HOUSTON — In 2013, Jordan Lee was a member of the Auburn University fishing team.
Today, he’s on top of the professional bass fishing world.
The 25-year-old pro from Guntersville, Ala., stayed within striking distance all week at the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods. Then during Sunday’s final round at Minute Maid Park, he caught five bass from Lake Conroe that weighed 27 pounds, 4 ounces, pushing his three-day total to a tournament-best 56-10.
Lee earned $300,000 and the most coveted trophy in the sport, while Steve Kennedy — a resident of Auburn, Ala. — finished second with 55-1.
“To all of the guys fishing the college tournaments right now, this just says you can do it,” Lee said. “It’s hard work — and you’re going to have a lot of days out here that aren’t good.
“On this lake, I wasn’t sure there was any way I could do it. But you’re never out of it here.”
Lee had every reason to fold after Friday’s first round when he caught only three fish that weighed 8-6. But Saturday provided a revelation that would ultimately lead to his first B.A.S.S. victory.
He was fishing a point with a hard bottom that he found during practice, and he believed it would pay off during the tournament. After failing to catch a fish there in windy, cloudy conditions on Friday, he returned to the spot in calmer weather on the following day.
“With zero fish in the box at noon on the second day, I went back to that spot and caught a 7 1/2-pounder on the first cast,” Lee said. “When I was landing that fish, there was a whole school of 5- and 6-pounders that came with it.
“Right then, I knew something was about to happen — and I caught two more that were both big.”
Lee still didn’t manage a five-bass limit on Saturday, but the four fish he brought to the scales weighed 21-0.
That moved Lee into 15th place with 29-6 and guaranteed him a spot in Sunday’s Top 25. But he still didn’t feel good about his chances of catching California angler Brent Ehrler, who had led the first two rounds of the event and entered Championship Sunday with 43-4.
Sunday began with Lee planning to fish his magic point all day — even if the fishing had fizzled. As it turns out, he didn’t have much of a choice.
Engine troubles left him without the ability to run from spot to spot and forced him to milk every possible bite out of the point. He eventually had to hitch a ride back to the weigh-in with a spectator that he knew from Cullman, Ala. — a legal ploy in the Classic, as long as no fishing takes place in the spectator’s boat.
Lee’s main baits were a Strike King 5XD crankbait in the citrus shad color pattern, a football jig with a Rage Craw and a Space Monkey for a trailer and a Bullworm on a magnum shaky head.
“I stuck with it all day and caught fish on a football jig with a Rage Craw and a Space Monkey,” Lee said. “I threw the 5XD and the Bullworm and didn’t really get any bites on them. I caught all 27 pounds on that football jig.”
Of the hundreds of points on Conroe, Lee said it was one section of hard bottom that seemed to make his point special. Casting across the point — rather than parallel to it — was the better play all week.
“I never caught any shells or anything, so I think it was a gravel or a rock bottom,” he said. “It was really subtle. There was no brush. It was just kind of a flat point, and I was fishing probably 100 yards offshore.”
Lee had to sweat through the final few anglers, including Kennedy who weighed in 21-15 and fell just 1-9 short of the title. The final angler with a chance to unseat Lee from the top of the leaderboard was Ehrler, who weighed in just 11-10 and finished third with 54-14.
Ehrler was trying to become just the sixth angler in Classic history to lead the event from wire-to-wire and the first since Cliff Pace in 2013. Instead, he became the second angler in a row to lead the first two days, only to fall short in the end.
“I’m disappointed,” Ehrler said. “But what I really wanted to do coming in was be in position to win on the final day. I did that, but things just didn’t work out today.”
Ehrler earned the Berkley Big Bass Award of $2,500 for the largest fish of the event with a 9-12 largemouth he caught on Friday.
Ehrler also earned the GEICO Everyday Leader Award of $1,000 and the $1,500 GEICO Everyday Leader Bonus for leading both Friday and Saturday.
The event itself drew thousands of people to morning takeoffs at Lake Conroe Park, the Outdoors Expo presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods and the daily weigh-ins at Minute Maid Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros.
Out on the water, biologists observe the effects of climate change on fisheries. At conferences, they talk about its implications. For example, at an annual meeting of the Southern Division of the American Fisheries Society, concerns about its effects were discussed in at least seven presentations, several of them involving bass.
One abstract summarized this way: “Climate change is thought to be a leading driver in the erosion of biodiversity and ecosystem sustainability at all scales.”
Yet, some anglers deny the reality of climate change, and I speak from personal experience in saying that. I’ve met them.
