On the CITGO Bassmaster Tour his nickname is simply KVD, but around the rest of the world legions of fishing fans describe Kevin VanDam in more reverent terms. To them he is The Man, and there hasn't been anyone quite like him in the sport in many, many years.
The 38-year-old Kalamazoo, Mich., pro added to his growing legend by winning the toughest Bassmaster Classic in its 35-year history (he had won back-to-back Elite 50 events a few weeks earlier). For the record, he finished with 11 bass weighing just 12 pounds, 15 ounces — but that is only part of the story. No one ever doubted this Classic, held in Pittsburgh on the Three Rivers, would be tough, but VanDam had called it perfectly months before when he noted that summer smallmouth were his specialty and that he had some special tricks for them.
That trick turned out to be a vintage Smithwick Rogue jerkbait. In essence, VanDam succeeded at power fishing when every other competitor downsized into finesse mode. That's what makes this Classic win so special. The Man gave us a new perspective on catching finicky bass.
To be fair to his competition, this was not a KVD show from start to finish. Indeed, VanDam won by just 6 ounces over finesse expert Aaron Martens, who finished with 12 bass weighing 12-9. Martens, who has now finished second in three of his six Classic appearances, may in fact have thrown back the winning bass on the second day. It was simply too close to not making — or making — the 12-inch minimum size that Martens wouldn't risk it. He gambled on being able to catch another completely legal fish that day, and lost.
Behind Martens, Gerald Swindle captured third with 11 bass weighing 11-13; George Cochran finished fourth with 11-10, after briefly flirting with the lead the last day; and Pittsburgh favorite Michael Iaconelli nailed down fifth with 11 bass weighing 11-5.
Just how tough was fishing on the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela (known locally as the "Mon") rivers? Consider that no one weighed more than 12 bass; there were only eight five-bass limits for all three days. The Purolator Big Bass of the Classic weighed 2-14; and 12 contestants caught one fish or less.
This was for legal-sized bass, however. Many pros reported catching 20 to 30 fish a day and voiced optimism that once this particular year-class of bass grows up in a couple of years, fishing here could be excellent. It was superb four years ago when 15-pound daily catches were not uncommon, but the overall fishery has been in decline ever since. It may have actually bottomed out last summer when Florida's hurricanes created massive flooding here and washed away much of the shallow cover.
The first day
On Day 1, after launching at Point State Park where the Three Rivers converge, the angler who set the standard for the Classic turned out to be veteran Arkansas pro Jimmy Mize, who brought in five fish weighing 6 pounds, 2 ounces.
Mize, whose wife, son and daughter all fish competitively, had found a mile-long grassbed up the Monongahela where he caught largemouth with a 1/2-ounce black/silver Strike King spinnerbait. The water was about 3 feet deep and Mize basically had the spot to himself; he livewelled five fairly quickly, then left.
The Arkansas angler was the first to the scales in Mellon Arena, which meant he had plenty of fingernail-biting time as the rest of the field followed during the next two and a half hours. When the shouting had ended, CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year Aaron Martens and Missouri angler Stacey King were tied for second a full pound behind at 5-1; rookie Preston Clark held fourth with 4-14; and VanDam sat in fifth after bringing in three bass weighing 4-11.
Clark had caught his five in 15 minutes from one spot, then spent the rest of the day hitting nearly three dozen more places in a search for larger bass. None hit. None hit for 10 other competitors either, including Rick Clunn, Jay Yelas, Greg Hackney and Mike Reynolds — all of whom brought empty fish bags to the scales. Clunn described the Three Rivers as one of the strangest fisheries he's ever been on.
"I've never been to a place where I could catch 20 bass a day, have 20 more following, and never have a keeper," he said.
Added Yelas, "Six of us locked up the Allegheny and when we came back down, only one boat had any fish."
The Classic began to take shape the next day, but only because the field was cut after weigh-in to the Top 25 anglers. Those 25 were separated by less than 6 pounds, with Martens leading the way with a two day total of 9 pounds, 1 ounce (Open champion Brad Stringer was holding 25th with 3-4). Gone were not only Clunn, Yelas and Hackney, but also veterans Larry Nixon, Takahiro Omori, Ron Shuffield and Dean Rojas.
Martens brought only four bass to the scales, after deciding one bass was simply too close to not measuring legally ("It probably would have measured if I'd left it in the livewell to relax," he said later) and throwing it back, to avoid incurring a possible penalty at the weigh-in table. At the time it hardly seemed like a crucial decision because Martens was catching 20 to 30 bass a day; practically anyone would have guessed he could catch another 12-incher. He didn't.
The former California angler who now lives in Alabama was running and gunning, hitting as many as 25 different spots in all three rivers where he'd stay as briefly as two minutes or as long as 25. He was drop shotting a 3-inch Berkley Gulp Minnow or a Roboworm Live Shad with a 1/16-ounce sinker on 5- and 6-pound-test line around bridge pilings, points and shallow gravel shoals. With such a light sinker, he was getting most of his strikes on the lure's initial fall; he never had to do much shaking on the bottom.
"At 12:30, I only had one keeper," he acknowledged, "but around 1 p.m., I started hooking fish because I believe they began hitting the lures a little better. This was the hardest day I've ever had trying to catch five 12-inch bass."
Michael Iaconelli, who'd brought in four fish the day before and was tied for seventh with Tim Horton, added four more for a total of 8-3, which moved him into second. He was throwing two different types of lures, a prototype Berkley Gulp tube/creature bait hybrid on a 1/8-ounce Tru-Tungsten head; and also a 1-inch long ultralight Japanese crankbait probably better suited for crappie or sunfish. He'd been in the Mon's second pool the first day but Day 2 stayed in the first pool, concentrating on the seawalls, bridge pilings and other places that created a current break. Like Martens, he was visiting nearly 30 different places each day.
