There’s bass fishing, and then there’s the Bassmaster Classic.
Most casual fisherman leave a trail of acrid blue smoke from their oil-sucking outboards as they chug out onto their local pond, in search of “The Big Jacks.” With a Walmart rod and reel onboard, they relax on lazy summer days, sitting shirtless and turning a rusty hue of orange in their aluminum boats next to a plastic chest full of melted ice and cans of slowly warming domestic beer.
They bait their hooks and make their casts, hoping they don’t snag a log. What qualifies as a keeper depends on their luck, how low the sun hangs in the sky, and how hungry they are. If they bring in a largemouth bigger than a few lbs., it heads to the taxidermist and fuels adventurous tales to their grandchildren.
The 50 men who made up the field at the 2011 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Classic in New Orleans are amongst the best freshwater anglers in the world. In terms of refined talent, they have as much in common with the casual fisherman as PGA pros have with weekend public course duffers.
They pilot radar-equipped watercraft forged from experimental materials and worth as much as a new pocket sports car. They cast lures designed by marine biologists to resemble favorite prey – studded with hooks sharpened to surgical precision. They could joust with their casting rods, and their filament lines could support a suspension bridge.
They skim rivers and lakes at 70 mph, logging hundreds of miles per day – using depth finders, precise underwater thermometers and their own educated instincts to find their quarry. If the fish they pull aboard isn’t more than a few pounds, it gets tossed back. They ones they do keep for tournament competition are the kind of lunkers weekend anglers could retire on happily.
And, for all of this, they’re worshipped as heroes and role models by avid fishing fans to the same level as more widely known NFL, MLB or NBA stars. Their names adorn everything from t-shirts to rods and reels to crank baits at the multi-million dollar Bassmaster Expo accompanying the Classic.
Sitting atop this bass-happy universe is Kevin VanDam, the 2011 Bassmaster Classic repeat champion and holder of more angling records than you’ve had hot fish sandwiches. Michigan native VanDam (or KVD to his starstruck fans) is the dominant name in the sport – think the Jimmie Johnson of bass fishing (as the effectiveness of Tiger Woods metaphors declined over the last year).
He’s one of only two men to win the Bassmaster Classic Championship four times (’01,’05, ’10, ’11) and he holds an overall tally of 19 Bassmaster Tournament Series titles. He’s won the Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year award six times over his two-decade career (’92, ’96, ’99, ’08, ’09,’10), and looks to be headed that way again following his 2011 win on the New Orleans Delta. That latest championship put his career winnings over the $5 million mark.
VanDam is one of four men making up the elite Toyota Tundra Fishing Team, along with Terry Scroggins, Michael Iaconelli and Gerald Swindle. Scroggins is a 5-time Bassmaster Champion and a 2009 Bassmaster Southern Open Points Champion with a career winnings tally of more than $1.2 million.
Iaconelli became the tour’s breakout personality after winning the 2003 Bassmaster Classic and topping sports highlights shows around the world with his celebratory hysterics. He’s a 6-time Bassmaster Tournament Champion and the 2006 Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year – with earnings of more than $1.7 million.
Finally, Swindle was the 2004 Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year with more than $1 million claimed. Though Swindle was the only Toyota Team member not to make it New Orleans tournament’s closing round, he provided the weekend’s most powerful moment.
Swindle lost his brother to pancreatic cancer less than three years ago, and he’s involved in the fight against the disease. A group of Chicago firefighters contacted Swindle, telling him about one of their peers, Kevin Odom. A dedicated fisherman and Swindle fan, the husband and father of two is fighting stage four pancreatic cancer with zero expectation of survival.
After speaking with Odom over the phone, Swindle told him he hoped they’d meet at the Bassmaster Classic. Though doctors gave Odom little chance of making the trip, the fireman talked fishing with Swindle in his boat on day two of the tournament and joined him on stage for a rousing ovation during the day two weigh-in.
Showing no signs of losing his passion for life, Odom told the crowd, “It’s been a dream come true. This immortalized my life.”
Overcome with emotion, Swindle told Crave: “Any of the guys here would’ve done this. Being able to meet Kevin overshadowed the tournament. Sure, I wish I couldn’t performed better at the Classic, but when you see a man who knows what’s coming, but who still wants to enjoy life as much as he can for as long as he can, it puts everything in perspective.”
Back at the tournament, VanDam pushed through 72-hours of uncertain weather to fend off his rivals. Those three days making up the Classic allow all 50 entrants to fish during a set period for the first two days. Each angler can catch as many fish as possible, but he can only keep the five biggest in his on-boat tank. (The entire tournament is “catch and release,” with even the biggest bass returned to the water to spawn the future’s featured fish.)
Each day ends with a dramatic weigh-in (at the New Orleans Arena across the street from the Superdome for this year’s tournament). Complete with loud music and digital pyrotechnics, each angler heads out before a crowd of about 15,000 as tournament officials weigh the day’s catch. Entrants are ranked according to the overall weight caught. After the first two days, the field is cut in half with only the top 25 surviving to fish on the final day.
VanDam finished the first day in the top five, before surging to the lead after round two. But, in any sport, legends are written by how a competitor comes through in the clutch.
On the last day of weigh-ins, the tournament organizers (veteran showmen who know how to book an event and build a show to a climax) positioned VanDam last in the line-up waiting to reveal their catch. While Aaron Martens (the eventual second place finisher – and four-time Classic runner-up) watched, VanDam stunned the assembled fishing fans with five trophy bass weighing a total of 28 lbs.
VanDam not only beat Martens by more than 10 lbs., he shattered the previous overall tournament catch record with a total take of 69 lbs., 11 oz. (brushing aside the old mark by more than 13 lbs.).