SHREVEPORT, La. — In the old Municipal Auditorium, the venerable venue with the rocking Elvis Presley statue out front, bass fishing's best came to honor the sport's own king.
That would be Kevin VanDam, the now four-time Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year. No one fishing the Elite Series has more, nor has any angler in the history of BASS earned more money.
Two days before the 39th Bassmaster Classic — and VanDam's 18th — the two-time Classic champ told his peers: "After 18 years, I still love this sport more than anything. It's in my blood."
VanDam's brief address capped an Elite Night that began with anglers and their significant others ascending actual red carpet into the lobby of the old auditorium to the sounds of a four-piece zydeco band called the Red River Playboys.
A hall full of pro bass fishermen in formalwear is like catching a busload of teenagers just walking into a school dance. The ties may be tied, but a sense of reluctance pervades. If there was any doubt that most of them would just as soon be outside on the water, the ballcap tan lines (dark red faces, wintery-white foreheads) erased them.
Besides, it's a jocular bunch. Take for instance Greg Hackney's line as he weaved through the crowd and noticed Aaron Martens holding a plastic cup of something pink. "Oh, a Shirley Temple! That's nice," Hackney said, without breaking stride.
Those two will be fishing this Classic. Two-thirds of the Elite field won't be, including former Classic qualifiers such as Jason Quinn ("Happy face, happy face all week," Quinn said, with a pained grin) and Jeff Kriet, who vowed he'd "never miss another Classic."
Legendary rock guitarist James Burton, a favorite son of Louisiana, welcomed the anglers with a speech in which he told one of the cleaner fishing jokes in history and wished the competitors luck. "May the best man or best lady win," he said.
BASS founder Ray Scott followed by recounting for the crowd the curious origins of the Classic, the first of which was fished at an undisclosed location that the anglers learned en route was Lake Mead.
Tom Ricks, the Vice President and General Manager of BASS, in a speech assured the audience that the pinch of the contracting economy wouldn't threaten the existence of the sport. "I have no doubt in my mind," he said, "that we will emerge stronger."
To that end, in his remarks VanDam made a blanket appeal to sponsor companies. "Dollar for dollar, it's hard to beat bass fishing," he said.
The irony shouldn't be lost that he has won well north of $2 million in BASS tournaments and has a roster of sponsors that would humble a NASCAR driver.
Growing up, VanDam said, all he wanted to do was compete against the best in the sport. "I never dreamed," he said, "I could make a living bass fishing."
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