When I caught up with Kevin VanDam recently and asked him if he was excited about the start of this weekend’s March 24-26 Bassmaster Classic, the truth is, I got an answer that I never saw coming.
KVD, arguably the greatest bass angler of all-time, smiled and nodded.
“I think it’s wide open,” said VanDam of the 47th Classic. “The thing that I’m kind of excited about is kind of being an underdog (down here).”
Kevin VanDam? A four-time Classic champ appearing in his 26th Classic? A seven-time B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year? A 23 time winner in B.A.S.S. competitions? A two-time winner of Major League Fishing Summit Cup championships? A one-time FLW Tour Angler of the Year? A winner of a staggering $6.37 million in combined career earnings…and counting?
KVD, the underdog?
“(Well), I think some of these other guys will take some of the pressure off of me,” smiled VanDam. “(But) I’m sure I’ll have some (people) following me (around too).”
Yes indeed, you can count on that.
And that factor — people following anglers around in a spectacle known as spectator boat traffic — has KVD a little concerned as the Classic returns to Texas for the first time since it visited Lake Texoma in 1979.
Being held this weekend on 20,118-acre Lake Conroe near Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, that’s a concern of many anglers in this week’s field of 52.
“The biggest challenge here — if you’re doing well — is to manage your spectators,” said VanDam. “Conroe has got seawalls around three quarters of it, especially on the lower end.
“If you come to a creek and there are 40 or 50 people following you, then the boat wakes (are going to) keep going and going forever,” he added.
“(Many of the) fish are shallow and it will stir things up. That’s something that a lot of the rookies aren’t really going to understand or (be able to) balance. You’re not going to be able to have a topwater pattern in the morning and run any place that has seawalls because it’s going to be like (fishing in) a washing machine.”
That being said, don’t think that KVD doesn’t like the site of the 2017 Classic.
“I like Conroe,” said VanDam. “I fished it three times in the Toyota Texas Bass Classic, three years in a row in fact with 2015 being the last one (here).
“I’ve never been here in the spring though. It’s definitely a good fishery that has a lot of fish in it,” he added.
“We’re going to be here at a much more opportune time (of the year) when the fish are going to be biting and it is a trophy lake.”
And that last idea — Conroe’s status as a trophy bass lake thanks to its 15.93-pound lake record largemouth and some 17 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department ShareLunker bass (weighing 13-pounds or more) — is a key for KVD and the other competitors.
“It’s got ShareLunkers swimming in it for sure and I’ve seen plenty of them in the 10-pound class when I’ve been down there (in the past), so that’s going to be the thing,” said VanDam. “Who catches those game changers (will do well).
“If you can catch one such fish a day, that’s incredible. That would be a huge deal.”
But in a Classic week when few anglers reported such big fish in practice — sandbagging, anyone? — will anyone be able to catch such fish consistently?
VanDam says that consistency in general may be difficult due to the lake’s size, the spectator boat traffic anticipated and the fact that it’s the biggest tournament in fishing.
“It’s going to be hard to be consistent here,” said KVD. “The lake doesn’t have a huge population of bass (as compared to some other lakes) and you’re not going to find one spot that you’re going to be able to go back to day after day after day.
“You’re going to have to definitely change and move to different areas,” he added. “But from a competitive standpoint, I think it’s a great place to have a Classic.”
Given the extremely warm winter that Texas experienced this year — and the late date in March — and VanDam doesn’t expect this to be an event that is totally won by someone fishing up shallow.
“I think it will primarily be a post-spawn event,” said KVD, noting that the recent warm weather may help the Lone Star State anglers in the field like Todd Faircloth, Keith Combs and Alton Jones.
“If the fish start to get out a little bit from their spawning areas, those guys with a lot of good knowledge of the lake are going to really be dangerous,” he added.
One thing that KVD is certain of is that he thinks Houston is going to be a great Classic venue, very much on par with recent events staged in New Orleans, Birmingham and Tulsa among others.
“I think it’s going to be huge in Houston because there are so many fishing fans in Texas and it’s not far from Louisiana too,” said VanDam.
(Editor’s Note: Two Bassmaster Elite Series events staged on the Sabine River in nearby Orange, Texas back in 2013 and 2015 brought in huge crowds. The 2013 event in Orange — a couple of hours from Houston — was won by native son Todd Faircloth and drew a one-day record crowd of 14,950 and a record three-day crowd of more than 33,600.)
While there are thunderstorms in the forecast for today’s first round — the latest National Weather Service forecast as of press time indicated those storms would most likely be in the afternoon and evening hours — the remainder of the weekend should have good weather.
And because of that, KVD is expecting Texas sized numbers, from the crowds if not from the fish.
“People are going to travel and think ‘Hey, it’s going to be nice down in Houston. Let’s go down there,’” he said. “There’s a lot to see and do in Houston and the outdoor (expo) show is close to the weigh-ins at Minute Maid Park.
“I think it’s probably going to be the biggest Classic ever from an attendance standpoint.”
Even if the sport’s biggest star considers himself to be something of an underdog this weekend.