Banners that hung from the rafters showcased past champions. I’d seen many crowned in person, but all were familiar to me, special in their own way. Classic wins by the biggest names in fishing seem to always stand out: Clunn mastering the James, Brauer finally getting his share, Iaconelli going Ike. Some titles were less dramatic, but nonetheless just as important to the men who solidified their careers.
Recently, I’ve felt B.A.S.S. couldn’t script better outcomes for their grandest event. Randy Howell brought tears to our eyes, while Casey Ashley immortalized rural America’s roots. Edwin Evers left the field begging for mercy.
But last week’s world championship topped them all, leaving everyone asking: “Did that just happen?” More importantly, it solidified pro bass fishing’s most recent plan of appeal to the masses.
I’ve worked with many of bass fishing’s best, but I’ve never met Jordan Lee. From all accounts, he’s an extremely level-headed competitor despite his age, entirely focused on contending at the sport’s highest level.
It’s important to reiterate Lee’s road to the top. Growing up with a passion for bass fishing, he and his brother fished in high school, later moving to the collegiate fishing program at Auburn University, and graduating to the Elite tour.
In the summer of 2016, Jordan found himself in contention for his first pro title. Heading into the final day of competition at New York’s Cayuga Lake with the lead, Lee showed his trademark nerves of steel as he idled out from the marina. Using unconventional finesse methods, Lee caught a solid day-4 limit, likely sealing his first victory. But in the end, a bully named VanDam would educate Lee on what it takes to be a champion. The youngster didn’t deserve it, so it seemed. Many, including me, welcomed KVD back to claim his throne.
Last Sunday, Lee again found himself in VanDam’s sights. After weighing in the biggest stringer of the tournament, Lee sat on stage in the hot seat, on the final day of the Bassmaster Classic, as VanDam entered the arena.
For the first time, the entire crowd rose to their feet – here was the long-anticipated return of their king. No one in history has commanded the crowd, and been welcomed as the undisputed leader of our movement, like VanDam. While many prayed for little Jordan Lee to hold on, most could hardly watch.
But this time, Lee would escape the champ’s knockout punch.
With his typical competitive grace, VanDam accepted defeat, but admitted disappointment; he felt he had let us all down. But as both a competitor and lifelong bass fishing fan, VanDam also reveled in the possibility of Jordan’s joy. Fans watched in disbelief as VanDam himself climbed into the crowd, found a seat, and crossed his fingers. Could it be Jordan’s turn after all?
Surely, the pipe dream wouldn’t last. After all, Lee had to get through the "Super Six." Iaconelli was a proven Conroe ace and, with a roar from the crowd, he pulled a 9-pounder from his livewell. But Ike’s bag held only two fish, coming up short.
The next big hurdle would be Edwin Evers. One of the most competitive anglers on tour, and surely one of the best, the final day is when Evers always brought his A-game. Jordan knew his chances were slim. But Evers, too, struggled.
You could see it in Jordan’s eyes: surely, the madness would soon end. Two FLW transplants were left to weigh. Both were more than ready to punch their ticket to the top.
First would be Dave Lefebre, a man born to be a professional bass fisherman. The best touring pro ever from the Northeast, Lefebre takes no slack regarding his methods to get there. He’d won on Conroe before, and made a million dollars fishing before Jordan Lee finished high school.
The crowd fell in disbelief learning of Lefebre’s single-bass bag. Lost fish, the Achilles' heel of recent performances, were again to blame.
Then there was one.
Brent Ehrler is simply one of the best fishermen in the world. After mastering the FLW Tour and claiming it’s championship Cup, Ehrler garnered B.A.S.S. Rookie of the Year, at the same time taking down an MLF title. He’s the real deal and everyone knows it.
Fans of Ehrler recognized this would be his time. He had led the event from start to finish, with heavy strings surpassing 20 pounds each day. This day, a paltry 13 was all that stood between Ehrler and his title.
The scales teetered.
Everyone but Ehrler was in shock. Jordan Lee had done it. The fans roared.
The Lee family took the stage. Brother Matt embraced Jordan. They looked so young; just children.
Their mother finally composed herself enough to speak. “When you watch the dream of your children come true…” she started, unable to go on. We all finished the sentence for her in our own ways.
Jordan Lee had done it. He had validated college fishing, the incredible movement of pro bass to turn young anglers toward our sport. Jordan made the dreams of untold numbers of 15-year-olds a possibility. He again showed us the importance of hard work, values and dedication to family.
And we never saw it coming.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)