PITTSBURGH — When the 35th edition of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic ended on Sunday, a pair of highly accomplished pros found themselves in very familiar positions.
Michigan's Kevin VanDam brought a five-bass limit to the scales that weighed 4 pounds, 13 ounces. The limit — rare for this Classic, which set an all-time record low final weight — was enough to overtake second-round leader Aaron Martens by a scant 6 ounces. VanDam's three-day total of 12-15 enabled the three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year to add a second coveted Classic trophy to his mantel in Kalamazoo.
Unfortunately for Martens, it marked the third time in four years he has settled for the runner-up position in fishing's most important title. His total of 12-9 proved insufficient, as he failed to become just the second reigning CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year to win the Classic in the same season. The only angler to do so was Mark Davis of Mt. Ida, Ark., in 1995.
"It's certainly a dream come true," said VanDam, who also owns the 2001 Classic crown. "I had no idea today that I was going to win this one. It was so tough out there.
"I missed so many opportunities and made so many mistakes. I thought I was going to be crying all the way home."
There will be nothing but celebrating on his return trip to Michigan.
VanDam pocketed $200,000 for the win and moved within $35,000 of all-time BASS leading money winner Denny Brauer. In addition, it was his third consecutive BASS tournament win, a feat only Roland Martin has accomplished.
"This is just awesome," VanDam said. "I really didn't expect to be in this position after Friday. To be honest with you, after the first day I was really disappointed. I thought I had lost this Classic after the first day.
"I didn't come close to performing at the best of my ability this week.
But I hung in there and kept trying hard."
VanDam's success came on a 20-year-old lure he first started catching bass on during his teen-age years. It is a chrome-colored Smithwick Rogue jerkbait that he fished on Bass Pro Shops' fluorocarbon line and spinning tackle.
He explained that the older jerkbait is unlike those made today by Smithwick and it enabled him to pop the lure erratically just below the surface. That proved to be irresistible to smallmouth bass relating to current-laden points, bridge pilings and seawalls.
With the win, VanDam earned the dubious distinction of owning the smallest winning total in Classic history. The previous record was 15-5 in 1987, held by George Cochran. But that didn't seem to bother the Kalamazoo Kid. "I'm at my best in tough tournaments," VanDam said.
For Martens, the transplanted Californian now living in Alabama, it was another bittersweet Classic performance that mirrored his 2004 Classic outcome. And in both Classics, he made a run at the world championship by targeting bridges.
"Finishing second [stinks]," he said. "It's like a monkey gets on your back. And I felt that monkey yesterday and today.
"The first day went nearly perfect. Yesterday, I had probably the worst day I think I've ever had. And today was better, but it was still pretty tough.
"But I think my family takes it harder than I do. I wish I wasn't second every year. I thought it would be impossible to get three seconds in a row, but I proved that it wasn't."
(Martens finished second in 2004 and 2002, but didn't qualify for the 2003 Classic.)
Former Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle finished third with 11-13, followed by two-time Classic champion Cochran (11-10) and 2003 Classic winner — and clear favorite of the Mellon Arena crowd of 13,413 in — Michael Iaconelli (11-5).
Oklahoma's Edwin Evers, who finished sixth, won the $1,000 prize for the Purolator Big Bass Award with a 1-pound, 15-ounce bass.
In contrast to Martens, Swindle took finishing third (slightly more than a pound behind VanDam) particularly hard.
"This is probably as frustrated as I've been at coming up short in this Classic," the Alabama pro said. "I'll tell you what it's like — it's like being at the buffet line with a muzzle on your face."
In Classic XXXV, smallmouth dominated the catch from the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, and the downtown Pittsburgh area proved to be the most productive.
Another dominating feature of the event was the large and enthusiastic crowds that flocked to Mellon Arena. Nearly 30,000 fans packed the arena over the three days to see the weigh-ins.
The 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic received unprecedented coverage on ESPN and ESPN2 this year. A total of 12 hours of programming was devoted to Classic tournament coverage July 29-31.