By Todd Ceisner
Among the themes leading into the Bassmaster Classic at Lake Conroe was that at some point someone would run into a big stringer of fish. Not just a 20-pound bag, but a mega-bag that would reinforce the notion that, indeed, everything is bigger in Texas.
Because let’s face it – that’s how this Classic was billed. Big city, big venues, big fish.
Despite all the inconsistency around the lake and the transient fish being in several phases of the spawn, there was almost a certainty that a Texas-sized limit would show up. On Sunday afternoon inside cavernous Minute Maid Park, Jordan Lee delivered such a bag. In the process, he rewrote the Classic record book for comebacks at a Classic that some thought would shatter the event’s overall weight records.
While that didn’t materialize, Lee’s 27-04 haul on day 3 will go down as one of the most memorable efforts in the Classic’s 47-year history, especially when you consider how his tournament had gone until that point.
He was 37th after catching three fish for 8-06 on Friday, then jumped up to 15th with a four-fish stringer for a day-2 best 21-00 on Saturday.
As has been proven at three of the last four Classics, no lead is safe and no deficit is too big to overcome. Lee’s stringer erased a 13 1/2-pound deficit and carried him past 14 other competitors, including four-time champion Kevin VanDam and last year’s winner Edwin Evers, both of whom failed to catch a limit Sunday.
Consider this when trying to process just how Lee pulled this off: VanDam was in 7th place entering the final day, but after weighing in Saturday he spoke in the media room about not believing he had a realistic chance to mount a final-day winning rally.
Lee said Sunday the gravity of what he’d accomplished had yet to set in. The 25-year-old is the first former college angler to win the Classic.
“It does everything for you,” Lee said. “I watched these guys for as long as I can remember on TV. I went to an Elite Series event and met them when I was 16 or 17. I’ve watched all the shows hundreds of times. I’m a fan of the sport. I can name all of the baits and how the guys caught them. I don’t know how I compete with them day in and day out.”
Lee said this Classic felt eerily like his first – the 2014 event at Lake Guntersville, where he followed up a four-fish, 13 1/2-pound day 1 with consecutive 24-pound stringers to finish 6th.
“It felt like Guntersville all over again,” he said. “I never thought after the first day here that I’d be right there. The first day at Guntersville, I never thought I’d be right there. You don’t ever really know what can happen in a tournament and how things change. Some fish in some areas start biting better and some fish don’t.”
Here’s a closer look at how Lee pulled off the biggest rally in Classic history.
Lee stayed with Elite Series rookie and Classic first-timer Jesse Wiggins during the initial three days of practice and Lee said Conroe was a bit confounding.
“It was really tough all week for me,” he said. “Usually, I have bad practices for whatever reason. It was tough. I couldn’t get dialed in.”
Before the tournament started, Lee was asked why he thought he’d win this week. He responded with a grin, “because I’m lucky.”
Maybe so, but it also helped that he idled over and across many of Conroe’s underwater points during practice. Initially, he was looking for brush, but when he found it he couldn’t get bites. He also ruled out shallow fish because they weren’t dependable.
At one point during the three-day practice, he idled across the point where he ultimately caught the winning fish and was intrigued by what he saw.
“I saw what looked to be harder bottom,” he said. “It just looked different. I was like, ‘That looks good.’”
He stopped and made a couple casts and caught a bass that didn’t meet the 16-inch length requirement. Still, he filed it away to possibly revisit later.
“I was running around Wednesday hitting points because the shallow fish weren’t going to win,” Lee said. “I didn’t see the brush fish being a big deal either. I ran points the last day of practice. I was running up the lake and went back there. I made two throws and caught a 7 and 6 back to back. When that happened, it was like, ‘Whoa, this may be something right here.'"
He tried to unlock a cranking pattern with a Strike King Series 5 plug on similar points, but it didn't materialize.
“I fished a ton of points and never got bit. I couldn’t run a pattern. It’s not a pattern deal because I would’ve gotten bit somewhere else cranking, but I didn’t get another bite. There must be something unique on that spot to catch two big ones back to back.”
> Day 1: 3, 8-06
> Day 2: 4, 21-00
> Day 3: 5, 27-04
> Total = 12, 56-10
Lee started this Classic the same way he began the other two he’s competed in – by not catching a limit. He admitted that when the bites are few and far between, he tends to speed up rather than fish slow. Day 1 was no different.
“The last two Classics have been tough places to catch limits,” he said after catching 8-06 on day 1. “Grand (Lake) was tough and here, half the field won’t catch a limit. I’m not the only one. It’s tough to get bit and in the Classic, the hardest thing to do is slow down when the fishing’s tough. I haven’t figured that out yet. Maybe one day I will.”
He fished his best spot on three separate occasions on Friday, but he feels the wind kept him from fishing it effectively.