So have the biologists. “When I explain what is happening (to fishermen), I have to tip toe all around the reasons for change,” says one.
Why is that?
Certainly a number of them do not believe. But for most, I think that refusal to accept reality has more to do with blind rejection of what they view as the “party line” for environmentalists. And I can relate to that argument.
Much of the “green” agenda is anti-fishing, as typified by attempts to ban lead fishing tackle, and campaigns to create “protected areas,” where recreational fishing would not be allowed. Let’s not forget, either, an adjunct of that, the animal rights movement, which now wants to use drones to stalk and harass hunters and fishermen.
But what anglers with tunnel vision fail to see is that enviros are beating the drum to end “manmade” climate change. Questioning the validity of that argument is where fishermen should make their case, not denying that the climate changes and, in so doing, affects fisheries.
Of course climate changes. It’s a dynamic force.
More than a century ago, Mark Twain reputedly said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” The reality, though, is that’s the case, no matter where you live. As fronts move in and out, weather changes --- by the minute, by the hour, by the day. And just as it evolves over these short periods, it changes during longer stretches of time as well --- by the year, by the decade, by the century.
“When we talk about climate change, we talk about changes in long-term averages of daily weather,” says the National Atmospheric and Space Administration.
Anglers who deny this fact of life damage our reputation as conservationists, and alienate some of our closest allies, the biologists. Instead of being supporters of enlightened management to sustain fisheries, they become barriers.
Most importantly, in rejecting climate change, they are disputing the idea that changes occur naturally in fisheries, changes for which there are no “solutions.”
Still not convinced? Just look to the north and south, the front lines for fisheries altered by climate change.
In Florida, milder winters have allowed snook to move up the Gulf Coast. Eight years ago, the saltwater predator was an infrequent visitor to Crystal River. Now it seems to be a firmly established resident --- and a competitor with bass for forage and habitat. Long-time angler Matt Beck says that it’s not uncommon to catch more snook than bass when fishing for the latter. “Today, snook in the 20- to 35-pound range are caught on a regular basis,” he adds.
Florida biologist Allen Martin says the state has no data on the river’s bass population, but he doesn’t doubt Beck’s observation.
“With mild winters, snook have moved as far north as the Suwannee, about 100 miles to the north,” says the biologist, adding that degraded habitat and increased salinity because of lower flows of springs likely have contributed to changes as well.
“Peacock bass, armored catfish, and tilapia moved farther northern too,” he adds. “A couple of cold winters knocked them back, but they probably will start moving north again.”
Meanwhile, water temperatures have been warming for 47 years on New York’s Oneida Lake, a benefit for bass.
“It’s been particularly pronounced since the 1980s, when smallmouth bass really started to take off,” says Randy Jackson, a biologist with the Cornell Biological Field Station on the lake. “At Lake Erie, there’s a strong correlation too.”
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that largemouth bass, bowfin, longnose gar, and gizzard shad also are profiting from warmer weather, he adds. Concurrently, the cold-water burbot, on the southern end of its range, is declining.
“This is all consistent with what people are predicting,” he says. “No one can argue than we have warmer lakes than we did 40 years ago.”
I wish that were true, especially among anglers.
Yielding three double-digit largemouth bass in January, little Lake Akins in west-central Arkansas is looking more and more as if it just might be the fishery to produce the next state record bass. The current record, a hefty 16 pounds, 8 ounces, was caught by Aaron Mardis in 1976 on Mallard Lake.
On Jan. 23, an 11.7-pound bass was taken from a public pier on the 752-acre lake managed by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC). A few days later, Sharon Vinson of the Lucky Landing Bait Shop weighed in another 11, as well as a 10 and several others that topped 5 pounds. Most of those, including the second 11, also were caught from the pier, with minnows and shad the baits of choice.
Those big bass likely were among the first Florida-strain bass stocked in the lake in 2003, after it was rehabilitated, according to biologist Frank Leone.
“That would make these fish about 14 years old, which is nearing the end of a Florida-strain bass’s lifespan in Arkansas,” Leone said. “We’re keeping an eye on the population and hoping that we don’t begin to see a decline in those fish that reach what we like to call the ‘memorable’ class.”
Lying between Interstate 40 to the north and the Arkansas River to the south, Lake Atkins originally was impounded in 1956. But over the years, it became overrun with rough fish, including carp and bigmouth buffalo, and that prompted a drawdown and renovation project. A partial drawdown and fish kill in 2002 turned into a near total drawdown when a dam gate malfunctioned, leaving only 25 acres of water left at one point.
