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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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.”

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

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