By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor

Kevin VanDam's 28th Bassmaster Classic might be his final chance for a fifth victory in the event, which would break the mark he shares with Rick Clunn for the most ever. He admits that the derby on the Tennessee River out of Knoxville, Tenn. in March will be unlike any of his previous appearances.

"It's going to be hard and I'm sure it's going to be emotional at the time – not just for me, but look at the number of guys who are in the same position," he said. "The Classic ... it's super-special, and this one will be, too. I'm going to do everything I can to make it the best Classic ever all the way around for everybody who's there – the fans, the competitors and B.A.S.S. And of course, I want to win just like everyone else.

"I don't think it'll really be real until that week, and maybe not until after that."

The man who's racked up 25 B.A.S.S. wins and nearly $6.5 million in earnings with the organization, both of which are unprecedented numbers, will have competed in two MLF Bass Pro Tour events before the Classic arrives. He's one of 68 anglers from the 2018 Bassmaster Elite Series who've crossed over to the new circuit, and thus his only reasonable avenue into the 2020 Classic would be to win in Knoxville and claim the defending champion's slot.

If he's not in next year's edition, it'll be just his second absence since his initial qualification in 1991.

"To be honest, I haven't really been focused on that," he said. "I've had so much happening on a lot of different fronts and I've been trying to get ready to kick off the new year. With the transition to the BPT, a lot of things that always fell in place when I was just fishing another year on the Elite Series are different – sponsors, jerseys, logos and all of that. I just got my new boat and now I'm working on my truck wrap.

"Really, I've never competed for records, titles or accolades. I love the competition and I love the camaraderie with the guys I've competed against. It's never been about how much money I've won, the titles or any of that and it's not up to me to judge how I'll be viewed."

A Personal Stake

VanDam, one of the dozen or so charter angler/investors in Major League Fishing, said having an ownership stake in a full-fledged pro tour was the primary factor in his decision to leave B.A.S.S. for the BPT.

The anglers own half of the enterprise, with the other half owned by Stan Kroenke's Outdoor Sportsman Group (OSG is also BassFan's parent company).

"It's something that I've got a direct part of – I've got a vested interest in the outcome," he said. "I'm not saying that the BPT is better than B.A.S.S. or FLW. I just feel that it's best for me at the stage I'm at in my career and with the sponsors and the associations that I have. It was really a tough choice.

"The hardest part about it is all the relationships; I know there's hurt feelings and that part sucks. I'm not saying it's ' just business,' because it's not, but I don't think you can really fault this group for trying to do something that they believe will better their personal business or the sport itself. It's pretty hard to argue that this shake-up hasn't been good for the industry ... whatever side you're on, whatever tour you're fishing, everybody's going to be better off when it's all said and done.

"Competition is a good thing," he continued. "It happened when FLW first jumped in with B.A.S.S. – the sport had a period of great growth and this is the same scenario. B.A.S.S. has already made some changes (to the entry-fee and payout structure, among others) and is doing some things differently that I wish they'd done sooner."

Still Primed to Win

VanDam has won three MLF Cup events, so his fast-paced game is obviously well-suited to the "every fish counts" format in which competitors always know the score. He wouldn't go so far as to say he prefers that set-up over the traditional biggest-five approach, but he said it definitely jacks up the pucker quotient.

"I think the MLF format is the most stressful, whether you're on top (of the standings) or whatever," he said. "I've done it enough to know that no lead is safe and when you're down toward the bottom it's a tough place to be mentally. The intensity is definitely there.

"I've fished a lot of different tournaments, from 3-hour night tournaments all the way up to 7-day events and different Cups, and they're all fun. I'm a competitive person and I love that part of it, and even after 28 years of doing this I'm fired up to get started again."

He doesn't expect the BPT to be perfect from the get-go.

"Oh, I'm sure there's going to be some hiccups and it'll be a learning experience for all of us, but I'm confident in the organization and the team that's been put together that if a mistake is made, it'll be fixed and it won't happen twice. There will be some growing pains because there's a lot to it and it's all new, and that's part of the excitement of it for me, too.

"I've never seen anything just stay the same and be successful. You have to adapt and you have to evolve."