The Classic was great; only the fishing wasn’t

By Deborah Weisberg Contributing Writer

Pittsburgh — Fish were few and far between but fans were
everywhere at the recent record-setting CITGO Bassmaster Classic on
western Pennsylvania’s Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers,
where Kevin VanDam took the second title of his 18-year
professional career.

Despite a 4-ounce penalty for a dead bass, VanDam, 38, of
Kalamazoo, Mich., and a three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year,
maintained a 6-ounce lead over his closest rival, Aaron Martens, at
the third and final weigh-in before a packed Mellon Arena.

His winning weight was 11 fish totaling 12 pounds, 15 ounces —
a new low-weight Classic record.

Classic veteran George Cochran, who set the old low-weight
record — 15 pounds, 5 ounces — on the Ohio River at Louisville in
1987, had predicted his feat would fall, but few would have
expected by almost 3 pounds. And it wasn’t the only one for the
books. Jeff Reynolds and Edwin Evers weighed the two lightest daily
lunkers in Classic history, when they brought identical 1-pound,
15- ounce smallmouths to the scale on consecutive days.

Anglers saw a bounty of sub-legal bass, which bodes well for
future tournaments but didn’t help much in the Classic. “There’s a
gazillion little bass in there,” said VanDam. “The fishery will
explode in a few years.”

The hot, dry summer didn’t help much either with the
keeper-sized bass anglers were desperately trying to catch, though
VanDam, who targeted subtle points, seawalls — any structure with
current alongside it — but struck gold around bridge piers. He
fished the top of the water column with a 20-year-old Smithwick
Rogue jerkbait that’s not made anymore. “Smallies are suckers for
jerkbaits but you have to jerk them real hard,” he said. “You can
do that with this bait. Those old ones are really good.”

The Smithwick Rogue is a super buoyant, long minnow-type plug
with three treble hooks and shallow lip. VanDam said he hadn’t used
them since he was a kid, but pulled them from his tackle stash
earlier this year and fished them in some tournaments, including
one on Lake Wisota. He’s been scouring the Internet for more, he
said. He chose a chrome color in Pittsburgh because of shad he saw
feeding on algae around bridge pilings.

The competition cranked and finessed its way through the
tournament with surprising results. 2002 champ Jay Yelas got
skunked all three days. Four-time Classic titleist Rick Clunn,
voted the Greatest Angler of All Time in a recent BASS fan poll,
managed to put just two on the scale. Pennsylvania’s Ed Cowan, of
Greeley, and the BASS Federation champion, weighed one, a 13-ounce
smallmouth. He fished the Allegheny, sticking with it through the
entire tournament.

Most of the field, though, gravitated to the Monongahela. Rookie
of the Year Dave Wolak, of Warrior Run, made the final cut of 25,
and went as far up the Youghiogheny River as the shallow Mon River
trib would allow.

Though he weighed just six fish totaling 5 pounds, 5 ounces, he
caught 45 in the first two days of the tournament, fishing
topwaters on 30-pound braided line with 8-pound diameter. “They’re
just short,” he said. “You get so tired of catching them 111/2
inches.”

Mike Iaconelli, a clear crowd favorite, finished fifth with an
11-fish, 11-pound, 5-ounce total. “I’m pissed off,” the
Philadelphia-born Iaconelli said, after the weigh-in. “I hate
losing. I hate not being a success on the water. But you can only
be pissed off so long and then you move on to the next
tournament.”

His never-say-die attitude prevailed through a series of mishaps
on day two, that included getting stuck in the mud at Turtle Creek
and blowing an engine and losing two keeper fish. He had begun
preparing for the Classic last fall and would have liked to ice the
cake on a season that included the debut of his book, “Fishing on
the Edge,” a tell-all take on the tournament world. If the Classic
was a heart-break for him, it also was to Aaron Martens, who
finished second for the third time in four Classics.

“I don’t want to think of second as a first-place loser, but it
kind of is,” said Martens, the former West Coast wunderkind and
Bassmaster Angler of the Year. He seemed haunted by his decision to
throw back a marginal keeper though, “I might have gambled myself
out of the tournament,” he said.

The biggest fish of Classic week was actually caught by a
13-year- old boy from Phoenix, Ariz., who was competing in the
Junior World Championship, in Kittanning on the Allegheny River,
but it didn’t officially count. Jeff Pfundheller boated a 5-pound,
4-ounce largemouth in shallow water on the one practice day the
kids were allowed the day before the tournament.

Joey Nania, of Liberty Lake, Wash., and Scott Gettings, of West
Warwick, R.I., won in their respective age groups, earning new
Triton bass boats and $5,000 college scholarships. Three
Pennsylvania boys, Zack Seal, of Eldred, McKean County, and Adam
Grube and Chad Dolby, both of Clarion County, competed in the
event.

BASS officials were delighted with the turnout at all of the
week’s activities, calling it one of the most successful Classics
ever.

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