He’s reached the big show 28 times, earned four trophies and owns one of only three back-to-back victories. But while the experience level and economic benefits are undeniable, Kevin VanDam says the Bassmaster Classic has never lost that je ne sais quoi of which dreams are made.
“There are several championships and high-profile events, but to this day, there’s something about the mystique of the Classic,” he said. “That comes from the very early days that make it what it is today. I’ve seen a lot of changes, but it transcends all other events."
To understand VanDam’s appreciation for Classic tradition, you have to look at his evolution of thought. Like most, it started with youthful fascination. As a 14-year-old from Kalamazoo, Mich., VanDam was awestruck when Paul Elias’ 1982 Classic win put the event on his mental radar.
“I remember seeing Paul Elias kneeling and reeling and that was at an age when I was at the beginning of my tournament career just fishing around home,” VanDam said. “Through Bassmaster Magazine, I started following the Classics, up to the point of my first one (Chesapeake Bay, 1991).
Prior to the internet, social media and all forms of modern communication – and way before fans could enjoy watching the even unfold in real time – VanDam relied on his own analysis of what to expect. Turns out, the lack of content saturation enveloping 21st century Classics probably helped put him on course to effectively handling the mental game.
“You build it up in your mind as this unbelievable circus-type atmosphere, and I had a lot of people tell me that when I got to my first one that I’d be overwhelmed by it,” he recalls. “I kind of built it up so big that it made it manageable for my first one.
“It was a great experience, but as an angler I learned a lot. It was my first time where you had a lot of media at an event, and you could just feel the difference with the microscope on that event.”
Building the brand
Since his Classic debut, VanDam has amassed the third highest number of appearances (behind Rick Clunn’s 32 and Gary Klein’s 30), with the second longest streak of consecutive qualifications at 24 from 1991 to 2014 (behind Clunn’s 28, 1974-2001). Ask him if the diamond still sparkles as brightly, and you’ll get an immediate “yes.”
In fact, like a Red Bordeaux or Prosciutto di Parma, time has flavored VanDam’s appreciation for Classic tradition. Tipping his hat to a former insurance salesman with a P.T. Barnum-level dream for the sport he loved, VanDam anchors his Classic affinity in his respect for the event’s history.
“I think Ray Scott did a fantastic job from the very beginning of telling the media people he invited just how special the Classic was, that it’s the championship, the Super Bowl — and it stuck from a very early time,” he said. “When you look at how it’s viewed by the industry and the fishing world, the Classic is the biggest single event in the sport.
“I think it’s the mystique that Ray Scott built through his showmanship, his vision from the very early stages that built it to that.”
VanDam said he’s also grateful for the ESPN era, which introduced live Classic coverage and, thereby accelerated the event’s relevance by propelling it into the mainstream sports scene. Notwithstanding the Classic’s ever-increasing international exposure, VanDam said there’s no overstating the personal pride resting amid his four trophies.
“Everybody will say, financially it will make your career, and for some guys, it can — but the Classic is what you make of it,” he said. “In my whole career, it has been the pinnacle event of the sport. I’ve won several AOY titles in B.A.S.S. and FLW, but in the view of the public, the fans and the media, they don’t compare to the Classic.
“The Classic has been built to be the pinnacle event. Again, it really goes back to Ray Scott in the beginning and the initial mystique of the Classic. No question, it’s the Super Bowl, it’s the World Series, it’s the Masters — that’s the level that it is.”
“Early on, winning the Classic was definitely the goal, but not because of my own perception,” VanDam said. “What changed it for me was to see what the Classic meant to many of my peers like Larry Nixon, Rick Clunn, Stacey King, Tommy Martin, Denny Brauer. What just being there meant, and then obviously, what winning it meant for some of them.
“That further impressed upon me what the Classic mystique was at a very early age. Yeah, I wanted to win one, but it took me a while to understand what it took to actually do that because of the extra (attention) that’s on you. I had to learn how to manage that.”
The turning point might very well have been a statement from the late Bassmaster Senior Writer, Tim Tucker, who threw big props laced with challenging inspiration to an established pro that he believed would someday climb the mountain.
“I was eight or 10 years into fishing Classics, and he said ‘Kevin may be one of the best anglers to have never won a Classic,’” VanDam recalls. “He’d bring that up every year at media day. He'd say, ‘Does it bother you (that you haven’t won)?’
“At the time, I had won three Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles and I had been performing at a really high level, but I hadn’t been able to win a Classic. My first one in 2001 was an incredible relief; it took a lot off me.”
For KVD fans who’ve enjoyed watching his storied career, the 2019 Classic will probably be the last time they’ll see him in a B.A.S.S. event. Bittersweet on some level, but VanDam shared a couple of poignant thoughts.
“Because I’m not fishing the Opens, or the Elites, this may be my last Classic, so I definitely want to win it,” he said. “I, of all people, understand the magnitude of the Classic stage and what it means to win one.
“I truly wish everyone could experience what it feels like to win one because it it is a milestone; it’s a mountain — it’s like climbing Mt. Everest. It’s incredibly gratifying. That’s why it would mean so much to me to win because I understand what the Classic is all about.”
Acknowledging the reality of a Classic field that includes a large number of anglers now committed to another professional tour, VanDam said he’s keeping the focus on the event he holds dearly — and the people that make it so.
“In the end, everybody who qualified for the Classic earned their spot there,” he said. “There’s no doubt there’s a bigger contingency of anglers who are not full time on the Elite series than ever before. A lot of really familiar names are going to be there this year that won’t be in the future. But it’s still going to be the Classic.
“B.A.S.S., as an organization, has been phenomenal to me over my career. I have a lot of great friends there and the hardest part for me at this Classic is knowing that I’m not going to see these people on a regular basis like I used to.”
In closing, VanDam offers this advice: “Whether it’s their first Classic, or their last like me, every angler should know how special it is to be there and to be a part of it. I’m going to try my best to truly appreciate everything about this Classic.”