By Todd Ceisner
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – You couldn’t swing a Carolina rig inside the Johnny Morris Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium on Thursday night without hitting a heavyweight in the fishing industry.
Bassmaster Classic champions. Outdoor retail magnates. Tackle pioneers. TV personalities. Power brokers of all kinds. The crowd assembled here for the annual Bass Fishing Hall of Fame inductions was the ultimate who’s who of the sport. It felt and looked like an event of this magnitude should.
In most cases, a Hall of Fame induction ceremony and all the trappings that go with it serves as a distraction from the current events in a given sport. It offers a chance to reminisce and celebrate past achievements and innovations, and there sure was plenty of that Thursday.
And oh, how the sport could use a little distraction right about now.
It’s been a whirlwind couple weeks leading up to this night. The backdrop of the evening seemed straight out of a screenplay cooked up in Hollywood. As those in attendance mingled in the Hall of Fame portion of the museum in advance of the induction ceremony, there was no shortage of chatter about the upheaval that’s engulfed the top competitive tier of the sport.
Earlier in the day, additional anglers from the Bassmaster Elite Series announced their plans to compete on the new Bass Pro Tour in 2019 as the rearranging of the cast-for-cash landscape continued. While the topic was never addressed head-on, there were several veiled references to the recent developments.
As the 300-plus in attendance settled in for dinner, a live auction to benefit the Hall of Fame was held for a two-day fishing trip at Lake St. Clair with Mark Zona, the longtime TV analyst for Bassmaster and host of Zona’s Awesome Fishing Show. Dave Mercer, the emcee for the Elite Series, and Steve Bowman, representing the Hall of Fame, worked the room trying to drum up interest.
The winning bidder? Major League Fishing and BPT general manager Jim Wilburn, who pledged $6,000.
For the rest of the evening, the chaos that’s engulfed the bass tournament world in recent weeks took a backseat to the half dozen individuals being honored for their far-reaching contributions to the sport of fishing – and rightly so. Talk about a who’s who.
From Berkley Bedell, the 97-year-old whose teenage entrepreneurial skills paved the way for a global tackle empire bearing his name, to Helen Sevier, who went from being the second full-time employee at B.A.S.S. to its first female president and CEO, spearheading a period of growth before selling the company to ESPN in 2001, to Kevin VanDam, arguably the greatest tournament angler the sport has ever seen, it was an evening to pause the madness – if only momentarily – and appreciate the accomplishments of the six newest members of the Hall of Fame, which now has 77 members.
It’d be easy to label VanDam the headliner of this class – it’s a rarity in sports for an icon to be enshrined while still an active competitor – but that would do a disservice to the contributions of the other inductees – Gary Klein and his 30 Classic appearances or the ageless Tommy Sanders and his interminably ubiquitous TV career in outdoor programming or James Henshall, who is credited with being the sport’s earliest advocate in the late 1800s.
But it was fitting that VanDam batted cleanup (sixth, actually) in the order of speeches (inductees were honored in alphabetical order) despite being “as nervous as I’ve ever been to give a speech.”
That’s right, the man who seems unflappable no matter the setting – on the water during competition, during a film shoot or during previous speeches to crowds numbering into the hundreds – was eminently aware of the gravity of the moment at a time of unprecedented change.
“I’ve given a lot of Angler of the Year and Classic speeches and have spoken to a lot of industry groups at big events like the Tracker dealer convention and Bass Pro events to diverse audiences, but this has me on my heels,” he said hours before the ceremony in the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel, a short drive from the museum. “It’s just the magnitude of it.”
VanDam was honored for his career achievements, the majority of which have occurred in B.A.S.S. competition, but his induction comes at a time when a parade of fellow Elite Series anglers are announcing plans to compete in 2019 on the BPT, an expansion of the popular MLF brand, co-founded by fellow inductee Klein. VanDam declined to address his future when asked about it prior to the ceremony.
During a nearly 30-minute speech, VanDam pointed to the positive influence his parents had on him. The VanDams are a fishing family and he badly wanted them to be present for his induction, but his mom was hospitalized recently (she’s since been released), so they had to watch the ceremony online from home in Michigan.
“I would’ve loved to have them here,” VanDam said, choking back tears. “They’ve been my number one fans and supporters for years.
“In this sport, family is everything and you have to have a ton of support at home. When I started out with this passion as a kid, my parents never tried to squash that. They only encouraged me. They never paid an entry fee for me. I had to work for everything I wanted to do.”
While VanDam was involved in traditional sports in high school, his mind always seemed to be focused on fishing.
“My high school baseball coach argued with me because I was spending too much time fishing,” he said. “How’d that work out?
“I was just a kid that loved to fish. I had that start because my parent took us fishing as a family. That’s just what we did. We fished for whatever would bite. Once I was introduced to fishing all I wanted to do was fish. I’d ride my bike to find anywhere I could to go and find a spot. I’d knock on farmer’s doors to fish their pond or go to a trout stream.”
That passion still burns inside him and is paired with a sense of humility rarely seen in someone who’s enjoyed the success he has.
“When I started fishing, I never thought people would chant my name,” he said. “I don’t call myself KVD or anything like that. That comes with a lot of responsibility, though, and I’ve always worked hard to be that person and to be that role model for the fans and kids and people who look up to me.”
And good news, BassFans, it sounds like VanDam is already looking forward to next season, wherever it takes him.
Berkley Bedell, 97, shows off his necktie bearing images of products he helped develop.
“I still think I have a couple good casts left in me,” he said.
