By Todd Ceisner
On paper, it looks like somewhat of a mismatch, akin to a No. 16 vs. No. 1 seed matchup in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Yes, Drew Benton vs. Kevin VanDam could be bass fishing’s version of Coppin State vs. UCLA. At the same time, though, it could provide some thrilling theater as one of the top young (sub-30 years old) pros in the sport goes head-to-head with bass fishing’s most decorated competitor in his northern comfort zone in a format he’s flourished under in the past.
How the No. 8 vs. No. 1 quarterfinal match will shake out at next week’s Niagara River Elite Series Classic Bracket remains to be seen, but we know this much: VanDam will come into the event with plenty of momentum on the heels of two victories in the last 2 months, while Benton, who’s in the midst of an impressive rookie season, knows he has very little to lose.
Back when Benton played baseball at Gulf Coast State College, a junior college in Panama City, Fla., coach Mike Kandler used various motivational tactics prior to games. One that stands out in Benton’s mind is how Kandler would draw comparisons between games against highly ranked opponents and a bull rider needing to challenge himself in order to improve.
“He used to say for a pro bull rider to get a good score, he needed to draw a good bull, as a way to truly measure himself,” Benton said. “That’s how I try to live my life and that’s how I’m looking at this. It’s a big opportunity, going against the best guy to have ever held a rod, and go into his neck of the woods where he’s comfortable.
“I’m up for it. I’m still learning a lot about the whole deal of smallmouth fishing, but I’m definitely excited about the opportunity.”
As one of the natural wonders of the world (Niagara Falls) roars off in the distance, Benton will take on VanDam in a format B.A.S.S. has never used before. The Top 8 finishers from the recent Cayuga Lake Elite Series earned a trip to Buffalo, N.Y., where they will be paired off in one-on-one matches in a single-elimination bracket format. All matches will be streamed live online. The winner will take home $10,000 and a berth in the 2017 Bassmaster Classic.
The four quarterfinal matches will play out next Tuesday and Wednesday with a 3-hour morning session one day and a three-hour afternoon tilt the other. In all matches, a boat official will record the weights of each legal bass caught on the boat before the fish is released back into the water. Each competitor’s heaviest five fish will be used to determine who advances to the next round. During the day, boat officials will be giving the anglers periodic updates about their opponent.
“I’m going to fish loose and see what happens,” Benton said. “I don’t really care what happens one way or another. We’re getting paid to go up there so we’ll see how it goes.”
‘Anything Can Happen’
Some BassFans would fork over hundreds (thousands, maybe) of dollars for the chance to compete against VanDam in a 1-on-1 scenario. Benton is well aware of the challenge he’s faced with and that he’ll be viewed as a massive underdog. The Floridian still considers himself a newbie when it comes to northern smallmouth despite competing in Northern Opens at Oneida Lake (twice), Lake Champlain and Lake Erie (western basin) over the past few years.
“I don’t have anything to prove or anything to uphold,” Benton said. “I’m going to go in with that mentality. When you’re fishing loose, you’re going to make good decisions and fish clean.”
Benton is no slouch despite his limited résumé compared to VanDam’s. He won the first FLW Tour event he competed in at Lake Okeechobee in 2013 and has fast become one of the top sight-fishermen in the sport. He doesn’t see himself getting caught up in the moment of being intimidated by going head-to-head with VanDam.
“I’m pretty mentally tough when it comes to that. I don’t panic much,” he said. “I just try to find the solution. This is not new to me. To put it in perspective, he’s human. He might be the best to do what we do, but anything can happen fishing.”
During the Cayuga Lake Elite Series, VanDam talked openly about how much he was looking forward to the match-fishing format B.A.S.S. is using for this event. He has an impressive record in similar formats with Major League Fishing, where he’s won two of the circuit’s Cup events and caught a single-day record 82-07 (39 fish) at the 2014 Summit Cup in Alpena, Mich.
Unlike MLF, where every legal fish caught during the allotted time counts, B.A.S.S. is adhering to a five-fish limit concept. Benton sees that as a benefit.
“The good thing is we’re only weighing our five best,” Benton said. “That way, you can’t get too far behind in our format whereas if someone is just whacking 2-pounders, you can fall behind.”
Benton said he’s looked at a couple maps of the Upper Niagara and he might try to squeeze in a day on the Canadian side of the river before the competition starts to get a feel for the fishery. He’s not too concerned about the matchup with VanDam being split up into 2 days.
“It’s smallmouth fishing so they’re probably going to bite equally at both times,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll make a difference. We’re both fishing at the same time. The only thing that stinks is we could get something figured out, then have to come in. Sometimes it takes me all day to get something going and get it figured out and going to a new place, it’s hard to get something going in 3 hours. You could get them figured out and then it’s time to go in.”
Not Bad, Rookie
Benton’s first season on the Elite Series has gone about as well as he could’ve hoped. He’s cashed checks in all but one tournament, made two Top-12 cuts and qualified for the Classic Bracket. He has a 90-point lead over fellow FLW Tour transplant Adrian Avena in the race for Rookie of the Year.
“It’s been a success so far in my eyes,” Benton said. “There’s been a few little hiccups where I could’ve done a little better, but I think everyone can say that. I’m satisfied. I’m right there to qualify for my first Classic and we have this deal where I get to fish against someone I have a tremendous amount of respect for.
“I was born after he got started and I’ve watched him all while I was growing up so it’s come full circle. I’ve put in a lot of hard work to get where I’m at and it’s gratifying to see all the work pay off with a successful first season.”
While the ROY award would be nice, he said he wouldn’t hesitate to swap it for a Classic berth.
“A lot of people talk about the Rookie of the Year thing and it is an accomplishment, but I’d trade it 100 times to qualify for the Classic,” Benton said. “That’s my main goal and the Rookie of the Year would be icing on the cake. It looks like it’ll be a two-horse race between Adrian and myself. It’ll definitely be a fight to the finish.”