For KVD, the show must go on

When the 2015 GEICO Bassmaster Classic kicks off toward the end of next month, for much of the field it’ll feel like Groundhog Day. Been there, done that. By my count, 43 of the 56 competitors have fished in at least one previous Classic. Eight of them already have the trophy on their shelf at home. Even half of this year’s B.A.S.S. Nation qualifiers have already fished a Classic.

And that’s why it’s so weird that on Day 1 there will be no need for Dave Mercer to call out the words, “And from Kalamazoo, Mich. ... the all-time leading money winner … a four-time Bassmaster Classic champion …”

That’s because for the first time since 1990 – in other words, since about the time that Brandon Palaniuk was officially toilet trained and Ott Defoe entered kindergarten – Kevin VanDam is not in the Classic field.

If the non-qualifying angler was anyone else, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but this, according to Mercer’s patter, is “KAY-VEE-DEE,” an angler whose legend has grown too big even for the initials that once contained him. He has eight Top 10s in the past 11 Classics, including three wins and a trio of near misses. You might not remember it, but the last time the Classic visited Lake Hartwell, KVD finished third, just a few bites behind winner Alton Jones. Of course, he hadn’t blossomed into full-fledged KVD at that time, seeing as he “only” had two Classic trophies and three Angler of the Year (AOY) titles.

If the non-qualifier was anyone but KVD, he’d wake up late on the first morning of the Classic, head downstairs for the free hotel breakfast, or to the Waffle House if none was provided. Then he’d gradually amble over to the Outdoors Expo to make idle chitchat and sign his name – his full name, because for most other anglers, initials alone are not enough. He might even get a break for lunch. KVD will get no break for lunch, which is good because he don’t need no stinkin’ lunch. As Ken Duke wrote a few years back, he’s so good that “Superman wears KVD pajamas.”

Kevin will have no luxury of solitude during the Expo, nor will he be able to anonymously browse the new tackle. His day will likely start with sponsor meetings and other business obligations, before he makes a mad dash to the show to greet his legions of fans. While he’s a seasoned promoter and public speaker who will show no trace of the frustration that his absence from the Classic is causing him, every polite word he utters will come with the stabbing pain of a thousand daggers into his casting arm.

If you’re one of his sponsors, if KVD can’t be in the winner’s circle you’d probably rather he be at the expo than anywhere else, because no other name in the sport moves so much product. If you’re Kevin, there are probably few places that are likely to cause so much pain. He’s worked the booths before – on the rare occasions when he hasn’t made the Day 3 cut, or sometimes even after hours when he has – but this is new territory. For the first time in forever, there is no chance of a Cataouatche Comeback, a Lay Lake Lesson or any other charge that leaves him in the lead when the scales close on Day 3.

So here’s some advice to those of you who will wait upwards of an hour to talk to the man, get a few words of wisdom, or just bask in the glory of a man who to date has won four more Classics and seven more B.A.S.S. AOY titles than you ever will – a few things you shouldn’t ask:

  • Why aren’t you fishing this one?
  • Do you wish you were fishing this one?
  • Does it bother you that you’re not fishing this one?
  • Really sucks to miss this one, doesn’t it?

The answers are of course abundantly clear, and the questioners will have sacrificed their brief meeting with him by uttering the foolish questions, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be asked. If you’re tempted to ask any of these fairly similar questions, just replace it with a query about whether he really can watch 60 Minutes in a half hour, as Ken Duke suggested during the same blogging session referenced above.

For me, it’s not going to feel like a true Classic without him in the hunt. Even if he’s 10 or 15 pounds back heading into the final day, with 10 or 15 guys between him and the leader, there’s always the feeling that he could come back. Or, at the very least, no one would be terribly surprised if he did come back. He’s good at rewriting not only record books, but expectations, too. That’s not to say that the eventual winner should have an asterisk by his name, or feel in any way less-than because he didn’t have to beat Kevin head to head. The eventual winner will have earned his title the hard way, just with one less world beater in his rearview mirror.

VanDam's victory lap after winning his first Classic in 2001.

A few years ago, KVD told me that he traveled between 250 and 300 days annually. Only a small percentage of that was for actual tournament competition. The rest was devoted to business meetings, promotional obligations and filming efforts. “Why don’t you cut back on that?” I asked. I figured that he was established enough that he didn’t have to be so hungry for every last morsel of business success. I thought that if he did try to justify it, he’d say something along the lines of, “You never know when it’s going to end, so you need to make hay while the sun shines.”

He didn’t give me the answer I expected, which was to acknowledge that the extra travel harmed his fishing efforts but enabled him to provide for his family. In fact, he turned that logic on its rear end.

“It helps my fishing,” he said. “A lot of these guys are fishing all of the time. By the time I get out on the water, I can’t wait to be there. I’m hungry.”

The answer should not have surprised me. After all, one of the long-held tenets of the fishing punditocracy has been that “you don’t want to get KVD angry (you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry).” I suppose that Hartwell will be the true test of this theory. Will missing the Classic, other than just showing that he’s human, inspire KVD to change the way he does things? Is it a sign of some sort of decay or of increasingly good competition? Or is it – as I believe – just a blip on the radar, an unlikely mathematical possibility that came true?

I’m not here to tell you that he’ll win every Elite Series tournament next year, or earn four century belts, or eat more red meat than Terry Scroggins while going through more hairstyles than Skeet Reese, but I am willing to wager that he won’t be at the show during tournament hours in 2016. He’ll be on the water, looking to leave Rick Clunn behind as the only four-time Classic winner. I’d be willing to bet the house on it. In fact, I’d be willing to bet the houses owned by KVD, Jerry McKinnis and Dave Mercer on it.

In this sport, as in any other, you play the odds, and if you occasionally come up snake eyes, you belly up to the table again and roll on.