By Todd Ceisner
Last year's Bassmaster College Series championship produced a gut-wrenching outcome that resulted in Matt Lee outlasting younger brother Jordan, both of Auburn University, in a duel that sent Matt to the Bassmaster Classic and Jordan to a third straight runner-up finish.
This year, Jordan Lee found himself again on the brink of the Classic, but in another emotional twist, it was yet another familiar face standing in his way at the Grand River in Muskegon, Mich. It was ecstasy and agony all over again.
For the second straight year, the finals were an all-Auburn affair, but rather than square off against a family member, Jordan Lee had to take on best friend and teammate Shane Powell. Lee prevailed on Sunday and collected the Classic berth, thanks to a limit of Grand River bass weighing 12 pounds even. Powell managed four keepers for 9-03.
"You couldn't write a better ending," Lee said Monday as he made the drive home to Auburn, Ala., from Muskegon. "I've been really close in a lot of college tournaments and to fish something like this and finally win it in my last college tournament, it's really special."
Lee won't have to go far for the Classic – it's slated for Lake Guntersville, not far from his Cullman, Ala., home. While he's excited for the opportunity to fish on the sport's grandest stage, he knows what his friend Powell is feeling.
"It's a hard thing for Shane right now," he said. "It was a hard thing for me last year."
Lee had never fished the Grand River before, but he said it wasn't much different from other rivers he's fished. He focused the majority of his efforts in the Spring Lake area, targeting grass lines and docks with a spinnerbait-frog combination based on the wind.
Here's how Lee picked apart the Grand River.
Lee and Powell teamed up to finish 3rd at the college team championship in August at Chatuge Reservoir in Georgia and thus qualified for the College Classic Bracket. The eight members of the Top 4 finishing teams earned invitations to the Grand River, which was deemed off limits immediately so none of the competitors could make a scouting trip in advance.
"Nobody knew what to expect," Lee said. "I looked at Google and I didn't know what to expect. I brought every piece of tackle just about from deep cranking to frogs."
Given 1 1/2 days for official practice, Lee said he wanted to get acquainted with some backwater areas as well as main river stretches.
"Whenever you're river fishing, you always want to try both because one or the other will be dominant," he said. "It was tough to get some quality bites, but I did catch some fish. I was thinking 8 or 9 pounds would be good."
Late on the second day, though, he happened upon a pattern that eventually turned into one of his go-to strategies during the competition. He wasn't getting bit flipping shallow docks, so he started to get consistent bites skipping a Booyah Poppin' Pad Crasher frog up under the docks into shaded areas.
"That clued me on the dock bite," he added.
Still he came into the tournament without catching a 3-pounder.
> Jordan Lee (5, 15-02) def. Brad Rutherford, Young Harris College (1, 1-07)
Lee couldn't have asked for a better start to the tournament as he weighed the biggest bag of the event to easily defeat Brad Rutherford of Young Harris College.
He a caught a couple keepers early on a spinnerbait, then cranked rock in the main river with a square-bill crankbait to finish his first limit that he estimated to be about 8 pounds.
"I thought I was doing pretty good," he said.
From there, he moved into Spring Lake and began skipping the frog around docks and culled everything he'd caught. On some docks, he'd skip the frog so far back under it that he wouldn't be able to see the strike.
"You'd just hear it and swing," he said. "It was awesome."
He said the frog bite was best when it was calm with little wind or boat traffic.
"It was the best thing to throw because of how shallow the docks where," he added. "The fish, I think, were suspended a little higher and wanted something a little more subtle. You know you have the right bait when that happens. It was definitely unexpected to catch that many solid fish."
> Jordan Lee (5, 10-01) def. Nick Barr, Eastern Washington (3, 5-01)
On Saturday, Lee met up with Eastern Washington's Nick Barr, who'd won his quarterfinal match against top seed Tom Frink of Auburn University-Montgomery despite weighing in three fish.
He caught three more keepers against Lee, but it wasn't enough as Lee nearly doubled his weight in advancing to the finals.
"It was by far the toughest day," Lee said. "I had fewer bites and it was just slow. There had to be 100 or 150 boats running around and the wind picked up."
