Letter from Shreveport — From the April 2013 issue

The Super Bowl! (Of Fishing)

In search of a hero at the Bassmaster Classic

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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.

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

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