Something has bothered Gerald Swindle for nearly 14 years. July 31, 2005, he saw his closest Bassmaster Classic opportunity slip from his hands and into Kevin VanDam’s.
Swindle says it wasn’t so much the fact that VanDam won that tough Pittsburgh event; it was how he did not.
“I finished third, and I lost that winning fish like three times the last day,” Swindle said. “All I had to do was catch five, but I got four and he beat me by a pound and 2 ounces. I jumped off a 2-pounder and a couple of solid keepers.
“I can remember standing in the green room, looking across the floor and thinking, ‘Kevin has busted my butt many times and beat me, but no disrespect, today I gave it to you. Today was my day and I didn’t get it done.'”
Likening the disappointment to an outfielder watching a fly ball leave his glove, Swindle said that painful loss cut to the bone.
“I had it and it dropped,” he said. “That feeling comes back a lot. If I’m ever put back in that position; if I’m ever that close again I’m not going to let it drop.”
Swindle said this year’s Classic means much more than a final shot at settling the score. Suffice it to say that, in terms of qualifying, he slid into home and beat the tag by a fingernail.
“I spent a lot of time in the tree stand this fall thinking about the decisions being made, how people were changing their future, but I was like ‘This is the hardest road to make the Classic I’ve ever taken,’” Swindle said. “I had a decent year at times, then I had a couple of events where I stumbled. I kept going in and out, I had a pretty good lead in the points as far as staying in, then I fell back. Then I messed around and got too far behind, went to the AOY Fish-Off three or four places out and couldn’t get it done.
“I felt like it was over and had to go to the (Mossy Oak Fishing Bassmaster Classic Bracket) on a very tough body of water, worked my way through that deal and qualified there. I felt like getting to my 18th Classic, I took a dirt road on a bicycle. It was the roughest road I’ve ever had to the Classic, as far as the emotional ups and downs.”
Recognizing this year’s qualification as his hardest earned pushes a single sentiment to the forefront of Swindle’s mind: It’s time.
“It makes you appreciate it; it makes you realize what it would mean to win it,” he said. “I can’t say I won’t ever cross that stage again, but it might be a couple of years. I’ll still fish the Opens and I’ll still try to return, but in my heart, I know it’s kinda do-or-die.”
Even though his Bassmaster Elite Series career has ended, Swindle said he’ll always view the Classic with a sense of awe.
“To me, growing up through now, the Classic has always been viewed as one of the biggest fishing tournaments in the world,” he said. “It carries the most publicity, it carries an awesome paycheck, it solidifies people’s careers. That’s never changed.
“What’s different in my mind now, will be when I pull through that tunnel and think: ‘Could this be the last time I ever do it?’ Which makes it bigger mentally than I’ve ever seen it.”
Swindle’s not spending much time pondering what could be; he’s only looking at what is.
“We don’t know the future of this sport; there may be a tournament one day bigger, there may not be — who knows?” he said. “But I know what goes on inside that Classic arena, I know what it means to win and I know how hard I’ve had to work to get there every time.
“I thought the first time I went through the Classic tunnel was the most memorable, I went on stage with a fireman who was dying of cancer and thought that was memorable. I honestly think Classic number 18 (for me) will probably be the most memorable one I’ve ever walked into.”
Get ready for a show
Priorities, perspective; these are life’s grapes fermented by the vintage of experience. Suffice it say, the G-Man plans on uncorking a bottle of full-bodied butt whooping at Knoxville, Tenn.
“When you first make it to the Classic, you never wanted to be ‘that guy,’ but you were just happy to be there,” Swindle said. “Even as a kid I was fishing to win, but I was just happy to be there.
“This time, I’m not just happy to be there. I feel like the mission that I have to accomplish, the last piece of the dream, the last piece of the puzzle I have to put together is in that arena in Knoxville and I gotta get it done.”
Swindle knows that winning the sport’s biggest event is never an easy goal, but he believes this year’s level of competition will be off the chart.
“Across the board, this will be the most intensely-fished Bassmaster Classic in the history of B.A.S.S.,” he said. “You’ll be able to cut the intensity with a saw. It won’t be toward an organization or a person; it will between the anglers and themselves and knowing what’s on the line. They are going to bring their heart and soul to win it, and we all know it.
“You have a group of guys who’ve made it who realize it’s now or never. Most of the time, when you back these guys against the wall, they’re all going to come out fighting. I think the fans and the organization are going to get everything they want.”
Predicting a very emotional event, Swindle’s expecting straight-up raw emotion on the weigh-in stage.
“When these guys come in for the last time, I don’t think there’s going to be anything left in the tank,” he said. “I think you’re going to see guys leave it all on the water trying to make it happen.”
Addressing the chemistry Classic qualifiers loyal to B.A.S.S. and those, like himself, who’ve moved to another circuit, Swindle’s hopeful that camaraderie will prevail.
“I would be disappointed if they changed,” he said. “I would like to think that the guys coming back from a different league and fishing the Classic will pick up with their friends, and it will be like old times. I think if you didn’t know what was in the gumbo recipe, you wouldn’t know what was going on. You wouldn’t know that some guys have taken a different route. It will look very smooth, with no hard feelings.
“I’m going in there with the utmost respect for the league I’ve fished for 20-plus years and, in return, I hope they have it for me because I feel like for these 20 years, I’ve given them my heart and soul. I’m going into the Classic with respect for the league, but in pursuit of a dream.”
And if that dream comes true?
“I think if I could hold the trophy this time, it would solidify a journey; a walk that I took with no road map and no guarantee,” Swindle said. “I left a small town chasing something, and I didn’t even know if it could happen. So, to be able to stand there and say ‘You’ve walked the road, you’ve won an AOY and you’ve now got the Classic,’ — I will have completed that journey.
“Honestly, I think it would mean more to my wife because she’s seen the journey through the good and the bad: the day’s when her husband’s body was hurting, the ups and downs emotionally. So, for her, that would be the icing on the cake to say that we, as a couple walked the long road together and it paid off.”