By Todd Ceisner
Joe McElroy towed his Ranger boat all the way to Conroe, Texas, from Cullman, Ala., last week with the hope that he’d get to use it to watch fellow Cullman native Jordan Lee compete in the Bassmaster Classic.
Never did McElroy think he’d have a front-row seat for all of Lee’s day-3 heroics at Lake Conroe, including the ride back to the ramp during which Lee likely made the biggest catch (and save) of the entire tournament.
After serving as a marshal on the final practice day and during days 1 and 2 of competition, McElroy was relieved when his name wasn’t chosen to be a marshal on the final day. That meant he could be a spectator on the water and watch Lee, whom he’s known along with brother Matt since the Lees were kids.
“I’ve known him all his life,” McElroy said. “He fished tournaments all through his youth and I followed him (and Matt) through high school and college.”
Back in Cullman, McElroy is known as “Photo Joe” as he’s rarely without his camera at sporting events around town.
“One of my civic duties is following the high school there in all sports and take pictures of those kids as they go through growing up,” he said.
McElroy spoke with BassFan on Wednesday afternoon as he made his way back to Cullman. He’s a commercial real estate developer and used the trip home to visit some clients. He was happy to recount what he witnessed and experienced last Sunday, which still had a surreal feel, he said.
McElroy stayed at a resort along the lake and launched his boat Sunday morning at a ramp a few miles away from the official Classic launch site. He made his way over to Lake Conroe Park and was there to greet Lee as the finalists idled into position along the dock.
“I hovered around and took photos of his pre-takeoff time with his family and to soak up the scene,” McElroy said.
Not wanting to get caught up in the crowd of boats and wakes during the blast-off process, McElroy was able to beat the rush up lake to the area near where Lee was going to fish.
“So many times on take-off, you can lose your guys, but he had told me where he’d be heading so I could get a head start,” McElroy said. “I took off when they started the anthem. I was waiting on him there. It was an interesting feeling with no one there, then I heard and saw the boats coming through the fog.”
When he saw Lee’s silver Carhartt-wrapped Legend come off plane to idle under the Highway 1097 bridge, McElroy noticed Lee’s boat never got back up to full speed.
“I got up next to him and saw he was on the phone,” McElroy said. “I knew that meant something because he wasn’t supposed to be on the phone. That’s when he told me his lower unit went out.”
For a good portion of the morning, Joe McElroy was Jordan Lee's only spectator.
Lee, who had called tournament officials to alert them, continued to idle to his spot, roughly one-third of a mile from the bridge. McElroy held back as Lee eased up toward the spot that two local fishermen had already staked out.
“He asked them if they minded leaving and their response wasn’t too friendly,” McElroy said. “It was more or less, ‘We got here first.’”
McElroy said Lee explained to them the tournament scenario he was in before the locals eventually ceded the spot to Lee.
“They were disgruntled, but they moved,” McElroy said.
’That’s My Spot’
For the first 2 1/2 hours of the day, McElroy was Lee’s only spectator aside from the marshal in Lee’s boat. Fishing was slow other than a short fish he caught.
“It was a long time before he caught one,” McElroy said. “Later on, he catches another one, but it’s still just Jordan, his marshal and me.”
The wind started to pick up a little and before long a local angler pulled up close to McElroy to watch Lee.
“He says, ‘He’s fishing my spot,’” McElroy said. “The guy said he’d won a ton of money off that spot. I can’t tell Jordan anything obviously, but it was good to know he was on a good spot.”
The whole time McElroy continued to snap photos and send them to Bassmaster.com editors for publication on the event’s online blog.
“A few more boats started to show up,” McElroy said. “Then another boat with a man and his wife in it pull up. The guy asks if he’d caught a 10-pounder yet. I said, ‘No, he has not.’ The guy says, ‘He might. That’s my spot.’”
McElroy came to learn the spot is known amongst locals as the Gazebo Hole because someone apparently sank a yard gazebo nearby and the fish like to gravitate toward the underwater cover.
At this point in the day, McElroy said Lee had roughly 15 or 16 pounds with three fish when the B.A.S.S. camera boat arrived on the scene. Lee had been alternating between a crankbait and a jig, but McElroy said Lee relied heavily upon the jig on the final day.
