BASS Insider asked Kevin VanDam — arguably the best competitive bass angler ever — to give us his perspective on rookie qualifiers at the Bassmaster Classic. Why do so many of them struggle? What makes this one tournament so difficult? Is there anything they can do to lessen the challenge?
Here's what he had to say:
First, let me say that I haven't forgotten what it's like to be a first time competitor at a Bassmaster Classic. My first one was in 1991 on the Chesapeake Bay, and I can still feel the nerves. I was a relatively new angler, fishing a venue I knew nothing about, with tidal influences I didn't really understand.
At the same time it seemed like every minute of my time was consumed by something or someone. As busy as it is now, it was worse back then — a lot worse.
So my first thought is that a first time qualifier should be careful not to get all into the press, the interviews, the fans or the Expo. As important as those things are, he or she should remember why they're fishing the Classic. Never let that slip out of sight. Fishing is not an option. It's the reason you're there.
The things I just mentioned aren't the most serious problem for a rookie qualifier, however. The real issue — the one that causes the most trouble — is the pressure to do well.
Everyone who's worked hard enough at this sport to earn a slot in the Classic wants to make a good showing. We all feel that way, but it's tougher on a rookie. His greatest fear is to walk across that stage with an empty sack, or one significantly lighter than the other guys. There's nothing worse when you know your family, your sponsors and your friends are watching. I know. I've been there. I've done it.
Basically a lot of rookies try not to fail. That doesn't work. This is not a prevent defense sport. The Bassmaster Classic is a win or lose tournament. No one knows (or cares) who finished second — much less who claimed the last slot after the Saturday night cut.
Knowing how to win under pressure is an acquired skill, something you learn over time. It takes a while to understand that anytime you put yourself in a position to win you also put yourself in a position to lose. It takes even longer to be willing to accept it.
Denny Brauer serves as an example. In 1998 he won the Classic on High Rock Lake in North Carolina. A lot of guys know that. What a lot of guys don't know is where he finished in the 1995 Classic on the same body of water. He was dead last.
Denny didn't learn how to fish between 1995 and 1998. He was already real good at it. He won the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year in 1987 and had amassed a substantial amount of wins and winnings to boot. It's fair to say he was one of the most respected anglers in the country.
What he did was fish all-out both years. In 1998 it worked for him. In 1995 it didn't. But, here's the thing — he was willing to go for everything in 1998 even though he'd finished 40 out of 40 on the same lake three years before. He was not deterred. As he says, you'll never be a hero unless you're willing to zero.
Developing that attitude is tough for a Classic rookie. He or she hasn't had time to feel comfortable fishing all-out, going for the win at all costs.
In my judgment the best thing a Classic rookie can do is to remember that they got here by fishing. If they hadn't caught bass they wouldn't have qualified. That means go out and fish the way you know how. This is not the time to change things or to experiment. Have faith in yourself and fish to the best of your ability.