John E. Hoover: Auburn angler fishing against heroes as Bassmaster Classic's college representative
BY JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Columnist
Saturday, February 23, 2013
2/23/13 at 5:37 AM
Watch videos and view slideshows: Watch a timelapse video of the launch. See a slideshow from the first day, and much more.
Follow along during the event: See unofficial estimates throughout Saturday
Tour the lake: Using Google Earth, World outdoors writer Kelly Bostian gives you a tour of Grand Lake.
Anatomy of a bass boat: We have an interactive map detailing the equipment on a bass boat.
Go to John E. Hoover's blog.Original Print Headline: Auburn angler in Classic competing against heroes
On the water, Matt Lee is pretty much the same as everyone else.
But on land, the Bassmaster Classic leaves the Auburn University senior a bit star struck.
The very same men whom Lee and his brother used to emulate, the guys they stood on the shore and cheered at weigh-ins, the anglers they watched on TV and read about in magazines, this week Lee is competing against on Grand Lake.
"It's embarrassing," Lee said. "Now I'm sitting beside 'em and I'm fishing against 'em. I'm kind of like, 'Blow it off,' like it's no big deal, when it really is."
Lee, 24, is the college representative in this year's Classic.
His status is very much like the top amateur who gets an exemption to play golf in the Masters.
"I compare it all the time to that," Lee said. "Yep. I'm that guy. I know, no pressure, right?"
From Lee's perspective, there's plenty of pressure. He represents a cross-section of talented anglers who will never get a chance to fish in a Bassmaster Classic.
"A lot of college kids want you to prove that we can hang with the big boys," he said. "I mean, every college kid in the world is looking at me like, 'Show 'em we can hang.' And we definitely can. It's just a matter of going out there and making good decisions."
Lee left Grand Lake disappointed Friday. He landed just two keepers for a weigh-in total of 4 pounds, 15 ounces - 48th out of 53 competitors.
"My spots weren't as good as I thought they were," Lee said after the weigh-in. "Some days you're the train, and some days you're the track. Today I was underneath the track."
Collegiate bass fishing is, for now, a club sport. That means it's not sanctioned by the NCAA, there are virtually no scholarships and funding and support from universities is minimal or nonexistent.
The sport nonetheless has exploded on the collegiate level.
In 2007, there were perhaps 50 schools nationwide with a bass fishing club team. Now there are well over 300, and it's growing all the time.
"There's 20 schools just in Alabama that have a club," Lee said.
The 2013 college fishing schedule includes 21 major tournaments, from Michigan to Florida, from California to Virginia.
By the way, the 2012 bass fishing national champion? Oklahoma State University. Auburn, led by Lee, was runner-up. Oklahoma finished 15th.
So how does one become a collegiate angler? It's easier than it seems, although just like anything else, it takes talent and drive to be the best. Fishing small tournaments throughout the year, anglers pick up individual ranking points. Only a team's top two anglers get to compete in the big tournaments.
"Basically, you have this fishing passion that you can't get rid of," Lee said. "And really, to be a college fisherman, we have a lot of people on the team that really don't know that much about fishing. I mean, you don't have to. We've got 33 anglers, and probably eight of 'em are pretty hardcore. The rest just enjoy it. There's about 10 that are just learning how to cast."
There are complicated rules, too, and since it's not an NCAA sport, each school's rules are a bit different. Competitive bass fishing couldn't exist without sponsors, but collegiate anglers don't get near the financial support of their professional counterparts. In many cases, schools don't actually recognize or assist the anglers.
"You are affiliated with the school," Lee said, "but I couldn't have my jersey say 'Auburn University.' Because these aren't Auburn University sponsors. So it's 'Auburn Sports Club,' because they're my personal sponsors. You can accept donations (such as tackle or other equipment), but you can't accept money."
Lee expects to do better Saturday, but said he doesn't even know if he'll be allowed to keep his winnings from the Classic. The minimum prize money is $10,000.
"Auburn really doesn't have a clue, to be honest with you," he said. "It's kind of sad, because they ought to."
Lee is trying not to let his hero worship show. But it's tough. On Wednesday night, he got in an elevator with four-time champion Kevin VanDam and ended up with KVD's autograph on a cocktail napkin.
Lee said he was just a kid with a fishing pole until the Bassmaster started fishing at Lake Guntersville near his home in Cullman, Ala.
"Then it gets to where it's an obsession," he said. "I mean, like just a stupid obsession. Like all the time."
There's an inherent disadvantage to being the only collegiate angler in a field of seasoned pros. But there's even a flip-side to that, Lee said.
"They've lived here. They were fishing tournaments here before I was born," Lee said. "But that can hurt you, because you know about 600 places where you can go catch a bass, and you've got to pick about 20 for the tournament. I only know about 20, so if they don't bite, they don't bite."
Lee likes to think he has other things working in his favor, too, particularly this week on frigid Grand Lake.
"I'm spry," he said. "I'm young and the cold doesn't affect me as much. It doesn't get in my bones. That's my advantage."
Matt Lee is all smiles during the launch on the first day of the Bassmaster Classic on Friday. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World