2001 Bassmaster Classic: Chaotic year

Kevin VanDam thought he knew what to expect after winning the BASS Masters Classic. He'd qualified for the Classic 11 years in a row, and he was well-acquainted with previous champions, like Denny Brauer and Davy Hite, who related their experiences after winning.

But none of that prepared him for the whirlwind year that awaited him after winning the 2001 Classic in New Orleans.

"I have been totally shocked at the magnitude of what winning the Classic has meant." VanDam says. "Without a doubt, bass fishing is far more mainstream than ever before."

Kevin VanDam is one of the most popular anglers ever to wear the champion's crown. Fans follow and honk as he drives his Suburban along the highway. On airplanes, they walk the aisles to visit with him the moment the "fasten seatbelt" sign is turned off. And they stop him in shopping malls when he's buying clothes for his twin sons.

He's been named an honorary Kentucky Colonel, received a Certificate of Special Tribute from the Governor of Michigan and was invited on television filming trips to Mexico and Venezuela. In the past 12 months, he has autographed at least six different bass boats, to say nothing of signing his name on thousands of caps, shirts, magazines and tackleboxes — sometimes using as many as four Sharpie pens a day. The only places he hasn't been recognized were when he made his annual family deer hunting trip to Saskatchewan in November, and again when he and his wife, Sherry, escaped to Cabo San Lucas right after New Year's.

The chaotic year began within moments of his being declared the winner; VanDam did not know he had won until he sneaked across the stage to see David Walker's final weight. He remembers the press conference and being personally congratulated by Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops and Pat Mackey, president of Mercury Marine, both of whom had flown to New Orleans for the last day of competition. After that, events blurred rapidly.

"I know I went to the Outdoor Show to sign autographs and to visit as many of my sponsors as possible," he remembers. "Gary Dollahon (director of public relations for Brothers & Co.) is really the person who got me through that. Gary ushered me around from place to place. I'm still overwhelmed by the response from the fans."

The hectic new lifestyle continued the next morning, as BASSMASTER photographers Gerald Crawford and Charles Beck took VanDam back to the water for additional photos. Fans were waiting at the launch ramp at daylight for still another glimpse of the Kalamazoo, Mich., pro, and the shoot was delayed while he signed more autographs.

Then the twins, Nicholas and Jackson, locked the keys in the Suburban as Sherry finished packing for the trip home.

"Fortunately, the vehicle has the On-Star emergency assistance system, but unfortunately, their telephone number was also locked in the Suburban," laughs VanDam. "I was able to find David Fritts, whose vehicle has the same system, and we called On-Star, and they unlocked it for us.

"The delay was only about 10 minutes, but I guess I should have realized then that it was going to be a wild year."

During the 18-hour drive back to Kalamazoo, the new champion was frequently followed by well-wishers and more autograph seekers, who would stay with him until he finally pulled into a gas station. Even today, a year later, people still follow him this way.

More than a hundred telephone calls and e-mails greeted the VanDams when they reached home, but that was just the beginning. Gifts from people he's never met — and probably never will — poured in from around the country. Letters of congratulations from industry leaders Forrest Wood and Earl Bentz, neither of whom sponsor VanDam, arrived.

Early in his reign, sponsors Mercury and Bass Pro Shops commandeered his time for two days, during which he did three commercials, several videos and a photo shoot. He flew to Fond du Lac, Wis., aboard Mercury's corporate jet, toured their facility, and talked to many of the plant personnel. He admits to being amazed at seeing posters of himself throughout the factory; his new role as world champion still had not really sunk in.

Fortunately, perhaps, the Michigan CITGO BASSMASTER Tour event on VanDam's home waters of Lake St. Clair in August, 2001, offered a quick retreat back into the world of competitive fishing. In fact, VanDam actually prefished the lake for three days — he never does that anymore — just to escape the telephone. In the tournament, he tied with Larry Nixon for sixth.

"Fishing brings me back to earth," says VanDam. "I'm a competitor, and just planning for an upcoming tournament helps keep me motivated.

"When you win the Classic, you come out swinging for the fences, too. At St. Clair I thought I was on the winning fish, and I never hesitated to make the long, rough boat ride down to Lake Erie to catch them.

"I know that Woo (Daves) did not fish the tournaments after he won the 2000 Classic, and I realize the extra time he devoted to public appearances definitely helped the sport. But I need to fish, and my sponsors felt that it was important for me to participate in tournaments, so I used the events this year to help keep my life a little more balanced."

To casual observers, that balance may have looked a little tilted during the October Tour event a week later on Louisiana's Red River — where VanDam finished a dismal 90th — but he disagrees.

"Again, I went in with the plan to win the tournament," he says. "Even though I finished poorly, I don't think I had a bad event. My plan just didn't work out. I fished three locks down and felt I had the fish to win.