Sharing the stage as an angler inductee with VanDam was Klein, who grew up in California and turned pro as a teenager, competing in 407 Bassmaster tournaments and collecting two B.A.S.S. AOY titles along the way. Klein also co-founded MLF (with Boyd Duckett) and was heavily involved in the development of the BPT, which counts Bass Pro Shops as its title sponsor.
Klein said he has not known anything else as a career beside bass fishing.
“I never had another occupation and I still feel like I’m 16 years old,” he said on stage. “I was like any other typical high school student living in northern California, but then I went to see my first tournament at Lake Oroville and a man named Dee Thomas won that. I knew then that that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a fisherman.”
He then recalled how his mother, Barbara, co-signed for a $1,000 loan so he could pay the entry fee for his first B.A.S.S. tournament at the St. Johns River in 1979. He finished 10th, pocketing $1,100.
“Since then, I never looked back,” he added.
Pursuing such a career has required some serious sacrifices, Klein said. His wife, Jana, traveled with him while he competed, and their two daughters were home-schooled to a certain point.
“That’s the one thing about fishing if I look back on my career, I don’t regret much, but one thing I do regret is the time away from my family,” he said. “It’s like any other family that’s growing. They traveled with us. We home-schooled and then they wanted to go to public school, so I basically missed about 15 to 20 years of their lives. That’s hard because I’m very committed to what I do and I’m very engaged. I love this sport dearly.”
In closing, Klein spoke strongly about leaving the sport in suitable condition, so future generations can have the same or more opportunities than what was afforded to him.
“Anybody who’s been around me long enough knows that I’m very passionate about the sport and I want to watch it grow,” he said. “I have a big vision and this vision is grand, and I know that with my vision comes a tremendous amount of responsibility and I don’t take it lightly. Every day and every night I think about how to make it better and how can we get it down, and how we can elevate it. My number one goal is to be able to pass it on to the younger generation. We have more individuals now involved in fishing than I’ve ever seen.”
Bedell, who wore a tie adorned with images of Trilene line spools for the special evening, is still tack sharp and possesses a quick wit. He opened the program with a speech mentioning how he caught his first fish 92 years ago, at the age of 5.
“Anyone else here catch one before that,” he asked the audience, drawing laughs.
From there, his message took on a serious tone as he pleaded with those in the room to do their part to protect the planet from climate change and its negative impact. He recalled a recent trip into the Gulf of Mexico where he didn’t catch any fish.
Former B.A.S.S. CEO Helen Sevier shows off her Hall of Fame plaque with former Bassmaster Magazine editor and TV host Bob Cobb.
“What a lot of us haven’t done is to study where we’re headed on the planet,” he said. “I know you might not appreciate hearing something you don’t want to hear, but our planet is in trouble because of what we’re doing to it. The scientists who know something about this matter tell us unless we move very quickly to eliminate or significantly reduce the pollution of the atmosphere, the planet will be too hot for us to not only go fishing but even to live on this planet.
“This is the perfect group to start to bring about more of an understanding of the problem that we’re going to face while politicians and others are being quiet about it or joining the rest of the world, which is trying to do something about it.
“I came down here partly to celebrate with you folks because I feel like I’m a part of you, but I hope you’ll decide to be a part of me and decide that you’re going to look into – that’s all I ask – what the real situation is for the future not only of fishing but for living on this planet. We need to decide to work together as citizens of the globe – this is the only home we have – to make a planet that is able to continue not only our grandchildren but everybody the enjoyment out of life that we’ve been able to enjoy.”
Sanders started FLW TV coverage on ESPN and has been the face of the Bassmasters on television and online since 2000, and shows no signs of slowing down.
He used his Southern charm and self-deprecating humor to get across a message of humility in his speech.
Sanders cited a quote he found in a book recently to complement those with whom he’s worked closely over the years.
“The world is not changed by the self-regarded, but by men and women prepared to make fools of themselves,” the passage said.
Sanders then highlighted his work with Jerry McKinnis, who hosted “The Fishin’ Hole” for more than 40 years, Zona – “Do I have to explain the foolish part,” Sanders cracked with a glance in Zona’s direction – and Davy Hite, who moved to the TV side after retiring from the Elite Series two years ago.
“My secret is to be associated with people like that,” Sanders said. “That’s been true all through my career. I’m so thankful and so incredibly lucky.”
Sevier’s grandmother used to call largemouth bass "green trout" and when she’d go fishing with her dad, he’d bring the fish that she caught back to their house and turn them loose in the bathtub so as to show off her catch.
“My dad loved bass fishing better than anyone else I’ve seen in my life,” she said. “He was into catch and release before it was something we coined and carried forward with B.A.S.S.”
Sevier was part of the group – Ray Scott and Bob Cobb included – that helped bolster B.A.S.S. into a multi-faceted organization that helped define the sport of bass fishing as we know it. Under her stewardship, B.A.S.S. membership swelled to 600,000 members. She developed the Casting Kids program in the early 1990s to get youths involved in the sport and she helped found the American Sportfishing Organization.
“It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about a sport and when I look back to where we were, Ray had about 9,000 members when I joined and he had a passion and a dream. Bob Cobb had a dream. He came on a whim. There wasn’t a lot to the organization yet. We had a great blend of people because they worked passionately because they believed in it.
“Over the 50 years, it became very obvious we were a service organization that was there to serve anglers, pro anglers and the average angler. Look at the evolution of the equipment that came out of the tournament trails, whether it was new techniques or lures. Bob took that and filtered it down and put it in Bassmaster Magazine.”