He fished the frog for a good portion of the day with little success before picking up a spinnerbait.
"I figured it would be tougher for everyone," he said. "It was hard to fish effectively, but I figured I had enough."
> Jordan Lee (5, 12-00) def. Shane Powell, Auburn (4, 9-03)
A fast start on the final day eased Lee's nerves and tightened his focus against Powell, whom he's known since their first semester at Auburn in the fall of 2009.
"The difference-maker for sure was the wind was blowing early and I knew if I put a spinnerbait in my hand, it was blowing too hard for me to not get bit somewhere," he said.
He targeted the areas in between docks on the wind-blown side of the lake and hit the 10-pound mark within the first 90 minutes. From there, he scored a couple upgrades on the frog to reach 12 pounds.
"I didn't have anything under 2 (pounds) and nothing over 3," he said.
He had no idea Powell was one shy of a limit until they got to the stage for the weigh-in.
Winning Pattern Notes
> Lee said Spring Lake had the best combination of deep water, shallow water and vegetation of all the places he looked at on the river. Thirteen of the 15 fish he weighed in were caught there, including eight on the spinnerbait.
"It was just a different place," he said. "It was the only place I saw on the river that had depth – it was 20 feet out in the middle – a bunch of milfoil that rimmed the lake and docks. I spent probably 90 percent of my time in there."
This Booyah Poppin' Pad Crasher caught six of the fish Lee weighed in during the tournament.
> The most important element of his strategy was simply covering water. He never uncovered a sweet spot. "It was just real random," he said. "There was no rhyme or reason why those fish were on what docks. I think maybe they'd move from the grass to back into the docks. It was a deal where if I'd catch one, I could come back maybe an hour later and there'd be another sitting there. I thought if I could hit 100 docks and throw a spinnerbait in between, I'd run into some fish and hope for some good ones."
> On the final day, burning the spinnerbait was crucial. "I hadn't done that before in practice or the tournament," he added. "I had to keep it high in the water column, in the top 1 to 3 feet. I figured out they didn't want something slow."
> Another key was the No. 2 trailer hook he used. Without it, he may not have had the success he had.
Winning Gear Notes
> Frog gear: 7'3" medium-heavy unnamed casting rod, unnamed casting reel (7.1:1 gear ratio), 65-pound unnamed braided line, Booyah Poppin' Pad Crasher (shad frog).
> Spinnerbait gear: Same rod, same reel, 20-pound unnamed fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Booyah Double Willow spinnerbait (snow white), #2 unnamed trailer hook.
> He trimmed the skirt on the spinnerbait to better mimic the smallish baitfish in the lake.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "Just keeping an open mind and treating every day different. I didn't have a set starting spot and I paid close attention to the wind. That helped me the last day. On the last day, fishing the windy banks was key. I'd just look for the shaded docks and I knew the fish were in there."
> Performance edge – "I'd have to say the frog. Being able to get it back under the docks, that's what got me by. Any time you're in shallow water, frogs are the best. I didn't lose a fish on it. That was pretty key. You can't always say that about a 3-day tournament fishing a frog."
> Lee won't be a pushover at Guntersville come February. He won a BFL there in March 2012 and scored a Weekend Series victory in Sept. 2009 to go with a number of Top-10 finishes.
At Grand River, Muskegon, Mich.
> (4) Nick Barr, Eastern Washington (3, 9-04) def. (1) Tom Frink, Auburn University-Montgomery (5, 8-05)
> (3) Jordan Lee, Auburn (5, 15-02) def. (2) Brad Rutherford, Young Harris (1, 1-07)
> (1) Jacob Nummy, Auburn University-Montgomery (1, 1-3) def. (4) Jarred Walker, Eastern Washington (0, 0-0)
> (3) Shane Powell, Auburn (5, 9-03) def. (2) Matthew Peeler, Young Harris (2, 3-07)
> Lee (5, 10-01) def. Barr (3, 5-01)
> Powell (5, 11-07) def. Nummy (5, 8-03)
> Lee (5, 12-00) def. Powell (4, 9-03)