As an obsessive fan of professional bass fishing, I can attest that we have entered the second golden age since the turn of the century. I’ll always argue that the period following the inception of the FLW Tour – roughly from 1996 to 2001 – will be the greatest cycle in my lifetime to be a bass junkie. Names like Clunn, Fritts, Klein and VanDam all clashed in some of the most epic on-the-water battles we’ve ever seen.
However, today’s contests are making a run for the title. I previously stated my feelings for the super-human accomplishment of Ray Hanselman on the Costa Tour. In addition, over the last two seasons aboard the B.A.S.S. Elites, we’ve witnessed some of the greatest achievements at the true pro ranks.
I picked four major turning points as examples. Which single event was best? I’ll leave that to you following our investigation of each:
2015: Martens wins two regular-season events en route to AOY – Aaron Martens is proving to be one of the greatest tournament competitors of the modern age. Once a bridesmaid, finally a bride, Martens erased his 2nd-place stereotype last year by winning twice, then destroying the field in the AOY race. No one in the history of B.A.S.S. has ever dominated the points chase the way Martens did; to encompass multiple wins adds even more validity to his feat. Can anything top this?
2015: Evers goes back-to-back, then wins the Classic – Like Martens, Edwin Evers also won twice last season. And,while Martens’ year-long triumph was epic, Evers’ accomplishment was on par, as he followed back-to-back wins with a Classic victory. The AOY vs. Classic title debate will never end: fishermen claiming consistency trumps the fan obsession of the Classic. That debate can now include Martens vs. Evers, as each attained the unthinkable. Perhaps Evers’ two-in-a-row – nearly unheard of in competition – adds room for consideration.
2016: Clunn returns to the winner’s circle – As many of you realize by now, Rick Clunn has always been my favorite. And for good reason: Clunn has achieved things no competitor ever will again, brought validity to our sport that’s propelled us light years ahead, and has done so without ever claiming to be anything more than a student of the game. This season, we again witnessed Clunn return as a champion, as he took down the Elite event on Florida’s historic St. John’s River, just a short drive away from the site of his Classic win nearly 40 years earlier at Lake Toho.
It’s been said that competition on today’s Elite tour may be the strongest in history. For an athlete to survive, dominate and win over a four-decade period is unheard of in any other facet of sports, yet Clunn continues to be a threat anywhere bass are being bass, susceptible to the subtle perfections of casting and winding. While his win may not top our assembled accomplishment list for all voters, it’s undoubtedly my foremost memory-maker.
2016: VanDam dusts off his uniform – A little more than a decade ago, a group of industry insiders debated the best professional tournament fishermen of all time. At the time, they decided the title belonged to Rick Clunn. They voted too early.
Without question, Kevin VanDam reigns at the top; his most recent victory adds validity to the claim. VanDam holds AOY titles over a 20-year period. He’s won the Classic as many times as anyone, with back-to-back wins only Clunn can also claim, and has won more regular-season events than anyone in history.
The recent tournament at Toledo Bend again showed that VanDam can step up and disintegrate his competition at any time. When VanDam reaches his plateau, maintaining momentum and confidence in his approach, only God himself can shut it down. There continues to be no competitor on VanDam’s level, despite KVD’s willingness to allow his concentration to be pulled in hundreds of directions, in order to better promote his sponsors and his sport. Anglers rise and fall, streaks come and go. But his recent win proves it: give me a dogfight on an unknown lake with a big pile of money on the line, and I’m betting on VanDam. You?
Yes, these are the days, my friends. And they’re not over yet.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)