OUTDOOR CORNER: A ‘classic’ bunch of guys found at Bassmaster Classic

Lyle Johnson

The Bassmaster Classic gets a lot of well-deserved hype because of the competition, the world-class anglers that are participating, the $500,000 payday for the winner and the defining moment of whichever angler takes the Classic title.

Like most of us, I’ve watched it on TV for as long as I can remember, attended as a spectator and had the opportunity to cover the event as a media representative since 2001. These anglers are recognized world wide for their fishing prowess, but there’s another side to the coin that most people don’t get to see.

I’m often asked, “Is he a good guy”, or “What kind of guy is he?” Most of the time the only exposure the public has with them is in a magazine, newspaper or on a stage. These are very legitimate questions and I’m sure lots of folks have that same question in their minds.

I got to spend five days interacting with the contenders and riding as an observer with two of the anglers. I rode with Kevin VanDam on the practice day and Tommy Biffle on the first day of competition. I’d like to tell you about a “Classic” bunch of guys.

The opportunity to ride with VanDam was nothing short of divine intervention as I requested another angler. He wasn’t available, so I had to call Melissa Dixon, media contact about rescheduling.

“You might want to shuffle things around a little because an angler just came available. I almost hesitate to say who it is,” stated Dixon. “Well, go ahead and break my heart,” was my reply. Her answer was, “Kevin VanDam” as my heart began to pound and it didn’t take me long to reply.

We met at the boat yard on Wednesday morning at 4:30. We exchanged greetings and began to get the boat ready to head for the launch at Bayou Segnette. He was very pleasant and assured me that I could ask him any question I wanted; quite friendly was my assessment.

He informed me that he and his wife both had a stomach virus (several of the anglers and families had this problem) but he slept all night and didn’t feel too bad as he was looking for his boat key. A BASS attendant had stored them in a small trailer and it took him about 15 minutes to find them, avoiding a crisis.

By the time we’d launched the boat, VanDam’s medical condition had gotten worse and he was feeling really bad but you wouldn’t have known it by the way he conducted himself. Adding insult to injury, the stern running light didn’t work so a mechanic had to change out the light socket on the water and his graph/depth finder wasn’t working as well.

He stayed cool, calm and collected during all these small but inconvenient crises and nothing seemed to bother him. He answered everybody’s questions, took time with each person and gave out while taking some good-natured ribbing. You could tell these guys were more than friends and competitors; they were family.

About the time we reached the spot he’d picked to start fishing, the stomach thing had really kicked in and he was feeling terrible, bad enough that most folks would have just packed it in and just called it a day. KVD’s attitude never changed, he was a perfect host the whole time we were together.

Since the Classic ended, I have been asked the question many times, “Man, how is KVD?” Well, I’m here to tell you, KVD is good. He’s a great guy to be around as were the rest of the field I got to be around for five days.

Tommy Biffle is a legend on the Bassmaster Tournament Trail and he was a class act as well. We made a ride to Venice on Friday that was a little over 200 miles round trip after a 70-minute fog delay. My day with him was incredible as well. He’s known as the “Flippin King” and now I know why.

On Valentine’s Day the patients at Tulane Hospital for Children received a special surprise when they were visited by Classic anglers Kevin VanDam, Aaron Martens, Brian LaClair, Ryan Said, Shaw Grigsby, Stephen Browning and Edwin Evers. They took of their personal time and brought some cheer to ailing children and listened to their stories.

Kevin Oldham, a Waukegan, Wisconsin Firefighter and Paramedic who is fighting pancreatic cancer was given a trip to the Classic by fellow firefighters that pooled their money together and brought him to New Orleans. In April 2010, Oldham was given one year to live, that’s only six weeks away.

Gerald Swindle is his angling hero, so arrangements were made for him to meet Swindle who gave him a Team Toyota jersey and got to hang out with him for a while. Secretly, Swindle had been making arrangements to pave the way for Oldham to ride with him into the Arena and go up on stage as he weighed his fish.

As Swindle’s boat cleared the fog and into the spotlight with the firefighter in the seat next to him, the crowd erupted into a standing ovation that lasted for at least five minutes and probably brought tears to many of the eyes, including mine and those that belonged to Gerald Swindle.

A normally rambunctious, gangsta kinda fellow known for his propensity for talking, Swindle was speechless for quite a while. The lump in his throat and tears welling up in his eyes kept him from speaking for quite a while. After weighing his fish and fighting tears, he finally got a few words out; “Man, this was better than winning,” and the two departed with another standing ovation.

So just how are these elite, professional anglers; their actions prove their character. They are “Classic” people. Remember to keep the slack out and set the hook hard. So until next time have fun in the outdoors, be safe and may God bless you.

Next week we’ll look at Kevin VanDam’s practice day and find out first hand on how he found the fish and all the factors that helped him make his decision to fish Lake Catouatche.