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In search of a hero at the Bassmaster Classic

Larry Hackett, the managing editor of People magazine, looks like a man who wants to look like Anderson Cooper. It’s just a few days before the Academy Awards, and normally Hackett would be in Los Angeles among the celebrities his publication so devotedly covers. But instead he’s here in Shreveport, Louisiana, to give the keynote speech at the 2012 Bassmaster Classic opening gala.

“I can’t tell you the looks on the faces of my staff members when I said that I was leaving,” he tells the audience. “They said, ‘You’re going to the Oscars?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m going to Shreveport.’ ”

Hackett had been invited to speak by his buddy Don Logan, a former executive of Time Warner and one of the three men who in 2010 purchased the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS), which runs the tournament, from ESPN.

For reasons I cannot fathom, the bulk of Hackett’s speech is devoted to analyzing various People photo spreads. A shot of the Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir appears on the screen next to Hackett, who says of Weir’s outfit, “You can dress like Johnny Weir, but I have a feeling that’s not going to go over very well on a bass boat.” The audience is mostly silent. Unfazed, Hackett asks the audience to guess, by way of applause, which celebrity covers translated into the highest newsstand sales. Steve Jobs or Amy Winehouse? Elizabeth Taylor or Whitney Houston? It’s a testament to the graciousness of the fishermen here that Hackett receives even tepid applause as he exits the stage.

Perhaps Hackett meant his speech to be instructive. Coverage of last year’s tournament on ESPN2 drew an average of about 280,000 viewers. People’s readership, he bragged, was 40 million a week, and he suggested that BASS, too, could reach a larger audience by promoting its stars to the masses.

By far the sport’s biggest celebrity is Kevin VanDam, the defending Classic champion, who also takes the stage on opening night. Most of the other anglers are wearing slacks and button-down shirts, and a few are in jeans, but VanDam wears a charcoal suit and scrupulously gelled hair. He’s handsome and gracious and, at forty-four, he’s at the heart of the Classic’s white, middle-aged, mostly male viewer demographic.

VanDam’s brief speech is a kind of pep talk for those fishermen who think that ESPN made the Classic too commercial. Under BASS’s first owners, he admits, there was a greater sense of camaraderie and intimacy among the competitors. “But somewhere along the way, we kind of got away from that.”

ESPN had wanted to make bass fishing the new NASCAR — before NASCAR itself lost its national audience. The new owners are passionate amateur bass fishermen, and VanDam assures the crowd that (Larry Hackett aside) the tournament is returning to its earlier sense of intimacy.

ESPN still has the television rights to the Classic, and for the past few weeks they have run numerous promos for the tournament, almost all of which have featured VanDam. The sport has more electric, even outlandish, personalities, but VanDam’s dominance is undeniable. He’s already tied the record — four — for Classic titles. He’s been crowned BASS’s Angler of the Year seven times. Now he’s trying to win a third Classic in a row — an unprecedented feat that could finally give professional fishing a few minutes in the national spotlight.

The boats are luminous, even in the predawn darkness. Shiny decals — advertisements for Yamaha and Mercury motors, Abu Garcia reels, and Strike King lures — attract the few lights that are on at the Red River South Marina, this year’s starting point for the Classic. Already, hundreds of people are milling about, and it’s hard to distinguish between the volunteer workers and the fans.

VanDam is lining up his rods and tinkering with his lures — the crankbaits, spinnerbaits, worms, and jigs he’ll employ throughout the day. He doesn’t go out of his way to acknowledge any of the onlookers, and when a few address him directly he keeps his answers short. But his demeanor changes once he approaches the boat ramp in his Toyota Tundra, which is also covered with decals. “Let’s go, Kevie!” a woman shouts, and VanDam smiles. Others holler “KVD,” an initialism he says his fans and the media created but that he has embraced. VanDam signs a few autographs. The procession to the water is slow and at times chaotic. Brent Chapman, a Kansas angler, accidentally steers his truck into a man, who crumples to the ground. After a frightful minute, the man gets back on his feet, seemingly unharmed.

