawfish boil, too, and another sponsor happens to be a beverage distributor, so the Michelob Ultra should flow freely. “Whether I win or come in last place, having the tournament in my backyard is a great opportunity.”

Despite all that merriment and those high hopes, there’s a catch. 

There’s always a catch.

Livesay currently earns a not insubstantial portion of his income by guiding on Fork, and under the current Bassmaster Elite Series rules he will not be able to continue that practice until Texas Fest is completed. He can’t get information from others about the lake, and that includes clients sharing his boat. He’ll still be able to guide on other local lakes like Monticello, Gilmer, Welsh and Lake of the Pines, but it’s not quite the same thing. Fork is his bread and butter, the magical, mythical place that draws anglers from around the country and around the world, all for a shot at “the one.”

Livesay has seen “the one” come into his boat on many occasions. In 2014, he led a client to a 13.88-pound ShareLunker, and his social media accounts are littered with wide-eyed customers hoisting bulging-eyed bass. He’s fulfilled others’ dreams many times over, but now, in order to live his own lifelong dream he has to give up his best means to effectively finance it.

“I often guide seven days a week, especially in the spring,” he said. In February, March and April alone he’ll leave tens of thousands of dollars on the table, partially because he can’t be at Fork, and partially because he’ll be completely outside of Texas, trying to prove that he belongs with the big boys. Since he’s declared his intention to fish the Elites, he’s sent some business to other guides he trusts and works with, rescheduled other clients and apologized to those for whom there is no ideal solution that allows him to remain within the rules.

While he’s spent more time on Lake Fork than most anglers have spent on any single body of water, the rest of the schedule is a blank slate for Livesay. He’s been to exactly none of the other waterways. He said he’s excited about Lanier, even though he’s never fished for big spotted bass, because it should allow him to utilize his finely-honed offshore skills. On the flip side, he’s a little bit nervous about Winyah Bay, simply because of the size of the playing field. It is often said that everything’s bigger in Texas, but there are some pretty big unknowns for him outside of the Lone Star State.

Despite those uncertainties, Livesay has never been more certain of anything in his life than this decision to jump in with both feet to the Elite Series. To paraphrase baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, he came to the fork in the road and took it.