NEW ORLEANS — He struggled all day long on the Louisiana Delta to hold his slim lead. He broke one of the 10 rods he was allowed to use and kicked another one overboard.
And when it was finally time Saturday to weigh in his five bass on the final day of the Bassmasters Classic here, Kevin VanDam was one anxious angler. After all, he's considered one of bassing's greatest competitors, but the elusive Classic crown had always been missing from his trophy case.
"I've never been this nervous in my life. Let's get this on," he told ESPN2 weigh-in hosts.
But soon after his total weight for the tournament — 32 pounds, 5 ounces on three-days of five-fish limits — was revealed to the Louisiana Superdome crowd, it became apparent the monkey was off his back.
VanDam, 33, was king of the Bassmasters Classic XXXI at long last, earning the winner's purse of $100,000.
"I've been close before (at Classics), and I've really been let down," said the Kalamazoo, Mich., pro, who was fishing in his 11th consecutive Classic, where he had finished in the Top 10 five times. "I didn't want to do that again today."
The prize money bumped VanDam over the $1 million career-earning's mark. The victory was the seventh in a Bassmaster event for the three-time BASS Angler of the Year.
Little Rock, Ark., angler Scott Rook could not move up from his second-place standing after Day 2 and wound up taking home the $40,000 runner-up's check for his weight total of 31 pounds, 4 ounces. Rook titled the scales just an ounce ahead of David Walker of Cannon, Ky. Walker, the leader after Round 1, held onto his third-place finish from the second day to earn $19,000 for the 13 fish he weighed in over three days.
Rook and Walker have yet to earn a Bassmaster tournament win.
VanDam, who along with Rook had fished Bayou Black, moved around quite a bit Saturday just to secure a five-bass limit. And, still, he doubted whether that was enough to win.
"It was such a mentally tough day out there today, and I had to scratch out the five bass that I had," he said. "I really thought I was one fish short. I had four pretty good fish, but the way that it has been all week, I really thought I needed one more (bigger) fish to seal the deal."
Rumors had circulated around the Superdome that Walker, the last to weigh in, had enough bass to overtake VanDam. But Walker, who lost what he thought was a 3-pound bass on Friday 15 minutes before quitting time, came up a tantalizing 1 pound, 2 ounces short of VanDam.
"Yesterday, losing a fish cost me a Classic," the dejected Walker said.
Although VanDam and Rook had said Friday that the advancing Tropical Storm Barry would not play much of a role on Saturday, Rook admitted it impacted his success rate. Rook counted 16 bites on Friday, but only half that Saturday.
"I didn't think the tropical storm would affect me much, but it raised the water in there and muddied it up," Rook said. "My best area yesterday I didn't even get fish there today."
Rook had a bittersweet experience at the weigh-in: "I'm happy, but I'm disappointed coming in second; it's a long way from being Classic champ."
Saturday was a bluebird day with bass diving for cover to escape the 90-degree topwater temperatures. VanDam told reporters he was just aiming at anything that resembled shade, such as well heads and grass that had canopy covers. He also keyed in on tidal movements.
"I was definitely in the hurry-up offense today," he said. "I fished methodically, but very fast. I didn't want to waste time in dead water."
"I was so excited to see bass fishing on Sports Center last night," he told the audience.
But that paled in comparison to hoisting the Bassmasters Classic trophy.
"You know," he said, "it was probably the most exciting moment of my life, other than when my kids (twin sons, Jackson and Nicholas) were born (quite premature) and I found out they were OK."