Kevin VanDam looms as the star of the bass cast

Oct 10 2010 - 4:03pm

RIDGEDALE, Mo. -- To get a good look at what makes Kevin VanDam tick, you have to travel back no further than four months ago.

There he was, the world's greatest bass fisherman, halfway into the Bassmaster Elite Series schedule and seemingly out of the prestigious Angler of the Year race.

After finishing in uncharacteristically low positions of 29th, 22nd and 38th in tournaments, VanDam was far back in the points standings. And those who have grown tired of watching him dominate the sport year after year were secretly delighting in his struggles.

VanDam heard all the whispers. "What's wrong with KVD?" many asked. "Maybe he's human after all," others said.

Little did they know that VanDam was right where he wanted to be.

"When people count me out, it really motivates me," VanDam said recently at a Tracker Marine Media Day at Table Rock Lake.

"Everyone was asking what was wrong with me, and it was getting tiring. But I like it when people say I can't do something.

"I love a good challenge."

VanDam was definitely up to that challenge. He made one of his late-season charges, took the championship in the last tournament of the season and won the Angler of the Year title in dramatic fashion.

So what else is new?

VanDam has made a routine out of pulling off such feats. Take a look at his stat sheet:

--He has won six Angler of the Year titles on the Bassmaster tour, including honors in the last three years.

--He also has an impressive record in pro bass fishing's other crown jewel: the Bassmaster Classic. He has won three championships, including this year's.

--He has earned more than $4.5 million on the Bassmaster tour and is the sport's all-time leading money winner.

--He has won 19 Bassmaster tournaments, tied with Roland Martin for the most career championships.

--In 221 career Bassmaster events, he has finished in the top 10 a whopping 90 times.

So what makes this guy so good? Well, this year's comeback performance provides plenty of clues.

"He's just a fierce competitor," said Rick Clunn, who was in VanDam's shoes as a dominant force in the pro game during the 1970s and 1980s. "Right now, no one wants it more. And that makes him tough to beat."




After VanDam's arch-rival, Skeet Reese, lost the Angler of the Year title on the last day of Bassmaster's postseason, he got up on stage and delivered a fitting description of who he was going up against.

"He and I have had some good battles here the last five or six years," Reese said. "He fuels me. He's King Kong. He's Godzilla. He's all that."

Others show similar respect.

"When it comes to professional bass fishing, Kevin VanDam is as close to perfection as I've ever seen," said Mark Zona, ESPN's outdoors commentator. "In my mind, he is the best of this era and will be the best as long as I am a commentator."

But again, what makes this guy tick?

"Confidence is the biggest thing in my tackle box," VanDam said. "When I know I'm around bass, I'm going to figure out a way to catch them."

VanDam, 42, has long been known for his frenetic style of fishing. He puts his trolling motor on high and goes down a bank, spraying casts at every likely looking bass hiding place.

He is a master at using crankbaits, spinnerbaits and stickbaits -- anything he can throw while staying on the move

Many have tried to copy his style but failed. You can duplicate technique, but you can't copy the inner workings of this guy.




VanDam will tell you that he can trace part of his success to a lesson he learned in his first Bassmaster pro tournament, the New York Invitational on the St. Lawrence River in 1987.

"I got matched up with a guy who was pretty well-known at the time, and I let him talk me into going to his fish," VanDam said. "I had been catching bass in practice and I had a pretty good pattern going. But I l gave in.

"Well, we went there and each of us caught only one keeper."

The lesson?

"After that, I decided I wasn't going to let other fishermen talk me out of doing what I thought was best," he said. "The next two days, we went to my fish, and I caught them."

No one disputes VanDam's decisions now. He has become famous for his uncanny ability to make the bass bite.

Consider the 2005 Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh. The field was struggling to catch fish and even small bass were coveted.

So what did VanDam do? He decided that one of the few ways he could get the bass to hit was to go to something that would elicit a reaction bite.

He dug out a 20-year-old lure -- a Rogue that he had caught bass on in his teenage years -- and started fishing rocky points, bridge pillars and sea walls in the Ohio River. And he caught enough fish to take the title.

"That older lure isn't like the newer ones," he said. "I could work that right below the surface and dart it around erratically.

"That triggered the smallmouths to bite."




VanDam breaks the mold of what the public used to associate with the typical bass fishing pro.

For much of its early history, BASS had a southern drawl. Its legends came from places like Florida, Texas, Louisiana or Alabama.

VanDam is from Kalamazoo, Mich., a region not renowned for producing BASS pros. But in his eyes, it was the perfect place to build a career in pro bass fishing.

"We have a lot of lakes and a lot of bass, both smallmouths and largemouths," he said. It was a great place to learn."

VanDam learned by fishing constantly. He was an avid follower of the Bassmaster magazine and television show and was thrilled when, in his younger days when he worked at his brother's tackle shop, he got to meet some of the big-name pros.

He dominated local and regional tournaments and decided to venture out on the pro tour. After a learning process, he soon was finding eye-opening success on the national level.

He has gone on to a career that few can match. But now what? As Clunn said, "It won't last forever. You achieve everything you ever dreamed of and then it's like, 'Who are you going to knock off that pedestal now?"'

But VanDam said that isn't a problem.

"I'm not in it for the records," he said. "I do this because it's something I'm very passionate about.

"As long as it's still fun, I'm going to be out there competing."

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