“What a day,” VanDam said. “It was a great day today. This is a big deal. It probably commands as much respect as the Angler of the Year to the pros. We’ve dreamed about having a series like this for a long time and to be able to win it for the first time is great.”
VanDam has owned the lead in the Elite 50 point standings since the conclusion of the series’ second event. Although he was just a few points ahead of Mark Davis coming into the series finale, he pulled away from the competition with a 5th place finish this week to claim the $150,000 grand prize, the lion’s share of the $1.6 million total purse.
“I respect each of these guys. They are the world’s best,” VanDam said. “It worked out this time for me. I came out on top, but it’s tough; these guys are really good and I’m glad I got this one because there may not be another one. It’s so competitive. Everything is getting so much bigger now and the sport is growing so fast that it just gets harder and harder every year.”
And what about that winner’s purse?
“It’s going for a college education for my kids,” he said. “I really wanted to win and the money’s great, but the prestige of the Elite 50 championship is more.”
In addition to VanDam’s championship, the season finale put the final touches on the field for the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Classic.
According to Classic qualification rules, the top 10 finishers in the Bassmaster Elite 50 series will join the 25 anglers from the CITGO Bassmaster Tour presented by Busch Beer, 12 anglers from the CITGO Bassmaster Open series presented by Busch Beer, five anglers from the CITGO BASS Federation Championship presented by Busch Beer and the 2003 CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year, Jay Yelas, as they advance to the crown jewel of bass fishing, July 30-Aug. 1 in Charlotte, N.C. However, seven of the top 10 anglers in the Elite 50 standings had already qualified through the Tour standings, which means the next seven pros in the Tour standings will earn Classic berths, according to qualification rules. BASS will announce the names of the additional qualifiers next week
Texan Alton Jones took top honors for the final Bassmaster Elite 50 tournament with a total of 22 pounds, 7 ounces. With the win, Jones slid into second in the Elite 50 series points and walked away with the $100,000 second prize.
“It feels really good,” Jones said. “I’m tickled because, going into this event, I didn’t even think I had a mathematical possibility of finishing any higher than about fifth. I thought I was looking at, on a bad tournament, winning $20,000 and on a good tournament winning $35,000, so coming out of here winning $100,000 is absolutely a dream come true. I’m still just in shock.
Jones’ catch included a 3-5 bass that earned him $1,000 for the Purolator Big Bass of the Day. It wasn’t enough to overtake Greg Hackney’s 4-15 lunker from day one, which earned the Purolator Big Bass of the Touranment. Hackney earned an additional $1,000 for the fish.
California’s Skeet Reese brought in a five-fish limit that tipped the scales at 19-5 Saturday and earned a $1,000 bonus from Busch Beer for the voluntary Busch Heavyweight incentive program. Jones does not participate in the program.
Paducah native Mark Menendez had a heartbreaking day. Menendez, a local favorite, was disqualified for removing his personal flotation device in an unauthorized area. When he realized his mistake, Menendez called BASS Tournament Director Trip Weldon and reported the infraction, at which time Weldon informed him that he should release all of his fish and that he had been eliminated from competition.
“We have to make it evident … what this sport is about and where this sport is going,” Menendez said. “That’s what Bassmaster is about. It’s about creating the highest playing field that you can possibly have. To do that you have to have a huge amount of credibility and honesty. That will assure that we have the absolute highest playing field that there is.
“I broke a rule. I called it in; no one else called it in. I could have kept fishing and it’s tough because I caught about 17 pounds today and I could have won, but it would have been much tougher if I would have won the event and then when the show came out they would have seen that I broke the rule and taken the win away from me.
“If I had it to do over, I would do it over. If I had caught 30 pounds, I would do it over. It was the right call.”
The Bassmaster CastingKids program sponsored by CITGO was held in conjunction with the BASS Sponsor Expo Saturday. Ten-year-old Texan Kristen Jones, pro angler Alton Jones’ daughter, took the win in the 7-10 age group while 13-year-old Laurie Schreiber from Georgetown, Ky., won the 11-14 age group.
Fans can watch telecasts of the final event of the Bassmaster Elite 50 series on the Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers in two parts, Saturday, June 26 and Saturday, July 3 at 10:30 a.m. ET/9:30 a.m. CT on ESPN2.
BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail presented by Busch Beer, which includes the all-new Bassmaster Elite 50 series, is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.
Sponsors of the Bassmaster Elite 50 series include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Berkley, Abu Garcia, Lowrance Electronics, Flowmaster Exhaust Systems, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops, and BankOne.
Local Sponsors include the J.R.’s Executive Inn/McCracken County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
For more information, contact BASS Communications at (334) 551-2375 or visit www.bassmaster.com.