On the first day of practice for the 2007 Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on the California Delta, I hopped into the boat of world-beater Kevin VanDam. We’d been introduced through our mutual friend Mike Auten, and Kevin had agreed to let me fish with him.
As we idled away from the dock, he called his wife and sons to wish them a good morning, then turned to me and asked, “Who are you practicing with the next two days?”
I responded that I’d made tentative plans to fish with a couple of his colleagues, but noted that nothing was set in stone.
“I’d rather you fish with me all three days,” he said. Not a question. A statement.
I’m not naïve enough to think that the greatest bass fisherman who ever lived felt that my skills with a rod and reel would help him to win an otherwise unwinnable tournament — although I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t enter my mind for a nanosecond. No, KVD was going to do well whether or not I practiced with him. Still, since he didn’t know at that time whether I was trustworthy, and given the occasional tattletale nature of some of his peers, he felt it was best to keep all of his practice habits, and everything he found, within the 20 foot confines of his Nitro that week.
What followed were three absolutely incredible days of fishing. We caught plenty, to be sure, but the real benefit was watching how Kevin broke down the water. It was also a treasure to observe just how precise and unerring his instincts can be. We’d idle down a mile long canal and he’d point at three spots that looked like everything else we’d just passed, and sure enough as we fished our way back those spots would produce the only fish, the most fish or the biggest fish.
For a weekend angler like myself, that’s the pinnacle of a learning experience. As a writer, though, I’ve had the opportunity to observe many of our sport’s greatest anglers. Combined with the six B.A.S.S. pro-ams I’ve fished, I’ve shared the boat with about a quarter of the current Elite Series field, along with at least a dozen who no longer fish with B.A.S.S. Reminiscing about the time in KVD’s boat got me thinking. Which of these other experiences have been most valuable?
Here are three, in no particular order, with a brief explanation of the lessons learned:
If you’ve watched Kriet on TV, or met him at a tournament or sport show, you’ve seen the real Jeff Kriet. On the 30-minute ride from Zapata, Texas, to the ramp, as he chugged Diet Dr. Pepper (my favorite drink too – bonus points for that), he regaled me with stories, talked smack and pretty much kept me laughing the entire time. That continued throughout the day in the boat. Meanwhile, I got to watch how a true deepwater expert operates his electronics, as he found subtle offshore structure. I also got a better understanding of the most effective and longest-running partnership on the Elite Series operates when he’d intermittently call best friend Mike McClelland. The calls were short, but I noted that he was brutally honest. There’s a fair amount of lying, sandbagging and misdirection at every level of fishing, so to see how their work benefitted each other was an eye-opener.