DECATUR, Ala. – You wouldn’t know by talking to him, but Kevin VanDam all but wrapped up his seventh Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title Thursday.
VanDam entered the Dixie Duel – the final regular season event on the Basmasters Elite Series tour – with a 55-point lead over Edwin Evers. With Evers finishing Day One in 43rd place (11 pounds, 10 ounces) and VanDam placing eighth (15-6), VanDam could probably zero Friday and still maintain a lead over Evers.
However, neither Evers nor VanDam would listen to any of that talk.
“It’s not the day I wanted, but it’s not over just yet,” Evers said. “Anything can happen. I think it’s still wide open.”
“I’m really happy with the way the day turned out,” VanDam said. “If I have a good day (Friday), I’ll feel pretty good about it. But it’s a long way from over.”
VanDam burned a lot of gas Thursday, and he thinks that was a big key to his success.
“If you hit enough places on this lake, eventually you’ll run into them,” VanDam said.
Steve Kennedy found that same key to catching fish. The Auburn, Ala., angler entered this event in third place in the AOY standgins, 139 points behind VanDam. Although he has little hope of catching VanDam for the AOY standings, Kennedy wants to solidify his standing for the post-season, which includes a top eight finish in AOY points and a spot in Toyota Trucks All-Star Week next month in Alabama.
“I burned some gas today,” Kennedy said. “I had it wide open looking for aggressive fish.”
Most anglers in this event are fishing deep ledges in Lake Wheeler. That’s making the lake “fish small,” as most of these guys know where the best ledges are on the lake. And most are sharing water with other anglers. It’s not unusual to see a cluster of anywhere from four to 10 boats in the middle of the lake, where they are throwing crankbaits, jigs and plastic worms around deep structure. Kennedy is fishing shallow and has hardly any competition for that water.
“I had it all to myself,” Kennedy said.
Rookie Ott DeFoe may be doing exactly the same thing. He didn’t want to give away any secrets to his 18-6 first-place weight on Thursday, but he did say, “They were not very deep,” and added that, “The two places I fished were all mine.”
DeFoe may have done to the Elite Series Rookie of the Year race what VanDam did to the AOY title – all but clinched it. DeFoe entered the Dixie Duel with a 127-point lead on Keith Combs. With a respectable 14-2 bag Thursday, Combs is in 17th place at Lake Wheeler, but Combs needs to top DeFoe by a considerable margin to cut that lead, and, obviously, that didn’t happen.
“That definitely relieved some pressure for me,” said DeFoe of his first-place weight on Day One. DeFoe is ranked fourth in the AOY standings. His success Thursday allowed him to set his goals higher for the last three days of the tournament.
“I want to make the postseason now,” DeFoe said. “It’s game on. I’m going for the gusto.”
It seems the gusto may be in the shallow water of Lake Wheeler. Bill Lowen was in 37th place in the AOY standings at the start of this tournament. He needed a solid week here to assure himself of a Bassmaster Classic berth. Lowen did that with 13-5 Thursday that put him in 23rd place and left him with hopes of improving on that Friday.
“I’m fishing part of the day deep, like a lot of the guys are doing, and I’m fishing shallow too,” said Lowen, who noted that he caught a bass shallow in practice that weighed almost 10 pounds. “I’m not seeing another boat fishing shallow. I’ve got a shallow deal going, but I didn’t want to stay in there and burn it all up.
“I’m hoping I can catch around 12 pounds (Friday) and make the cut.”
One point that was unanimously agreed upon Thursday was this week’s practice days were no indication of how good the fishing would be at Lake Wheeler.
“The fishing had been really bad,” said Jeff Kriet, who had 12-4 Thursday, good for 36th place. “I practiced 15 hours a day (Monday and Tuesday), and I didn’t catch anywhere near what I caught today.”
“I’m really surprised,” Evers said. “It was a grind in practice. It was hard to get multiple bites in any area.”
John Crews may have summed it up best. Crews was one of the last anglers to cross the weigh-in stage Thurday. He had 8-5, which put him in 81st place in the 99-man field.
“These guys are the worst bunch of sand-baggers I’ve ever seen,” Crews said. “Everybody was talking about how bad the fishing was here.
“Don’t believe it.”
Only three anglers failed to catch a five-bass limit Thursday.