VanDam was staying in the Pittsburgh Pool of the Monongahela, likewise concentrating on any river structure that broke the current. The one thing he noticed was that when the current was flowing, bass concentrated on the upriver sides of the structure, but when there was no current, the fish tended to disperse.
His lure for both conditions was a Smithwick RB1200 silver Rattlin' Rogue that has not been manufactured for years, although with VanDam's victory the company has already announced it will re-introduce the bait this year. He's fished it for 20 years (including at his E-50 win at Wissota) because he especially likes its increased buoyancy, different rattle sound, and more erratic action. He was jerking the lure as hard as he could on 8-pound-test Bass Pro Shops fluorocarbon to elicit reaction strikes from fish in the mid to upper range of the water column.
"Summer smallmouth are real suckers for jerkbaits," KVD admitted, "but the key is that you have to jerk them really hard. The Wild Shiner jerkbait I designed for Strike King was simply diving too deep for these fish, which is why I went to the shallower lure.
"Like everyone here, I have also lost some quality fish. In fact, I knocked off a 1 1/2-pounder I was swinging into the boat when it hit the gunnel."
Behind VanDam, two newcomers filled out the top five on Day 2: Jeff Reynolds was in fourth (8-1), Scott Rook (7-15) in fifth. Reynolds wasn't far from KVD and was being forced to hang on for dear life every time The Man moved and his flotilla of spectators thundered past. He was fishing bridge pilings as well as a discharge pipe up the Allegheny. Rook's main distraction was a nearby boat filled with Hooters beauties, who could distract just about anybody. Nonetheless, he managed one of the day's two limits (David Walker in 10th had the other) by crawling and hopping a Berkley Power Tube along the bottom in 2 to 3 feet of water.
First-day leader Jimmy Mize was visibly upset after coming in empty-handed and falling to 12th. He hadn't had a single strike in the grassbed and blamed it on five other anglers who'd come in to fish the same water. Mize left and headed to a tributary river, the Youghiogheny, where he caught five nonkeepers.
The Final Day
Because the bass were so small and legal fish so difficult to come by, the third and final day of the Classic turned into one of the most exciting in the event's 35-year existence. Nearly every ounce represented a potential leaderboard change, so positions in the Top 10 changed practically by the minute.
By 10:30 a.m., VanDam had caught two fish around the Monongahela bridges and took over the lead from Martens. When he caught his third keeper at 10:35 a.m., he had an unofficial lead of more than a pound.
That's when 2004 Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle made his move. Relatively quiet up to this point, the G-Man had opened in 15th with 3-8 by cranking pilings in the Mon with a white Lucky Craft Bevy Crank. He then moved into sixth the second day by adding 4-4, to give him 7-12. He'd stumbled onto a single prominent rock where fish bit each time a barge wake washed over it. He had his first bass at 7:28, and at 10:49 when he caught his third keeper (the second within five minutes) he actually passed The Man and took over the lead. Amazingly, for all his success, the Alabama pro has never won a Bassmaster event.
For a short time, Davy Hite made a charge, unofficially climbing all the way from 14th into third.
At 11 a.m., the unofficial tally had Swindle leading, VanDam second, Martens (with only one bass) third, George Cochran (two bass) fourth, and Hite back to fifth. Iaconelli, who had gambled and locked up the Allegheny to fish new water in the third pool, was still looking for his first keeper and had fallen to sixth. Reynolds and Rook were likewise still looking for their first keepers of the day.
By 11:25, Cochran, his third day of fishing the same grassbed Mize had fished the first day, unofficially moved into third when he caught another keeper. He was throwing both a Strike King Series 1 crankbait as well as Lucky Craft shallow diver, just tipping the vegetation 6 inches below the surface. When he caught his fourth keeper at 11:45 a.m., he passed VanDam into second place and seemed poised to move into truly rarified air with a possible third Classic win.
It was totally unofficial, but it wasn't that far off, either, as an observer in each contender's boat recorded every bass his pro caught, legal or not. Each catch was filed with ESPN, who then computed and broadcast the totals. Thus, at 11:45 a.m., the standings put Swindle in first with 11 pounds, 12 ounces, followed by Cochran with 11-6, VanDam with 11-2, Martens (one bass) with 10-1, Hite at
9-13, and Horton in sixth with 8-11.
VanDam re-took the lead at 12:05 with another keeper that unofficially gave him four bass and a cumulative total of 12-2. By 12:45, Swindle was reported back ahead with his fourth keeper and a total of 12-12. At 2 p.m., ESPN reported Martens had made a late charge and had three bass in the livewell. Iaconelli likewise had found some active bass (after locking back down into the Pittsburgh Pool) and had caught three keepers. VanDam had a limit, as did Cochran; Swindle had four, Reynolds none.
The on-the-water estimates were not quite as accurate as the final, official weights, but even so, VanDam did not know his 4-pound, 13-ounce catch would be enough until Martens weighed in. The last man to the scales, Martens had caught only three weighing 3-8, and so for the second Classic in a row he had to settle for the runner-up spot. Swindle finished third, Cochran fourth and Iaconelli fifth.
The heaviest catch of the day, 6 pounds, 2 ounces (tying Mize for heavy stringer of the tournament), went to sixth place finisher Edwin Evers.
Overall, however, none could deny that the day, the week and the Classic ultimately belonged to KVD — the legend, the champ, The Man.