VanDam backs his boat into the water, and I join him on board. The tournament organizers had assured me I’d be riding along with VanDam on opening day, occupying the sole passenger seat. But VanDam’s not so sure. “Don’t be surprised if a cameraman kicks you out,” he tells me. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later a cameraman does exactly that. I should have expected it: there’s no way ESPN would broadcast the tournament without close-ups of KVD.

Dawn is breaking, but the early stirrings along the river are drowned out by the Auto-Tuned verses of Taio Cruz’s club hit “Dynamite” blasting from speakers onshore. At precisely 7:00 a.m., the Classic starts. The rules are simple: after eight hours on the water, each of the competitors weighs his five heaviest fish, assuming he’s caught that many; repeat for two additional days, with the field winnowed to twenty-five after the second day. Whoever has accumulated the highest total weight gets the trophy and a check for $500,000. Second prize is $45,000.

Because he won last year’s event, VanDam gets to leave the docks first, a slight but valuable advantage. A hundred-mile stretch of the Red River is at his disposal. There are practice days during the week before the tournament, and many of the anglers have made scouting trips to the river months prior to the event. Some can also draw on their memories from 2009, the last time the Red River hosted the Classic. But conditions — currents, weather, water level, air pressure — change by the hour, and with them the behavior of the fish. It’s spawning season, though, and there are sure to be bass somewhere.

The earliest guide to sport fishing is attributed to the prioress of a Benedictine nunnery in Hertfordshire, England. Juliana Berners’s A Treatyse of Fysshynge wythe an Angle, which was first printed in 1496, is basically a how-to guide, with detailed advice, including illustrations, on assembling rods, lines, and hooks. It also offers strategies for catching different species of fish. “The samon is a gentyll fysshe: but he is comborous for to take,” Berners observes. “For comynly he is but in depe places of grete ryuers: and for the more parte he holdyth the myddys of it: that a man maye not come at hym.”

Berners goes on to dispense advice on pike, flounder, trout, and bream — but no bass. The Micropterus genus of bass — the largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted, which are known collectively as black bass — is native to North America. In the 1770s, the Philadelphia-born naturalist William Bartram traveled through the American South and later wrote one of the first accounts of bass fishing (though he called them trout). He described two men — colonists, not American Indians — sitting in a canoe, one holding a rod and line attached to “three large hooks, back to back.” The hooks were

covered with the white hair of a deer’s tail, shreds of a red garter, and some particoloured feathers, all of which form a tuft, or tassel, nearly as large as one’s fist, and entirely cover and conceal the hooks.

Bartram went on to describe the moment the fish “seizes the supposed prey” and is jerked into the boat.

Bass came to the northeast by way of the Erie Canal, which was completed in 1825. As the railroads expanded west, people stocked the tank ponds with them (the fish were filtered out before the water was added to the locomotive’s steam engine). The country’s great dam projects accelerated bass fishing’s ascendancy: trout streams were wiped out, replaced by vast warm-water expanses that favored bass.

But bass fishing didn’t become popular as a participatory sport until after the Second World War. Between 1946 and 1968, the number of anglers in the country tripled, from 13 million to 39 million. In his book Bass Boss, Robert H. Boyle, a reporter for Sports Illustrated, tells the story of how the Classic was created. In 1967, during a business trip to Mississippi, an insurance salesman from Alabama named Ray Scott took a day off to go fishing. After he got caught in a hailstorm on the lake, Scott returned to his hotel early. Restless, he turned on the television. He started watching a basketball game, but as he did he wondered why he had never seen fishing on television. “In a microsecond I saw it all,” Scott told Boyle. “I saw a hundred bass fishermen competing, tournament-style. It just came to me. I knew it would work.”

A few months later, Scott hosted his first tournament, on Arkansas’s Beaver Lake. It drew 106 anglers and charged a $100 entry fee. Scott lost $600 funding the venture, but the tournament was a hit. Soon after, he established BASS and a magazine, free with membership, called Bassmaster. (Currently, there are about 520,000 BASS members.) Meanwhile, he kept organizing tournaments, including the first Bassmaster Classic, which was held on Nevada’s Lake Mead in 1971.

