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OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Angler reflects on past decade

by Bryan Hendricks | March 16, 2023 at 2:39 a.m.

Of all the stories and sidebars at the Redcrest Bass Fishing Championship at Charlotte, N.C., Matt Lee of Cullman, Ala., was one of the most compelling.

Arkansans might remember Lee for winning the Bassmaster College National Championship in 2012 at Beaverfork Lake near Conway. Representing Auburn University, Lee beat his brother Jordan Lee for the national championship. The prize included a berth in the 2013 Bassmaster Classic.

The Lee brothers share a Peyton Manning-Eli Manning dynamic. Since 2012, Jordan Lee has won back-to-back Bassmaster Classic titles. Few anglers have won one Classic. Only seven have won multiples. Rick Clunn, Kevin VanDam, Bobby Murray of Hot Springs, George Cochran of Hot Springs, Hank Parker, Hank Cherry and Jordan Lee comprise that short list.

Matt Lee and Jordan Lee made the field of 40 to fish the two-day qualifying round for the Redcrest Bass Fishing Championship, but only Matt reached the Knockout rounds.

Matt reflected on the 10 years since his college championship and his time as a professional angler.

"The time has gone by in a blink," Lee said. "I look at a lot of college guys now. I like to think I'm in the same crowd as them, but I'm not. I don't like to think about that being a decade ago.

"Tournament days are so long, and they seem to just drag on, but you blink and they've gone by."

The pressure of the comparisons to Jordan Lee weigh on Matt. An internet blogger needled him about it during the press conference following the second Knockout round on Saturday. The guy tried to be funny, but the joke was a dud. He asked Lee if he would get out of the real estate business if he won the Redcrest.

Lee parried by asking if the blogger has something to sell.

"I'm licensed in Alabama," Lee said. "If you have something you want to sell, I'll sell it for you."

It was the only tense moment in the entire event.

Five-day grind

The Redcrest Championship was actually two tournaments in one. The first two days were a separate qualifying event to pare the field from 40 to 20. The top 20 started the third day -- the first Knockout Round -- with zero weight, which made days 3-5 essentially a separate event.

Furthermore, radical weather changes made all three of the final three days separate events, as well. Anglers could not fish Saturday the same way they fished Friday. Cold, wind, and rain forced them to fish differently again in Sunday's championship round. It was grueling, mentally and physically taxing, but the 10 finalists said they preferred it that way.

Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla., said that a five-day event in changing conditions forced anglers to find fish in different places, and forced them to figure out how to catch them extemporaneously. It prevented an angler from winning with a single hot spot or with a single hot pattern, as often happens in other tournaments. The angler that won this year's Redcrest had to earn it to a degree that is not usually necessary, Evers said.

Conservation rules

The catch-weigh-release method that Major League Fishing corrects the prime deficiency of the traditional bass tournament.

Most bass fishing circuits require anglers to carry their fish in livewells to a weigh-in site. It is hard on the fish, especially in the summer, but it is also disruptive.

Evers said that in Major League Fishing, if you catch a spawning bass off a bed, it will return immediately to its bed after the angler weighs and releases it.

In other circuits, that fish is taken far from its spawning site. The fish probably won't return to it. It probably can't return to it, especially on waters like the Arkansas River where it might have to go through two sets of locks to return to the bed from which it was caught. That does not take into account the physical stress of being caught, fought and hauled around all day in a livewell.

It also prevents anglers from hanging around a release site catching fish that have concentrated at the release site. Evers said anglers have won tournaments that way.

Finally, it eliminates the garish spectacle of holding up a gasping fish for photos in 100-degree weather for extended times at a weigh-in stage. No fish was present at the weigh-in ceremony on Sunday, and it didn't dampen the excitement at all.

Catch-weigh-release is the right way to do it.

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