NEW ORLEANS — What a difference a day makes. Especially if you're newly crowned Bassmasters Classic champ Kevin VanDam.
On the Classic's final day on Saturday, the tension was thick. But on Sunday, VanDam could relax and rest easy with his family for the first time in days, having finally marked off the Classic championship on his career "To Do" list.
A day before, however, as the 2001 Bassmasters Classic Final Five was introduced to the crowd of more than 22,000 in the Louisiana Superdome — and to those watching on television — the tension was high.
After watching Harold Allen, Todd Faircloth and Scott Rook bring their catches to the scale to post their final round weigh-in totals, it was time for Kevin VanDam and David Walker to sweat it out.
"I've never been this nervous in my life," VanDam admitted to the crowd and weigh-in co-hosts Tommy Sanders and Fish Fishburne. "Let's get this on."
VanDam went next in the drawn weigh-in order and put five bass on the scales weighing 10 pounds, 14 ounces to give him the lead at least temporarily. But after another long run to the Venice area on Saturday and a rumored bag of bass in the double digits, David Walker was poised to snatch yet another Classic crown away from VanDam, who had finished in the Top 10 in five of his previous 10 consecutive Classics.
I went out there today and it was the toughest day I've ever had in my career. Mentally, it was the biggest strain." ”
||-Bassmasters Classic champ Kevin VanDam on the tourney's final day of competition|
When Walker came to the scales, he needed 12 pounds even to win the coveted Classic crown and the $100,000 winner's check. But as BASS National Tournament Director Dewey Kendrick settled Walker's limit of bass on the scale, the numbers told the story. VanDam knew the thrill of Classic victory; Walker knew the agony of Delta defeat.
"It was pretty nerve-racking for me," VanDam said of the moment of drama that he and Walker shared. "I think it was pretty exciting."
For the Kalamazoo, Mich., angler, whose previous best Classic finish had been a fifth-place showing in 1993, the weigh-in drama on Saturday was simply par for the course.
"Brutal," VanDam said of his day. "It was really hard because things really weren't going very well. I just had to keep in the game and stick with my game plan. I had a lot of confidence in the area that I was in and I just squeaked out five. I just was not going to let myself get beat today. It was tough."
How tough? The three-time BASS Angler of the Year and newly crowned Classic champ said there have been none tougher.
"I went out there today and it was the toughest day I've ever had in my career," said VanDam who entered the final round with a 10-ounce lead over Little Rock, Ark., angler Scott Rook. "Mentally, it was the biggest strain."
"I went for an hour and a half this morning without a bite," said Kevin. "I finally caught my first one. It was a long time until I got my second bite. It was a really long time (when) I caught my third fish with like an hour before I had to go in.
"I caught another one a minute later off the same well head and I had four. Then I just got it in my mind that I was going to come out of this deal with at least five fish and give myself an opportunity to have a chance at it."
VanDam did just that a short while later.
"I had four pretty good fish and I caught my fifth one and had a half hour left to fish. I needed to cull this little one I thought and I would have a good chance to win."
But that bigger fish never came, leaving a nervous VanDam ready to crank up and head for the Superdome weigh-in. As the fishing superstar headed back down the Intracoastal Waterway to the Bayou Segnette State Park boat launch early Saturday afternoon, VanDam tried to convince himself that he had not handed the Classic title away to a competitor once again.
"I just fished everything that I could and went through all of the area again and couldn't get anymore bites," he said. "I tell you what, that was the longest ride of my life, that hour and 20 minutes back to Bayou Segnette thinking about being one fish short. It just worried me and I just knew for sure that I would come up short."
But what VanDam didn't know is that he was not one fish short. In fact, the black, blue and purple ½-ounce Strike King Premier Elite jig with a Zoom Super Chunk trailer fished on 25-pound line had worked enough magic.
"It (jig) looks a lot like the crabs that are out there. There's tons of crabs and I was getting lots of crab bites every day. But that color, the bass seem to really bite on real well," he said.
Not only had the 11-time Classic qualifier found the winning bait, he also knew how to use it.
"I had to have some key ingredients to really make it (the pattern) work for me," VanDam said. "The water had to be dirty and it had to be moving and I had to kind of near or close to some points or the main channel itself. I fished everything that fit into that category that would provide some overhead shade cover."
"I kept sticking to the same pattern, fishing real fast in between spots and real slow while I was in those targets. I think one of the real keys is the ½-ounce jig that I was throwing with that faster fall would kind of make these fish react. I tried a lighter jig, I tried a regular tube bait, I tried worms and things like that, but I just didn't get bit. I'd fish a piece of cover with several baits and throw that heavy jig in there and they'd thump it."
On a couple of occasions Saturday, VanDam was able to catch fish he had missed on the jig by switching to a creature-type Strike King Wild Thing bait.
"I'll tell you, I needed every bite I got this week," he said.
It was tough for sure, but when the fog and fireworks smoke had cleared in the Louisiana Superdome, the pressure to win the sport's biggest title had drifted away on the wind. Kevin VanDam will never again be known as the angler who has won everything else but bass fishing's Super Bowl.
It may not have been easy in the Big Easy, but as of Saturday, the 33-year old angler is finally king of the angling hill as the 2001 Bassmasters Classic champ.