Scott sold BASS to a group of investors in 1986 (who in turn sold it to ESPN in 2001), but the charismatic founder still comes to many of the major events. When I met him, Scott told me his advocacy for bass fishing was more than mere salesmanship: “I’m a prospector,” he said. “You know who the first prospector was? Jesus. I’d sell a guy a subscription to BASS for ten dollars and write him a personal thank-you letter. Ten dollars doesn’t even buy you shotgun wad, but I’d get that guy to sign up several of his friends, and so on — just like how Jesus did it in the Gospels.”

Most of the hundred miles of river designated for the tournament lie downstream of the marina, to the south, but on Friday morning VanDam steers his boat toward a small inlet, about the size of a football field, a few hundred yards upriver, where he had caught fish on the practice days. Even at seventy-five miles an hour, his boat’s top speed, it would have taken VanDam almost an hour to make the run to his preferred spots downriver, including idle time in at least one lock. The Red River itself — deep, muddy, and fast-moving — is useless for bass fishing. Bass tend to seek out shallow water, as well as tree stumps, foliage, and fallen logs, which make for convenient hiding places.

Following my eviction by the cameraman, I trail VanDam in a boat driven by Michael Bedgood, an event volunteer who runs a local logging company. He used to be an avid softball player, but a knee injury and some extra pounds brought him to the more sedentary joys of fishing. He competes in local tournaments and regards VanDam with awe. BASS pays Bedgood a per diem to cover food and gas — in eight hours we go through forty gallons — but he says he’d happily do it for free. (Most of the competitors’ boats have tanks that hold more than sixty gallons, so running out of gas is rare.)

VanDam kills the engine, leaps from his seat, and grabs one of the half dozen rods strapped to the deck. About twenty more rods, meticulously rigged with an assortment of lures, are stored in the hull. He walks to the bow, where there’s a second, much smaller motor, which he lowers into the water. Attached to a foot-controlled steering mechanism, the trolling motor allows an angler to fish and move (or, in strong currents, not move) at the same time. But VanDam barely has time for a dozen casts before last year’s runner-up, Aaron Martens, enters the inlet. Within ten minutes, three more anglers join, and Bedgood quips, “Looks like Kevin has a magnet on his boat.”

One of the unwritten rules in tournament bass fishing is that you don’t crowd another angler or infringe upon his territory. The subject arose when I first met VanDam in September 2011 at the Toyota Texas Bass Classic, a non-BASS event, held on Lake Conroe, Texas, an hour north of Houston. I had joined VanDam for a practice session. Midway through the day he landed a sizable largemouth bass, maybe a three-and-a-half-pounder. He was casting near a sandbar, and he recorded our location onto a GPS tracking unit — he might want to return during the tournament. At the same moment he spotted another angler, Keith Combs, who had crowded him at the Classic earlier that year. VanDam didn’t want Combs to see he had landed a big fish. Using his body to shield Combs’s line of sight, he tossed the bass over to my side of the boat. Then he asked me to discreetly drop it back into the lake. Grabbing the fish by its lower lip — that’s how you hold a bass — I did just that.

Combs went on to win the tournament, which carried a $100,000 top prize, fishing nowhere near our place of subterfuge. And here on the Red River, I know for a fact that Martens isn’t trying to shadow VanDam. I had accompanied Martens, a spacey California native who punctuates his speech with “dude”s and “bro”s, during the final practice session, and he had told me he would start the tournament in the inlet. VanDam, who likes Martens, doesn’t take offense: “It’s a community spot,” he later tells reporters.

VanDam disappears farther back into the inlet, out of sight, but Bedgood doesn’t want to follow lest he get a tongue-lashing for coming too close. A few minutes later, VanDam reappears. He’s caught a bass, but only a two-pounder, which he has dropped into his boat’s live well — a tank that keeps the fish trapped but alive. (Starting with the second Bassmaster Classic, Ray Scott mandated that all fish be kept alive and then released into their natural habitat after the weigh-in. A competitor is penalized for dead fish.)