“I couldn’t fish it,” he said. “It was cloudy and I don’t think it was right for it.”
He started Saturday there, too, but couldn’t coax a bite. He began to sense his tournament was going to flame out and he’d be working the Classic Expo on Sunday.
He had no fish in his boat at noon, but came back to the point and grinded a Strike King 5XD crankbait across it and caught a 7 1/2-pounder.
“There was a whole school of 5s and 6s swimming with it,” he said. “The water turned black when they were coming in. I knew they were there and I just had to catch them.”
Still, he had no idea he’d just found the winning fish.
“I never find that spot,” he said. “I find spots everybody else finds. I never find spots that have 27 pounds on it.”
He tried a big swimbait and also mixed in a 10-inch Strike King Bullworm on a 1/2-ounce shaky-head jig. He caught two of the four fish he weighed in Saturday on the Bullworm. He started to understand that a slow presentation was required to trigger bites along the point.
At one point Saturday, he made a cast with the Bullworm and then stopped to take his rain jacket off. When he picked his rod back up, there was a fish on the other end.
That theme carried over to the final day, when Lee left the dock in 15th place. Still resistant to slowing down completely, Lee’s hand was forced when his outboard acted up and basically stranded him at his best spot in the morning. He had no choice but to fish slow.
Lee spent the entire final day on one spot, casting a half-ounce rubber-skirted jig across it to coax bites from bass scattered out along it.
“I wasn’t really stranded, but I got to the place and wasn’t able to run around,” he said. “When I shut off at the (highway 1097) bridge, I was only able to idle. It was probably 30 minutes before I got my first bite.”
That fish turned out to be a short one. Knowing his outboard issues would prevent him from running to other spots, he put his head down and tried to make the best of the situation.
“I would’ve been spun out if I wouldn’t have made it, but I got to the bridge and when I got there, my motor would just go real slow,” he said. “I just crept over to the spot and I was so thankful I got there because I knew the potential. It was just a slow hour and a half and I’d finally get a bite.
“I wouldn’t have fished that slow if I was in 2nd place. That was the slowest I’ve ever fished.”
And the fish started to cooperate. Making repeated casts cross the point, which had roughly 6 feet of water on it, the big bites started to come.
“For whatever reason, I found out (Sunday) the fish wanted it slow,” he said. “A few of the bites today, the bait was sitting still. It wasn’t a drag it and get bit thing. It was a real slow process.
“That jig, I was crawling it. I was barely moving it. That’s so hard to do for me.”
Around 2:20, he jumped in the boat of a friend from Alabama, who’d been a marshal and had brought his boat to Conroe to watch Lee on the final day. Lee got back to the ramp at Lakeview Marina about 30 minutes before the rest of the field.
About five hours later, in downtown Houston, his life changed forever.
Winning Pattern Notes
> Lee said the point he fished was a non-descript one that resembled many other points at Conroe. For some reason, the fish hung around that particular one.
“It was a hard bottom on a point,” he said. “There are tons of points on this lake. In practice, I didn’t think I’d catch ‘em good shallow. Some guys did, but I never found it good. There was a subtle depth change where it might’ve come up a foot. I side-scanned it once in practice. It was just a point in the mouth of a cove. I could feel it with a crankbait. My jig would get hung up a little bit.
“I’m sure someone fished it in practice. There wasn’t a ton of fish there. I didn’t just wreck them when I got there.”
> He said it was tough to tell which phase the fish were in, but every one he caught had some girth to it.
“I think they were mostly post-spawn,” he added. “I caught a couple that I couldn’t tell. The cove looked like every cove on the lake with seawalls and docks. It didn’t look like anything. Nothing stood out about the area.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Jig gear: 7’4” heavy-action Quantum Tour KVD casting rod, Quantum Smoke HD 200 casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 17-pound Seaguar AbrazX fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. homemade round-head jig (brown), Strike King Rage Craw (summer craw) or Space Monkey trailer (green-pumpkin).
> He dipped the claws of the Rage Craw in chartreuse dye.
> The jig he used was a round-head jig that he says is a “confidence thing from home. It’s just a bait I always throw out deep.”
> He also caught some on Strike King 5XD (using 12-pound InvizX) and Series 5 crankbaits (citrus shad) and on a 10” Strike King KVD Perfect Plastic Bullworm rigged on a 1/2-oz. shaky-head jig.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Being forced to fish slow. I learned it the second day. I caught a fish when it was just sitting there. The fish weren’t grouped up. Going into the final day and feeling like I was out of it, it made me slow down.”
> Performance edge – “My rod, reel and line combination. I didn’t lose any fish. I felt like my set-ups were perfect. That 17-pound AbrazX was great because when you’re catching those fish like that on hard bottom you worry about breaking off and losing fish. I could hit them hard and not worry. There was never a worry one was coming off.”
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