“That jig was the hammer all day,” he said. “He fished it as methodically as anyone I’d seen drag a jig. He knew he had to slow down because he couldn’t go anywhere else.”
McElroy figures the spot Lee concentrated on was 75 yards long by roughly 50 yards wide – and he just went back and forth and up and down it all day.
“I’d never seen a bass pro do that,” he said. “It was a blessing in a way because he couldn’t run anywhere else. He got to know the sweet spot on that drop.”
Lee takes a victory lap with his family in tow.
With the wind continuing to blow and the lake getting rougher by the hour, McElroy was surprised to see a woman in a kayak paddling her way across the cove and toward his boat.
“I told her she was taking a risk,” McElroy said.
The woman replied that it was good exercise and she said her husband had been following Lee online and was curious if he needed another boat to use. McElroy said that Lee had been in contact with B.A.S.S. officials and that he appreciated the offer.
“She got in her kayak and came all the way out there to see if they could help,” McElroy said. “She must’ve come 3/4-mile in 4-foot swells.”
Not long after, McElroy noticed Lee “hooting and hollering.” B.A.S.S. tournament director Trip Weldon had informed Lee he could ride back to the ramp with McElroy and that the TowBOATUS service would tow Lee’s boat back to the launch ramp.
“I was stoked,” McElroy said. “More people showed up and you feel the momentum starting to build. I knew he was close when he caught his fourth fish.”
At that point, Lee’s marshall had been replaced by a cameraman for JM Productions. All McElroy could do was watch and wait for when Lee felt it was time to go.
Lee finished his limit and decided with an hour or so left to fish that he was ready to head in. He wanted to leave plenty of time for the ride back. He idled his boat into a protected area out of the wind and McElroy followed suit.
Lee could not transfer his fish into the livewell of McElroy’s boat since McElroy’s boat had not gone through boat inspection in the morning. Lee was going to have to keep his fish in a bag during the ride to the ramp, only he didn’t have one in his boat.
“I had one, but it had ‘Ranger’ on it,” McElroy said. “Jordan said, ‘I don’t care what’s on the bag.’ One of his high school classmates had actually given me that bag.”
After Lee bagged his fish and got in McElroy’s boat, they started to head back to Lakeview Marina.
“Jordan had a death grip on that bag,” McElroy recalled. “About a mile into the ride, though, the biggest fish in his bag jumped straight out of the bag and started flopping in the bottom of my boat.”
Rules prohibit McElroy from helping Lee so all he could do was watch as Lee struggled to corral the fish with one hand while trying to hold the bag closed with his other.
“He literally sprung into action,” McElroy said. “I tried to slow the boat down so the fish had no chance to get out of there. I knew what was at stake. I knew I couldn’t touch it. He was steady-handed. He managed it much better than anyone would’ve been able to do it.
“It scared me so bad. That’s all I need to happen was for that fish get out of my boat. He didn’t get rattled. He’s got a death grip on both sides of that bag. There was no way to get another pound of fish in there.”
McElroy maintained a steady speed of 40 to 45 mph the rest of the way in, but when they arrived at the dock there were no B.A.S.S. officials present, he said. He noted that the fish had been in the water in the bag for roughly 20 minutes, but he didn’t want to tie off to the dock for fear that somebody would get suspicious.
“Finally, a B.A.S.S. official shows up and sees my livewells are clear and we were able to put the fish in there,” McElroy said.
McElroy retrieved his truck and trailer from the other ramp and by the time he returned, Lee’s boat had been delivered by the towing service. Under B.A.S.S. supervision, the fish were then transferred from McElroy’s livewell back into Lee’s boat for the ride to Houston.
McElroy picked up his wife from where they were staying and hurried to Houston for the final weigh-in.
“The rest is history,” McElroy said.
At the Champion’s Toast later Sunday night, McElroy and Lee were reunited.
“I hugged him and looked him in the eye,” McElroy said. “He said, ‘You knew didn’t you?’ He said, ‘I knew you did.’ I grabbed him by the cheeks and looked him in the eye and said, ‘Make me a promise.’”
“What’s that, Joe Mac,” Lee replied.
“Don’t ever change,” McElroy said.
> McElroy said he’s going to retire the weigh-in bag he had in his boat, but only after Lee autographs it so he can frame it.