The fifteen fish that won Skeet Reese the 2009 Bassmaster Classic on this very river weighed a total of fifty-four pounds and thirteen ounces, averaging about three and a half pounds each. So at 8:35 a.m., his face betraying no emotion, VanDam leaves the inlet and guns his motor for the long run downriver.

VanDam grew up outside Kalamazoo, Michigan, a city best known in sports circles for hosting the national junior tennis championships. The family business was construction, and they had a cabin on Lake Leelanau, near Traverse City. “My earliest memory of fishing is being on the ice with my father when I was three,” VanDam says.

Later VanDam would fish with his brother, Randy, who is seven years older. They would ride their bikes to nearby streams and ponds. “We taught ourselves, mostly,” Randy says. “Some kids traded baseball cards, but we traded fishing lures.”

Randy remembers their first tournament together, when VanDam was fourteen. “There were about thirty-five or forty boats entered and a lot of good local fishermen — the top dogs,” he says. The brothers placed second and won a small cash prize. But VanDam also caught the tournament’s biggest bass, “using a black jig with an orange Uncle Josh trailer,” Randy says. The big-bass pot was one hundred dollars. “Now, part of the thing about fishing team tournaments is that no matter who catches the fish you split the winnings,” Randy says. “Well, this was his first tournament, and he thought he should have all the winnings — and I made him split them.”

The boys’ father, Dick VanDam, marveled at his younger son’s work ethic, the long hours he put in off the water. “Every day he’d change the line on every rod that he used — and he still does it — to make sure there was no small fray or anything else that was going to cost him losing a fish,” Dick says.

Randy opened a hunting and fishing store in Kalamazoo. In the late 1980s, when VanDam was working at his brother’s store and fishing local tournaments, he met a girl named Sherry Campbell. They started dating just as he was turning professional. After five years together they got married, and eventually Sherry gave birth to twin boys, Jackson and Nicholas. For the next five years they were a traveling family on the BASS tour.

When the twins started school, Sherry settled back in Kalamazoo and became VanDam’s de facto agent. “It’s my business too,” she says. Her days are spent managing travel arrangements, taxes, sponsorship contracts, and media appearances. When I spoke with her, she was working on organizing a charity tournament featuring VanDam and members of the Detroit Lions. Still, she stops short of offering her husband strategic advice. “After twenty-two years of this, I can talk the talk, and I know all the lingo about spinnerbaits and crankbaits and whatnot,” she says. “But I have no clue how to walk the walk.”

In 1992, at the age of twenty-five, VanDam became the youngest person to be crowned BASS Angler of the Year. Other professional anglers took note of his early success, and some resented it. “He came across as brash, and plus he was a Yankee,” says Steve Price, a journalist who has covered the sport since 1976. “That combination got everybody a little upset. But then he backed it up for the next twenty years.”

“At the time,” Randy VanDam remembers, “the sport was a Southern Bubba’s game, and he wasn’t part of that. When he cashed check after check, it kind of woke them up a little bit.”

VanDam is known as a power fisher as opposed to a finesse fisher. Mike Iaconelli, who won the 2003 Classic and is the sport’s loudest personality — his full-throated, fist-pumping celebrations landed him on GQ’s “Ten Most Hated Athletes” list — explains the distinction in a video clip on his personal website:

Power fishing means you’re covering a lot of water. You got the troll motor on high, you’re throwing big baits, you’re reeling them in fast. But more than anything, power fishing means you’re trying to get a reaction bite. And in fishing there’s two kinds of strikes you can get, two kinds of bites to get. One is a reaction strike, and one is a hunger strike. Most of the time, when you’re finesse fishing, you’re generating a hunger strike. You’re trying to make that bait look natural, and it’s light line and those fish are eating it out of hunger. But in power fishing, using the fall of the bait, using the wiggle or the speed of the bait, you’re trying to trigger a reaction strike. And what that means is that the fish isn’t necessarily hungry. And that’s good because nine times out of ten when you’re fishing, you’re not fishing during periods when the fish are actively feeding so you need to trigger that fish to bite.

