All dressed up

SHREVEPORT, La. – It’s one thing to see anglers like Kevin VanDam and Mike Iaconelli cross the stage at a Bassmaster Elite Series weigh-in. It’s quite another to see them wearing suits and ties at Classic Night.

Many of the brightest stars in the bass fishing universe convened in a ballroom at the Sam’s Town Hotel and Casino Wednesday night to celebrate the 2011 Bassmaster season and kick off the 2012 campaign.

Anglers, sponsors and B.A.S.S. officials gathered to honor VanDam’s seventh Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year award and his fourth Classic title. But more than that, VanDam said, Wednesday night’s festivities were a celebration of the sport and everyone associated with it.

“For 22 years I’ve been doing this, and I’ve seen a lot of changes,” VanDam said. “In the early days, when Ray (Scott) and Helen (Sevier) owned B.A.S.S., we did this kind of thing a lot more. But somewhere along the way, we kind of got away from that. We got away from this kind of intimate setting to honor everybody that’s involved in the sport. Now it seems like we’re getting back to that. It reminds me of my early days in the sport.

“Here tonight, you’ve got the sponsors, the B.A.S.S. staff, the anglers and their families. Everybody works hard all year long. We all love the sport, and this is the time when we come together to tell the world how great bass fishing is.”

B.A.S.S. owners Jerry McKinnis, Don Logan and Jim Copeland were on hand to honor 2011 Elite Series winners. So were the vast majority of B.A.S.S. staff members and the entire 2012 Classic field.

“This is a party for everybody involved with the sport,” VanDam said. “You’ve got people from the B.A.S.S. staff, the guys from Bassmaster magazine, the people from the TV production crew, the anglers and their wives. We don’t get to do this stuff very often. It’s a big homecoming.”

It was also a time to hear the angler talking about more than hot baits and techniques. Jared Lintner and Kevin Wirth stood in a corner of the room talking about a blog entry that appeared on this site earlier in the week. (Lintner suggested he might wear a hoodie this week to avoid seeing other anglers catching fish in crowded surroundings on the Red River; Wirth, a former Kentucky Derby jockey, highlighted the finer points of horse racing blinkers.)

Stephen Browning and Bassmaster magazine editor James Hall talked about whose hair was turning grayer.

And Aaron Martens, who recently competed in a half-marathon and the multi-day Ragnar Relay, told stories about his recent running exploits.

But Wednesday night’s star attraction was VanDam.

“We all know what he’s done on the water,” McKinnis said. “We’re all just as proud of him for what he does off the water. He’s a great family man, a great business man and a great fisherman.”

VanDam took the stage later in the night to address the crowd.

“I’m a fan first. I love this sport,” VanDam said. “It’s something I’ve grown up doing. I’m thankful for a lot of people and a lot of things that have happened to me. You have to be really blessed to be in a career that you absolutely love. The guys I compete against are the best in the world. I respect them immensely. And hopefully they respect me for the way I play the game.”