"The Florida CITGO BASSMASTER Tour event on Lake Toho in December was the same way," VanDam continues. "I took my chances on bigger fish down south. The first day I caught 3 pounds, the next day I caught 17 pounds in the same spot, and the third day I caught 6 pounds.

"I have a free entry into the 2002 Classic, but I would like to qualify for it on my own, because I enjoy the tournament competition so much. Even if I can't win an event, I still try to finish as high as I can. Every year, one of my goals is to be a contender for the Angler of the Year, and that hasn't changed, not even for this year."

Certainly, one of the high points of VanDam's fishing this year was his first trip to Lake El Salto in Mexico, where he filmed a television show with fellow pro Shaw Grigsby. In one day there, VanDam boated bass weighing 8 pounds, 12 ounces; 9 pounds; and 10 pounds, 6 ounces — all on a spinnerbait.

"It was the most incredible two days of bass fishing I've ever had, and I can't wait to go back. It's the Disneyland of bass fishing," he says.

As great as that experience may have been, it pales in comparison to the adventure VanDam enjoyed a month later, when he fished for peacock bass in the Cinaruco River in western Venezuela. The trip was sponsored by CITGO Petroleum Corp., and it will be featured on ESPN in July as CITGO's Classic Adventure. David Walker, Harold Allen and Gerald Swindle also participated, and all, including VanDam, describe it as the trip of a lifetime, despite the fact that the champion managed to bury one barb of a treble hook in his thigh (Swindle removed it safely).

"The strength and power of peacock bass is absolutely unbelievable," he exclaims. "I had never been to South America or fished for (peacock bass) before, and my very first peacock hit on about my third cast. I thought I had a monster, but it turned out to be just a 3-pounder. I did catch one a little over 12 pounds, but I'd really like to hook one over 20. That would have to be one of the ultimate freshwater fishing experiences."

If Mexico and Venezuela represent the high points of VanDam's fishing year, then the events of September 11 represent the lowest. Like many pros, he was practicing for an FLW event on Lake Champlain that terrible morning.

"I was catching 4-pound smallmouth when I learned about the terrorist attacks," he says, "and it was the very first time in my life that I can remember not wanting to fish."

When that tournament — as well as the CITGO BASSMASTER Tour event slated for the following week on New York's Hudson River — were cancelled, VanDam headed home. For him, the shortest route led through Canada, and he recalls being searched at the customs checkpoint there more thoroughly than ever before.

"Then, when I reached Detroit and had to go through American customs, the waiting line was 12 to 15 hours long," he explains. "I called a friend, Pat Verbeek, who used to play professional hockey with the Detroit Red Wings (he's now a wingman for the Dallas Stars) to see if he could suggest an alternate route that might not be as crowded.

"Verbeek told me about a ferry he knew of that would accept vehicles pulling bass boats, so I drove through the countryside that evening and found the ferry just 15 minutes before it stopped running for the night. I made it across, and wouldn't you know it, one of the customs officers was an avid bass fisherman who knew who I was. He even asked for my autograph when he finished inspecting my boat."

Through it all, VanDam also managed to keep up a busy public appearance schedule, especially in the fall, since his winter/spring seminar schedule had been filled months before his Classic win.

Practically all the travel arrangements are made by Sherry, who, says VanDam, keeps him "flowing and going."

"She was in shock and in awe at the public response to the Classic win, just like I was," he says, "but she never got to leave the telephone the way I could when I went fishing. She's sacrificed a lot this year, but I could not have done all the things I did without her help."

As was to be expected, VanDam received numerous new sponsorship offers. But he has passed up many of them because "they are just not my type of companies," he says.

"Any sponsorship has to be mutually beneficial to the company as well as to me," he emphasizes. "Right now, I see the next few years in professional bass fishing as Leap Years, because corporate America is fast becoming aware of our sport.

"That is very encouraging to me because it's going to open up new sponsorship opportunities to a lot of anglers, but I would hope those anglers study the sponsorships carefully and exercise some integrity in accepting them. I have seen more young people in my seminars this year than ever before, and understanding the responsibility of angler/sponsor relationships is a subject I frequently talk to them about.

"I think all of us are going to have to study this much more carefully in the years ahead. Because of the increased television coverage through ESPN, our stage has become much, much larger, and the things we say and do will be seen and heard by more people now than we ever dreamed possible.

"To me, the words 'professional bass fisherman' have taken on a much broader meaning."

Those are wise words indeed from any angler, but coming from VanDam, they sound almost understated. After all, he does have more than a decade of top-level competition behind him, a period in which he won six BASSMASTER events, earned the B.A.S.S. Angler-of-the-Year title three times, and qualified for the BASS Masters Classic every year. Even before winning the Classic, he had become one of the most popular and most visible of the tournament pros.

Bass fishing has definitely gone mainstream, it seems, and this past year VanDam has certainly helped lead the way. Even his peers agree that the sport could hardly have handpicked a better champion.

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