VanDam has published two instructional books, which include long chapters on tackle, weather, water clarity, and numerous other variables. The writings are meant for the amateur angler, but they demonstrate how specialized VanDam’s knowledge is:

When fishing heavy weed beds of the north or when shad pull into the matted grass in the backs of creeks, I like a wooden jerkbait that is highly buoyant and can be fished in the pockets of the weeds.

Many anglers would prefer to fish a soft plastic jerkbait in that situation, but one of my favorites is the A.C. Shiner, a balsa minnow lure that can be worked like a topwater or a jerkbait. You can give the A.C. Shiner a lot of action without moving it from the strike zone. If you jerk it forward then give it slack, it will move backwards. I snap it hard and fast, only an inch or two, to make the bait flash and roll.

A few professional anglers have degrees in fish biology and related fields, but none have come close to matching VanDam’s success. “Put a biologist out on this lake with me,” VanDam told me on Lake Conroe, “and I guarantee you I’ll catch more fish.”

After his dash downriver, VanDam spends the rest of the day near the western shores of a backwater called Sullivan’s. Casting near the hyacinth-covered banks, it takes VanDam nearly three hours to make his five-bass limit, and none of the fish appear to be larger than two pounds. After making a limit, the anglers are free to keep fishing — they simply swap out smaller bass from their live wells for bigger ones. But VanDam never lands a big one, and when he returns to the docks he knows he’s far off the lead.

Since I didn’t get to ride with him in the boat, he offers me a lift from the marina to the CenturyLink Center, an indoor arena in Bossier City, Shreveport’s twin across the Red River, where each day’s weigh-in is staged. I feel awkward and wonder, given his disappointing day, if he’ll be surly or withdrawn. But when we get in his truck, he turns to me and says, “If there’s anything you want to ask, now’s the time.” What happened, I ask. There were two factors that hurt him, he says. “The biggest was the wind picked up, and that, combined with the cold front, pushed the fish out of the areas where I was catching them during practice. The water got real dirty.”

Nonetheless, he’s happy to have met the five-fish limit. “It’s a small limit, no doubt about it,” he says, “but the important thing about the Classic is you want to make sure you’re not out of it after the first day.”

BASS officials say that 93,609 people are at the 2012 Bassmaster Classic. Of that number, fewer than 1 percent actually spend any time watching fishing on the Red River, which remains open to the public during the event. Even the few fans who do take to boats can shadow only a handful of competitors, who are spread out over dozens of square miles of water. So it’s at the weigh-in that fans will get their closest look at the anglers. Admission is free.

At one end of the arena there’s a stage and multiple screens showing the day’s highlights. Dave Mercer, a portly man who hosts a show on Canada’s World Fishing Network, is the emcee. At some fishing events, the weigh-in is a minor draw. During the Toyota Texas Bass Classic, the crowds came mainly for the nightly concerts by such country singers as Pat Green and Billy Currington. But at the CenturyLink Center, the peripheral entertainment precedes the weigh-in and is kept short.

The anglers enter one at a time, sitting in their boats as trucks pull them toward the stage, each procession accompanied by music of the competitor’s choosing. As befits the suburban and exurban audience of the Classic, country tunes are the most popular choice, though hip-hop is also well represented. Iaconelli enters to a personalized rap track extolling his fishing prowess. Martens has picked LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” VanDam, who doesn’t like country or hip-hop, enters to a generic contemporary-rock number that I can’t place. “I don’t spend any time thinking about my song,” he tells me. “I let fans choose it.” (I later learn it’s “Ladies and Gentlemen,” by a band called Saliva.)