“That drawdown enabled us to remove the rough fish and remove northern strain largemouths from the system before we stocked it with Florida-strain bass,” the biologist added. “Through our genetics testing, we’ve seen the lake begin to shift slowly back to northern-strain bass, possibly from fish entering the system from the feeder creek or people moving fish, but we still see many good 5-pound-plus fish every time we electrofish at Atkins.”
B.A.S.S. provides "major league" care for fish at every event. But at the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic March 24-26 here, that phrase takes on added and historic meaning. For the first time, in the event's 47-year history, bass will be weighed in at the home field of a professional baseball team.
Anglers and fish alike must remember to "keep off the grass" at the Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. But that won't be an impediment to continue the excellent record of fish survival at Classic venues, which typically is 97 to 100 percent, according to National Conservation Director Gene Gilliland. "We certainly expect to achieve the same level of success at Lake Conroe," he added.
Of course, "major league" fish care begins with the 52 anglers competing at 21,000-acre Conroe.
"Our anglers are very conscientious when it comes to keeping their fish alive," the conservation director said. "Dead fish mean penalties and, in the most important bass tournament in the world, they don't want any deductions!"
When competitors return to Lake Conroe Park for afternoon takeout and the 49-mile trip to Minute Maid Park, they will be met by B.A.S.S. staff, as well as state conservation directors from the B.A.S.S. Nation who have volunteered and been trained to help.
First, they will look for dead fish and make sure bass meet the legal minimum length of 16 inches for largemouth and 14 inches for smallmouth. Also they will check to make sure livewells are full and the recirculating aerators are on full time to maximize oxygen in the water. "If water temperatures are above 70 degrees, we will add a little ice to help stabilize the temperature for the trip to Houston," Gilliland said. "It's not so much to cool the water as it is to maintain it."
Barring a cold front, that's likely to be the case. Lake Conroe water temperatures that time of year typically are in the mid to upper 70s.
Then drivers will take the anglers, their boats, and fish to the ball park, which should take at least an hour. If, as expected, they are allowed to use an inbound HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lane on I-45, travel time could be shortened a bit. An hour's drive is more the norm that the exception for a Bassmaster Classic.
Outside Minute Maid Park, the fish will be checked again by B.A.S.S. staff and volunteers, more ice will be added if necessary, bass will be fizzed if needed (not likely), and the boats will be washed. Anglers will place their bass in mesh bags, which stay in the livewells.
When the weigh-in begins, each boat will enter the stadium from right field. It will drive onto the warning track and, from there, travel on an elevated platform down the right field line, go around home plate, and stop at third base.
"The stage will be set on the baseball infield between second and third base, facing the third-base line and stands," Gilliland said. "There will be a bridge there for anglers to cross over the grass and carry their bags of fish to the stage and scales."
At a Classic, bass typically are kept out of the water less than a minute total from the time the anglers check in at the takeout site until they are released into their home waters after the weigh-in. The longest part of that is as the fisherman carries his catch in a mesh bag to the stage.
"That time out of the water is usually 10 to 20 seconds at a time," the conservation director said. "For the Elite tournaments, the average total time was 49 seconds. We want to handle the fish as little as possible and keep them out of the water as little as possible. At the ramp, they might not even need to be handled and the same goes for the boat yard."
Occasionally, anglers will take bigger fish out of the mesh and hold them up for the crowd and media to see. As the remainder of the bass are passed off so that they can be more quickly placed in water, those photo fish will receive a few extra seconds in the spotlight before being placed in separate bags and moved along in the process.
For this Classic, the bass will be hustled out of Minute Maid Park to hatchery hauling trailers provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD).
"The most common question we get is 'Will those fish go home?' and they will," Gilliland said. "People who live around lakes are possessive of their fish and we understand that. For this Classic, the exception would be a ShareLunker (13 pounds or better), which would go to the hatchery in Athens."
TPWD will use those trailers to transport the bass to Conroe each evening where they will be released at undisclosed locations, according to Dave Terre, chief of management/research for Inland Fisheries. "I will staff those with four people.
"I will likely have two other fish transport vehicles as well," he added. "One for transporting fish back for the high school/college tournament and one for dealing with a ShareLunker if one is caught at Lake Conroe during the tournament. Each of those vehicles will have a staff member assigned to them."
Water in the trailers will be oxygenated and temperature maintained as close as possible to that of Lake Conroe, Gilliland said.
The conservation director added that the entire fish care process from takeout to placement in the hatchery trailers requires 10 to 12 B.A.S.S. staff and volunteers.
"Space is tight and time is tight, and that's all we need to keep the process moving, to handle the fish as little as possible and get them back to the lake."