Kevin VanDam says this week's Bassmaster Classic is markedly different from his first on the Chesapeake Bay in 1991.He remembers being in awe the moment he stepped off the airplane in Baltimore that muggy August day. He was an obscure, 23-year-old tenderfoot, tacklebox in hand, about to embark on one of the most amazing careers in bass fishing history.
Everyone told me there was no way I could prepare for that moment and that I wouldn't do well because of the whole spectacle," he says. "To some degree, they were right."He remembers being an outsider, alone at the banquets and media events."The pros treated me OK, but nobody went out of their way to talk to me," he says. "That part wasn't much fun."Now, everyone knows Kevin VanDam. In addition to two Classic titles and four Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year crowns, the Red River marks his 19th consecutive Bassmaster Classic appearance.He's dogged daily by media, sponsors and autograph seekers.But he hasn't forgotten what it's like to be a Classic rookie."I make sure the new guys feel welcome," he says. "I remember how I felt when I was in their shoes."VanDam is no longer in awe of the Classic, capably juggling the enormous attention without losing focus.
"I don't get nervous anymore," he insists. "I know what to expect and how to handle it. But it is THE CLASSIC, the biggest event in our sport. When we blast off that first morning, I will have butterflies in the stomach, just as I did in 1991."
There are other differences, he says, particularly in how the event has evolved. Everything is magnified with bigger purses, broadened media coverage and the increase in spectator boats on the water.
For years, identically rigged boats were provided for the pros and it was easy to blend in and hide on the water. Now, they fish from their own boats bearing bright-colored sponsor logos, making it easier for onlookers to single out their heroes.
"With all the internet coverage, TV, and modern technologies, everything happens in real time," he adds. "You can't slide under the radar or find a secret creek to fish. With cell phones and the internet, the world knows what you do the minute it happens."
For example, in 2008 at Lake Hartwell, he was surrounded by as many as 70 to 80 spectator boats when he caught his first fish.
"The nearby cell phone towers lit up the minute I put that fish in the livewell," he jokes. "I could hear people calling their buddies telling them what I caught, how and where."
VanDam isn't complaining, noting that his popularity has been good for sponsors. He embraces on-the-water spectators, begrudgingly at times, but knows it's the nature of today's game and an aspect top pros must deal with and accept."We must remember that it's the fans who have helped make the sport what it is today," he insists.
And, in his "turn-negatives-into-positives" way of thinking, those past experiences with media attention and spectators may give him an edge.Less experienced anglers in contention the last day aren't accustomed to dealing with that," he explains. "It can be unnerving and affect the way you fish if you're not used to it."The Michigan pro factors fan and media issues into his pre-tournament strategy. His practice is devoted to building multiple patterns in numerous places, including the elimination of productive patterns that could be affected adversely by boat traffic.
That will be critical on the Red River due to the nature of the shallow backwaters," he says. "All those boat wakes and trolling motors running over those shallows can change conditions quickly."For that reason he encourages on-water spectators to give pros room to fish and watch from afar. And, above all, don't move in to fish a spot after they leave.
"Anchor from a distance, watch through your binoculars, eat a sandwich and watch your favorite pro fish," he offers. "That's all we ask."