VanDam’s entrance on Friday is greeted with a roar. He extracts five squirming fish from his live well, places them in a large plastic bag, and walks onto the stage as Mercer recaps his record-setting career for the crowd. At the podium stands tournament director Trip Weldon, who looks a little like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. Weldon removes the fish from the bag and places them in a plastic box on the scale, covering them with a lid to keep them from flopping out. Then he announces the result to the crowd. Eleven pounds. The fish are taken backstage and handed off to wildlife officials, who place them back in water; they will return them to the river later that evening. (PETA objects to bass fishing on the grounds that hooks hurt the fish and that removing bass from the water depletes their protective outer coating, but almost all of the fish survive.)

VanDam is in twenty-seventh place, six pounds and thirteen ounces behind the leader, Alabama native Keith Poche. If the standings don’t change tomorrow, he won’t make the Sunday cutoff. “Today was not the day that I expected,” VanDam tells the crowd. “It was tough out there. . . . I tried to make it happen in a couple of areas and the water just got so dirty with the wind that I couldn’t do it.”

When VanDam won the 2011 tournament, which was held in the Louisiana Delta, he was in third place after the first day. In 2010, when he won it on Alabama’s Lay Lake, he finished the first day on top.

But VanDam tells the crowd he’s not out of it yet. “It’s supposed to calm down tomorrow,” he says. “With this cold weather it may pull some of those fish into some of those ditches and things where it’ll be a little easier to target them.”

He’s still optimistic, he says. “I feel really good about tomorrow — I learned a lot today,” he says.

“That sounds scary to a lot of people,” Mercer says into the microphone. And on the floor, the fans I speak with all tell me the same thing — you can’t ever count KVD out.

One obvious reason bass fishing is not a more popular spectator sport is that it’s almost impossible to follow live, either in person or on television. Privileged members of the media get spots on the anglers’ boats, but even if you’re in VanDam’s passenger seat, you’re missing out on the exploits of the other competitors.

As for television, only eight of the anglers have cameramen on board, and while there’s also a helicopter camera, it would be a logistical nightmare to broadcast the event unedited. Unlike when, say, a golfer approaches the tee, there’s no telling when the moment of action — landing a fish — will come. So BASS spends a few days working with the footage and airs a much condensed version of the tournament on ESPN2 the weekend after it takes place, by which point most fans already know the outcome. And as the ratings show, many people simply find watching bass fishing on television boring. You get a few fast-paced moments when a fish is on the line but none of the tactile and meditative pleasures of being on the water.

During the day, while the anglers are on the Red River, most of their fans are at the Shreveport Convention Center, a 350,000-square-foot facility — the second-largest convention center in Louisiana — abutting the Hilton. Inside, the manufacturers behind what the American Sportfishing Association estimates is a $48 billion industry display their newest products. And it’s here, off the river, that I spend my Saturday.

It’s a family atmosphere. There’s a large pool with targets for kids to practice casting. The grown-ups — and although no female competitors are in the event this year, there are a lot of women in the crowd — are drawn to the hardware on display: Toyota pickups and a seemingly limitless number of boats, motors, rods, and reels.

Many pros who didn’t qualify for this year’s Classic are shilling for various sponsors, and on Sunday, after the field has been cut in half, several of the vanquished anglers also stop by. With so little prize money to go around, sponsorship deals are the only way for most anglers to survive.

VanDam’s formidable $6 million in tournament winnings — twice that of his nearest rival — amounts to about $270,000 a year for the twenty-two years he’s been fishing professionally. Entry fees for a year of Bassmaster Elite Series tournaments add up to $43,000. To outfit yourself with a boat, a truck, and gear costs as much as $90,000, and the best anglers change equipment every year. Travel and accommodation expenses — competitors have to drive to every tournament; you can’t stow a boat in an overhead compartment — add another $30,000 or so.

While VanDam will stay in hotels or rental houses during tour events, many lesser pros cannot afford such an extravagance. Carl Jocumsen, a young Australian angler who was in Shreveport for the weekend but not competing, tells me he often sleeps in the back of his truck when on tour. “Before I came over to the States to try and make it, my friends held a fund-raiser tournament in Australia and raised eighteen thousand dollars,” he says. “But that went quickly.” He couldn’t even afford to buy the truck he’s now driving. “I had a shit truck, but thankfully my best friend from Australia, who’s a champion motorcyclist, bought me an F-250.” Most anglers are fortunate to break even by the end of the year.

