As the only repeat winner of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic since ESPN acquired BASS in the spring of 2001, Kevin VanDam is in a rare position to gauge the company's giant impact on professional bass fishing.
The 38-year-old Michigan pro won his first Classic in 2001 in New Orleans and earned another Classic trophy this summer in Pittsburgh. His second Classic reign the shortest in Classic history created because of the shift of the world championship event from summer to early spring — may end Feb. 26 at the conclusion of the Classic on Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee, Fla.
"Even though I never experienced it before ESPN's involvement, when I won my first Classic I knew it was different than it had been in the past," VanDam said. "The magnitude and the media vehicle ESPN has and the exposure it brought to bass fishing, it was eye-opening. I had won Angler of the Year three times by then and there was no comparison.
"Since I won this Classic, there are exponentially many more people aware of it than when I won in 2001. A lot of it has to do with the way the event unfolded; how tight it was and how riveting the coverage was. ESPN did a phenomenal job covering that tournament.
ESPN also broadcasts a morning block of bass programming on ESPN2 Saturdays, including BassCenter and BassTech.
"A big part of that is the Saturday morning block building up the Classic. So, more people are aware of it. And then you take all of that live coverage during the event that reached a lot of people. The real difference is the number of people who come up to me that are not avid bass fishermen but know someone who is. They saw it and were intrigued by it."
As expected, VanDam's second Classic reign has been especially busy.
"I had an extremely busy fall schedule planned before I won the Classic," he said. "I've been filming for Bass Pro Shops and Strike King. I had a lot of things set up like charity events and filming. And then I won the Classic and I have a lot of companies that want to do commercials and photo shoots for print ads. There are different opportunities after winning it and I had to squeeze that all in there."
Unlike many Classic champions, VanDam's latest victory has not provided a huge financial windfall, aside from the $200,000 Classic check. As a CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series angler, a lucrative stable of sponsors already surrounded him before his heroics in Pittsburgh.
"It really isn't (a financial bonus) at all," he said. "I've had a couple of interesting opportunities come up that I wouldn't have had without winning the Classic. And it really helps solidify positions that I had with companies already.
"But I'm not complaining. It's a nice position to be in."
While the pro's away
Like many Bassmaster pros, Joe Thomas also is an avid hunter. But right now, the Ohio pro is not the most successful deer hunter in his family.
Recently, while Thomas was hunting in Illinois, his 13-year-old son Ryan bagged a beautiful six-point buck at home with his bow. "Ryan killed this one in a tree stand 150 yards from the house," said the proud papa. "I still haven't gotten one. Maybe I should stay closer to home?"
"I once caught a pipe wrench in the St. Clair River," Kevin VanDam said. "I hooked it with a tube and it was kind of hooked in the middle so that when I was fighting it in the strong current it's about a 6 mph current I'd pull it up and it would go back down wiggling.
"I probably fought it for 10 minutes. At first, I thought I had a world-record smallmouth. Then, I thought it was a giant walleye. And when I finally got it up I was so embarrassed because I had truly fought it thinking the whole time that it was a giant fish. I've caught a lot of strange things, but that one was a shocker."
Did you know?
In the history of BASS, 12 pros have posted back-to-back tournament victories: Bill Dance, Roland Martin, John Powell, Charlie Ingram, Denny Brauer, Shaw Grigsby, Dean Rojas, Kevin VanDam, Mark Davis, Davy Hite, Mike McClelland and Jim Bitter.
If I hadn't become a BASS pro
Former CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year Jimmy Houston might still be selling insurance in Oklahoma. Say, wasn't there another famous former insurance salesman who went on to find fame and fortune in bass fishing? (A. Ray Scott)
The said it
"The sport has changed immensely. It was a lot easier back in 1974 when I started because we didn't have all of the different lures and techniques that you have to decide between. We had less lures to fish with and there were only a few techniques out there. I think things were much simpler in those days." Former Classic champion Tommy Martin.
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