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Classic Showcases Alabama's Renowned Bass Fishing

By DAVID RAINER

Already the birthplace of competitive bass fishing, Alabama continues to showcase its elite stature in the bass fishing world, not to mention why Kevin VanDam ranks Alabama among his top two favorite places to cast a lure.

For obvious reasons, Alabama is a special place for VanDam, the most dominating angler in professional bass fishing’s history. The Kalamazoo, Mich., native just completed a sweep of the two most-coveted titles in the sport.

The first was his come-from-behind victory on the Alabama River in Montgomery in September to claim the Bassmaster Angler of the Year.

Then came his impressive performance during the 40th annual Bassmaster Classic on Lay Lake, where he overcame cold weather and poor water conditions to overwhelm the nation’s best competition en route to a five-pound victory when the three-day competition ended on Feb. 21. VanDam finished with 51 pounds, 6 ounces. Prattville’s Russ Lane made a late charge but had to settle for a fourth-place finish.

VanDam admitted Alabama has been a special place for him during his professional career.

“It always has been,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of good finishes over the years in Alabama. The lakes are managed very well. Texas and Alabama are probably the two best states in the country in the way they manage their fisheries. You look at Guntersville, Pickwick – the whole Tennessee River – it’s just a fantastic system. Then the Coosa River, too, from Weiss all the way down to Montgomery, I’ve always enjoyed fishing.

“I fished my first Classic at Logan Martin in ’92, and I really enjoy fishing those spots (Alabama spotted bass). They act like the smallmouths in the rivers at home. They act like largemouths, too, but they like the current and they’re mean.”

VanDam has been impressed with the number of fish Lay Lake has produced during different times of the year. Even with the poor fishing conditions, he managed to break that 50-pound barrier.

“We were probably a week or two away from this lake showing really how good it is,” he said of the Classic. “I came down and fished the Mark’s Outdoors tournament last year. There were probably 500 boats on the water that day. That time of year, when it’s the tail-end of the spawn and all the fish were shallow, it was just amazing the number of fish that were caught. It’s just a fertile fish factory.

“The other thing all of us have seen is the amount of shad here. That’s what it takes. You’ve got to have good habitat. Lay Lake is full of shallow flats, lots of grass, standing timber, so it’s got the cover and it’s got the forage base. You can go into any creek and it’s wall-to-wall shad dying from the cold water. The bass are fat, and they’re feeding up to get real healthy. Even the sea gulls, they can hardly fly, they’re so fat.”

The three-time Classic champ will again have the chance to add to his collection of trophies won in Alabama when the Bassmaster Championship Series returns to the Montgomery area this summer. Toyota Trucks Championship Week is set for July 24-31 with the top 12 anglers from the Elite Series competing for the coveted Angler of the Year title. The first leg is the Trophy Chase July 24-25 at Lake Jordan near Wetumpka. The Evan Williams Bourbon Trophy Triumph, where the top angler will be crowned, is set for July 30-31 on the Alabama River from Montgomery.

Jamie Wilkinson, ESPN’s Senior Director of Operations and Business Development, said it was not a difficult decision to bring the postseason tournaments back to Alabama.

“You’ve got good lakes, quality cities that appreciate the sport of bass fishing and the third or fourth largest BASS membership,” Wilkinson said. “The thing with all of our events, no matter what level – Open, Classic, Elite Series – cities have to have a unique mix of hotels, venues and willingness and desire to promote professional bass fishing. And Alabama especially appreciates that.

“The Classic, anywhere, not just in Alabama, is a big challenge. Birmingham is the only place in Alabama that has the facilities and the rooms available to support the Classic. I would say right now, Birmingham is in the top one or two places in the country to host this event. Alabama has fantastic fans who follow bass fishing as a sport and a lifestyle. They have local heroes who compete in the Elite Series. And when you have a Gerald Swindle or Randy Howell come into the arena, there’s clearly a different crowd response from the next guy. It also has engaged media who follow these fishermen on a regular basis.”

Wilkinson said although the weights during tournaments held in Alabama usually don’t match those held in some of the events in California, Texas and Florida, the Alabama lakes are dependable.

“You can count on them any time of the year,” he said. “There’s going to be decent fishing. We’re not going to break any records, but you can count on a quality tournament.”

As for coming back to what is now referred to as the River Region (Prattville, Wetumpka, Montgomery), Wilkinson said officials in those cities understand the impact of bass fishing on the community.

“They get it,” he said. “We’ve found partners in those cities who want to invest in building these events. With Montgomery being the birthplace of BASS, it’s only fitting. For the foreseeable future, that’s going to be the home of those two events.”

With last year the initial year of the postseason format, Bassmaster officials really didn’t know what to expect from events in terms of media coverage or drawing crowds.

“But the response exceeded all of our expectations,” Wilkinson said. “When we produce these shows, it’s bass fishing, but it’s also entertainment. Montgomery, right now, is big on entertainment. They’ve built the amphitheater and are holding concerts there all the time. I think we had something like 12,000 people show up for the last day of the weigh-in and concert in the rain.

“We’re going to be doing something this year with Maxwell Air Force Base and getting those guys involved. It’s more about getting the community involved instead of just having a sporting event with passive viewership. We have some things in the works that will make that event truly a bookend to the Bassmaster Classic.”

The one adjustment from last year’s championship series is the date change. Last year’s series was held in September.

“By moving it to July, we won’t be competing with college football, which is a good idea,” Wilkinson said with a laugh. “That way, we’ll be able to do more on Saturday. If you’re competing with Auburn and Alabama football, you’re on the losing end no matter who you are.”

PHOTOS (courtesy of ESPN Outdoors): Kevin VanDam pulls a chunky largemouth bass out of Beeswax Creek on Lay Lake during the recent 2010 Bassmaster Classic, which helped the current Bassmaster Angler of the Year win his third Classic title.

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