“The fishing industry has taken a big hit in this economy, and the year-to-year sponsor contracts are drying up,” says Kevin Wirth, whose loss of a sponsorship deal with Early Times whiskey contributed to his decision to retire after the 2012 Classic. A former Kentucky Derby jockey, Wirth has been a professional angler for twenty-nine years, with more than $1.1 million in tournament winnings. But with a family to support, he’s decided to leave pro fishing altogether and re-establish his equine-dentistry practice.

In 2002, at ESPN’s annual self-promotional awards show, the ESPYs, the network presented VanDam with its inaugural trophy for Best Outdoor Athlete. The previous year, the network had bought BASS for an estimated $40 million. “This acquisition, together with our expanding commitment to outdoor programming . . . could serve as the foundation for the launch of a dedicated ESPN outdoors network,” ESPN president George Bodenheimer said at the time.

But it was not to be. In 2002, ESPN’s three-day coverage of the Bassmaster Classic drew an average of 296,000 households, a number that has barely budged over the past decade. On November 1, 2010, ESPN unloaded BASS for an undisclosed sum, though it said it would continue to air Classics and other tournaments on ESPN2. The network canceled almost all its other outdoor programming.

ESPN’s size was more an obstacle than a boon when it came to attracting money to the sport, believes Don Logan, one of BASS’s new owners. “When we go in to talk to somebody about spending money with us and they’re a little reluctant, we’re not bashful at all about pushing back and doing everything that we can to convince them this is the right thing for them to do.” ESPN, on the other hand, was shy about pressuring sponsors — many of whom had multimillion-dollar deals to support the network’s other programming — to invest in an operation as small as BASS.

Logan and his two co-investors, Jim Copeland and Jerry McKinnis, say they aren’t concerned with expanding the organization at the moment. “We have plenty of paid membership,” Logan says. “What we need are more quality members that are going out and increasing awareness of the sport. We need to get youth more involved” — this includes, he says, coordinating with college and high school competitions and stepping up BASS’s conservation efforts.

Still, the owners see a possible standard-bearer in VanDam. “I think all sports benefit from having a celebrity — somebody that’s so good that everyone knows their name and thinks they know them personally,” Logan says. “We want [the other anglers] to do well also, but I think they all realize that Kevin is a great spokesperson for the industry.”

Courtesy buses line up beside the convention hall to shuttle fans to Saturday’s weigh-in at the CenturyLink Center across the river. Some fans come on board with newly purchased rods and reels. More sit down with beers.

The anglers take the stage to weigh the second day’s catch. “I just want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and all of my sponsors,” says Alton Jones, the Texas native and 2008 Classic winner, after weighing in with a formidable seventeen pounds, fourteen ounces.

VanDam’s five fish weigh in at thirteen pounds and fifteen ounces. It’s an improvement on his first day’s bag and enough to qualify him for a third day of fishing, but the gap between VanDam and the leaders has widened. He started the day in the same part of the Red River where he spent much of Friday. But the water had dropped six inches, and the fish were gone, Van Dam says.

He knows he is unlikely to win a third consecutive Classic. “You’re never a hundred percent out of it, but I’m ten pounds back,” he says. “I’ll probably need to catch twenty-five pounds to have a shot at the trophy tomorrow. . . . But if I can’t win, I want to be second, and if not second, third. The fun part is figuring the fish out.”

Other prominent anglers haven’t made the cut. Mike Iaconelli finishes twenty-sixth, one spot from qualifying. Relative unknowns stand atop the leaderboard. On Friday, Greg Vinson’s seventeen-twelve haul put him in second place, and he holds on to that position with a solid finish on day two. But Chris Lane’s nineteen-four bag on Saturday catapults him to the top of the field.

