When Matt and Jordan Lee were young teenagers, the brothers joked about one day competing in the Bassmaster Classic.
There was no joking around for the 24-year-old Matt this past Friday, however, when the Cullman native and Auburn University student took to the Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees in Tulsa, Okla., as one of just 53 anglers fighting for the sport’s most coveted prize.
Lee wound up 46th, missing out on qualifying for the third and final day of competition, but that didn’t keep him from having the time of his life.
“It’s everything you think and more,” Lee said. “There are only 500 or so people who ever fished in the tournament, and for you to be one of them, it’s just special.”
Constantly changing weather conditions, which included three inches of snowfall during Wednesday’s practice session, made fishing rather tricky for most of the field. Lee battled through freezing temperatures to hook two fish on Day 1, adding three more on Saturday to bump his final weight to 11 pounds, 4 ounces.
The College Classic champion certainly wasn’t alone in his struggles to reel in keepers. Cliff Pace, who went wire-to-wire to win the 2013 Classic, headed to the final weigh-in with just four fish, one short of the limit. His 54-pound, 12-ounce total was still enough to hold off Brandon Palaniuk’s bag a little more than three pounds back.
In addition to the weather, Lee had to traverse a body of water far different than what he’s used to at Guntersville Lake.
“It was just tough fishing,” he said. “It’s not necessarily what I’m accustomed to, didn’t really fit my style.”
The atmosphere and buzz of the tournament made Lee’s days out on the lake different than any others. He had a camera man in his boat at all times and contantly saw helicopters flying by overhead to keep track of all 53 anglers.
Lee was also blown away by the sheer number of fans who attended each weigh-in. Nearly 20,000 spectators packed themselves into the Bank of Oklahoma Center at the end of each day to witness each fisherman’s fate.
“The whole experience was unbelievable,” Lee said. “It was just phenomenal.”
By the time he wrapped up his weigh-in on Friday, Lee was unable to join his parents and brother at the ceremony announcing Cullman as the new location for the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame. He was still ecstatic at the news that his hometown had landed the facility.
“That’s huge,” Lee said. “It’s going to bring a lot of attention to Cullman.
“This really puts Cullman on the map. It already was because of location, but now it’s actually got a landmark there people will recognize and remember.”
Next year’s Bassmaster Classic will be a lot closer to home at Guntersville Lake. In order to make a second straight appearance, Lee will either have to win one of five Central Open events or capture another College Bassmaster Classic championship.
Neither path will be easy, but Lee willing to do whatever it takes to once again reach the sport’s biggest stage.
“It’s easy to say the Classic was terrible, but there are so many people that don’t ever get the opportunity,” he said. “To get to do it, it just makes the fire burn even more. You get a taste of it, see it firsthand, get involved in it and you realize it’s an achievable goal.
“I’ll fish the College National Series, fish the Opens and keep trying to make dreams become a reality.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at email@example.com.