The CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series continues to live up to its name. The newest pro on the list of Elite Series competitors is 2001 and 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic champ Kevin VanDam, an elite angler by any measure.
The Michigan pro is also a three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year and has won the last three BASS events in which he's competed. He finished fifth in the ESPN Outdoors Greatest Angler Debate and is generally regarded as the best bass fisherman of his generation.
"The Elite Series is the best model we've ever had in the sport that will truly grow an angler's identity and offer a tremendous earning potential and opportunity," VanDam said. "There's tremendous opportunity and a lot of money to be won."
Adding VanDam's name to the impressive list of tournament pros who have already committed to the Elite Series guarantees a level of competition previously unmatched in the sport. What's more, the stars of the sport continue to sign up.
Along with VanDam, the Series will feature Classic champions Denny Brauer, Ken Cook and Paul Elias and four-time Classic champ and Greatest Angler Debate winner Rick Clunn. Also signed up are former Anglers of the Year Aaron Martens, Tim Horton, Gary Klein and Gerald Swindle.
Other luminaries fishing the Elite Series include Skeet Reese, Greg Hackney, Marty Stone, Zell Rowland, Jason Quinn, Mike Wurm, Shaw Grigsby, Guy Eaker, Byron Velvick, Joe Thomas, Peter Thliveros, Terry Scroggins, Scott Rook, Ish Monroe, Randy Howell and Dustin Wilks.
Along with the legends of the sport comes a group of anglers who are not yet household names but who have made the commitment to fish the Elite Series and will face off against today's biggest names in their effort to become the next legends of the tournament trail. These anglers include Jon Bondy, Jarrett Edwards, Jami Fralick, Paul Hirosky, Bill Lowen and Mark Rogers.
Fralick qualified through the 2005 BASS Federation Championship, earning a berth in the Elite Series in the process. Other anglers have qualified and will continue to qualify through the CITGO Bassmaster Opens.
BASS Elite Series anglers will vie for more than $11 million in 2006 in the 11 event tournament series, the CITGO Bassmaster Classic, the three Bassmaster Majors, the CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year program and other contingencies. The Elite Series also features smaller field sizes and increased media exposure, two elements VanDam believes anglers are the most excited about.
The history of professional bass fishing has been marked by quantum leaps forward. The 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series promises to be the biggest advancement to date. If it were to be described in just one word, that word would have to be "best."
The Elite Series will feature the best bass anglers on the best bass waters in the country at the very best time to fish there. With smaller competition fields and bigger paydays, anglers will have greater opportunity to promote themselves and their sponsors. Everything about it is bigger and better than what has come before.
"It's the best schedule we've ever had as far as the quality of lakes and the times we're going to them," VanDam said.
Until the sign up period is over, VanDam is urging anglers to carefully decide what's best for them as individual businesspeople. Invited anglers who do not fish the Elite Series in 2006 must re-qualify through the CITGO Bassmaster Northern and Southern Tours the following year.
Ken Cook, the 1991 Classic champ, may have said it best when talking about the business decision that saw him signing up for the Elite Series.
"BASS is the only place I feel you can make a career in this sport," he said. "With ESPN, you have greater visibility than anyone else. The only way for me to advance my career professionally is to fish BASS."