Lane, an Alabaman like Vinson, conforms more closely than VanDam to the stereotype of a professional bass fisherman. He’s thick around the waist, wears a goatee, and has a Southern accent, as does his brother Bobby, who is also entered in the tournament. Lane enters the arena to “Power-Pole Down,” a country song by Rodney Clawson, commissioned by one of Lane’s sponsors, Power-Pole Shallow Water Anchors. He has been on the BASS tour for six years without seeing much success. “I cashed four or five checks a year, which is about fifty or sixty thousand dollars,” he tells me. “It was enough to just scrape by, barely.” For three of those years, he failed to qualify for the Classic.

Since Lane wasn’t a favorite going into the tournament, there wasn’t a cameraman on board for the first day of ESPN’s coverage. But he’s featured prominently thereafter. On ESPN2 the next weekend, before Lane captures his biggest fish of the tournament on Saturday, he reminisces about his childhood. A twanging slide guitar accompanies the footage.

“As a kid, me and my brothers lay down in front of that TV and watch[ed] Paul Elias and those guys going around taking that circle lap, that victory lap, around there with that American flag in the back of the boat,” Lane says as he casts in a small backwater inlet he has to himself. “Been a dream ever since.”

There’s a flashback to Elias, flanked by his wife and Ray Scott, holding the 1982 Classic trophy. Then it’s back to Lane, who hooks a fish and struggles to pull it into his boat. “This is it,” he says, dragging the fish through the water. He’s breathing heavily. “Don’t you come off,” he implores. He jerks the fish into the boat and screams, pumping his fist. “Pow! Pow, baby! Oh my God!” It looks to be about a five-pounder. Lane is so excited he’s hyperventilating. “Now that, my friends, will get you shaking, buddy,” he tells the camera. Cue a replay of the catch as Lane ponders his next move. “Now, decisions, decisions, decisions. Do I get out of here? If I catch another three- or four-pounder in here, is it gonna help me? Or is this going to be the spot for tomorrow all day?”

In the media center back in Bossier City, I ask VanDam what the Lanes and Vinson will be thinking tonight, heading into the tournament’s final day. “Well, I can’t answer for Greg, since I don’t know him that well,” he says. “But I’m friends with Chris and Bobby. Knowing them, they’ll have a couple of beers and have a good night’s sleep.”

For a brief moment on Sunday VanDam recaptures the lead. At the final weigh-in, the leaders after day two go last. When VanDam weighs in, he needs fifteen pounds ten ounces to move up to first place. “Fifteen eleven,” announces Mercer, the emcee. VanDam smiles, picks up his two largest fish by the lips, and holds them aloft toward the crowd. Of course, with half of the anglers yet to weigh in, he knows he won’t hold the lead for long.

“I’ve had kind of an up-and-down week,” he tells the crowd. “The last two years at the Classic for me have just been magical . . . I knew it would be hard to make it three in a row. I gave it my best.”

Again most of the anglers thank their sponsors. Indeed, such is the weekend’s general atmosphere of fawning over sponsors that I’m not surprised when one of the musical acts, Brian Schram, who calls himself “The Rockin’ Fisherman,” interrupts his own song to sermonize on the virtues of Mercury outboard motors.

But VanDam, who has more lucrative deals than anyone else, doesn’t mention a sponsor. Instead, he praises the host cities and exhorts the audience to stay until the conclusion of the evening, when the winner takes his victory lap around the arena.

It’s down to Vinson and Lane. After Vinson weighs in at thirteen seven, a confident Lane reaches into his live well and holds a nearly seven-pound bass aloft. It’s placed with his other four fish on the scale as Mercer tells the crowd Lane needs twelve eight to win.

“Fifteen pounds, fourteen ounces,” Mercer yells. Lane leaps into the air with a karate kick, hugs Vinson, and then is nearly tackled by his brother Bobby, who rushes in from the wings.

VanDam, who finishes eleventh, returns to the stage to present the trophy. He hugs Lane, who takes the trophy, bends down on one knee, and points an index finger high above his head.

VanDam heads backstage, but his plea has been heard: as Lane climbs into his boat for his victory lap, the crowd sticks around and cheers.

is a California-based journalist and the cofounder of the news aggregator

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May 2016

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