It was 18 years ago, working for Western Outdoor News, that I covered the Bassmasters Classic on the Potomac River.
The things I remember: Mike Folkestad qualified and I fished with him during practice. The first day of practice, however, was cancelled by the threat of Hurricane Bob. And Ken Cook, one of the leading names in pro fishing at the time, was the eventual champion.
The next year I returned to the Classic, this time on Logan Martin Lake in Alabama, where the catch was good, but the winner all but obscure. What I do recall, however, was a slender, quiet-spoken kid from Michigan standing with Ray Scott and Helen Sevier as he was recognized as the B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year.
Just 24 years old, Kevin Van Dam had emerged as the leader among the storied names in the sport. While he only finished 13th in that particular Classic, he has since been crowned Angler of the Year four more times, and just this past Sunday he won his third World Championship.
Interestingly, Ken Cook, retired this past season, never again having reached the pinnacle of the sport.
Still, the one benefit of having been around for awhile (I covered my first Classic in 1981) is I have seen, fished and ridden with many of the greats over that time. So, when a writer on a prominent bass fishing website suggested that Kevin Van Dam might be the best ever bass fisherman (I’m sure he meant tournament bass fisherman) I paused.
Yes, among the Bassmasters, his three Classic wins in 20 tries is huge and his five Angler of the Year titles in the same span is unmatched. Yet, Van Dam is still one Classic win behind Rick Clunn who has four. And his Angler of the Year titles are four short of the mark set by Roland Martin.
But I will freely admit, those two legends fished in an earlier era. The mere progression of knowledge, equipment and the huge popularity of bass fishing have created, over time, a larger pool of experienced and talented fishermen. The natural consequence is anglers such as Van Dam, and Skeet Reese, Brent Ehrler and to a degree, Aaron Martens and others should be more advanced than their predecessors.
There is no doubt that under the present format of qualifying and the seasons typically fished, Van Dam could one day hold all the records for the important titles in the sport. And having spent time with him on the water, he is so much more fluid and versatile that the gunner we see on TV, and I have no doubt that he is the best today in the competitive ranks.
But the sport is more fractured than it once was so we don’t exactly know how the best anglers from other circuits might fare. But none seems quite so flawless. So, as I think about it, yes: Kevin Van Dam probably is the best tournament bass fisherman of all time. But with this reservation: he enjoys the benefits of a foundation built on all those who came before.
But all-time is a long time. As you read this, another, even more remarkable bass fisherman is likely developing. And 20 years hence…who knows what they will say about him?
Bass columnist George Kramer, who has picked out backlashes with the world’s best bass anglers, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.