Mind Games at the Bassmaster Classic

With apologies to Don Barone...

We're playing those mind games together
Pushing the barriers planting seeds
Playing the mind guerilla
Chanting the mantra peace on earth

There's a lot at stake at the Bassmaster Classic. First of all (and foremost to some) is the $500,000 first place prize money. Then, of course, there's the trophy — 50-plus pounds of hardware. And don't forget the endorsements and speaking engagements; plenty of Classic champs have ridden that gravy train to retirement. Finally, there's the satisfaction of winning and the recognition that comes from being a world champion.

With so much at stake, it's no wonder that the battle for the Classic is not fought entirely on the water. It begins far from where any fish lives — in the hearts, minds and souls of the men who chase bass and covet the Classic title.

All 50 Classic qualifiers are mentally tough when it comes to the kind of dedication and deduction required to catch bass consistently. Most of them are even tough enough to bounce back from a bad tournament day and salvage things in a later round.

But not all have the game or mental toughness to endure the onslaught of self-doubt, the pressure of sharing water or the intensity of staring your dream right in the face.

No one would argue that Kevin VanDam is one of the most talented bass anglers ever to wield a casting rod. In fact, few would be so brave as to argue that he's anything but the very best. Still, only the most ardent fans understand his prowess as intimidator and player of mind games.

KVD is smart — smart enough to know that this is a battle between man and fish, and while he can't do anything to directly impact another angler's opportunity or ability to catch fish, he can take that competitor's eye off the prize and keep him mentally occupied on something other than catching the bass he needs to win.

VanDam likes to say, "It's all about the attitude," and no one else in professional bass fishing has his competitive fire.

Like a wide receiver running a crossing pattern who keeps one eye on the linebacker ready to separate his head from the rest of his body, Classic competitors' thoughts are never far from KVD.

What's he doing? Where's he fishing? How much weight does he have today?

If you speak your nemesis' name, you invoke his presence on some level, and VanDam's name is never far from his competitors' thoughts.

We all been playing those mind games forever
Some kinda druid dudes lifting the veil
Doing the mind guerilla
Some call it magic the search for the Grail.

The leader in the clubhouse, Aaron Martens, has had some issues with keeping his eye on the prize. In 2008 on Falcon Lake, Martens was leading going into the final day and on pace to obliterate the record for total weight in the5-bass-limit era.

Then he found another angler, Byron Velvick, fishing nearby, and it seemed to preoccupy Martens' fishing. Instead of focusing on the task at hand, he was talking to Velvick and claiming his rights to the area. In the end, he finished fourth.

Some say the incident hampered his fishing for more than a year. Then, in 2009 at the Southern Challenge on Lake Guntersville, Martens bounced back. Despite having a local angler plow through his best area turning doughnuts, he stayed focused, kept his head about him and won the tournament.

VanDam's efforts to get inside Marten's head have already started. At Friday's press conference he "jokingly" pointed out that he was first to reach the area that he's sharing with Martens and Scott Rook (currently second). He also talked about the pressure of sharing the water and of fishing's biggest stage.

Marten's responded with three words.

"Bring it on!"

Sounds like he's ready.

Love is the answer and you know that for sure
Love is a flower you got to let it grow.

"Mind Games," John Lennon (1973)