MARBURY, Md. — There are, at most, seven competition days left in the Bassmaster Elite Series Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year race.
But one day — Friday — could make-or-break Kevin VanDam if he's to eventually overtake leader Skeet Reese.
"Today is unbelievably important," said VanDam at the launch for the second day of competition in the Capitol Clash presented by Advanced Auto Parts. "I've got to catch 'em today. There's no sandbagging."
That's because VanDam came into this Potomac River tournament trailing Reese by only 21 points in the Angler of the Year race — 2,259 to 2,238. But on Day One, Reese earned a guaranteed five bonus points by finishing as the first-day leader with 20 pounds, 5 ounces, and VanDam caught only 12-2, good for 33rd place. If those standings held to the end of the tournament Sunday, Reese would have increased his lead over VanDam to almost 120 points.
(The math for determining Angler of the Year points gets complicated, but the short version includes the following: The winner of each tournament gets 200 points, plus any bonuses earned, like the five Reese got by being the Day One leader. The points drop in five-point increments through fifth place — 195 for second, 190 for third, etc. From sixth place through 10th, the increments are four points — 176 for sixth, 172 for seventh, etc. From 11th through 15th, the increments are three points — 157 for 11th, 154 for 12th, etc. Every other angler that at least weighs in one fish gets two points.)
There's only one Elite Series tournament left this year that includes Angler of the Year points. After the Major at Arkansas' Lake Dardanelle later this month, which doesn't count in AOY standings, the Elite Series concludes in Kissimmee, Fla., at Lake Tohopekaliga (Lake Toho, for short) on Sept. 13-16.
VanDam needs to remain in striking distance going into that last event. He's had a long history of success there over the last decade and Reese hasn't. In fact, Reese has never finished higher than VanDam at Toho. In the one tourney there where Reese did well —placing seventh in the Florida Top 150 in 2000, VanDam finished higher — fourth.
"Yeah, but we've never fished Toho in September," said Reese, when asked to comment on that statistic.
Said VanDam, "Toho is a tough lake. It's not like some of these northern lakes where everybody is going to catch 'em. It's easy to have a bad tournament there, and it's hard to have a good one."
But VanDam is more concerned about Friday. At 33rd, he's in danger of not making the top 50 cut for Saturday's competition on the Potomac. There will be some huge swings in the standings Friday, just like on Day Two of any Elite Series event. But that seems even more likely after Day One on the Potomac.
"I might not catch anything (Friday)," said Gary Klein, who trailed Reese by only 3 ounces Thursday after a 20-2 bag that included a largemouth weighing 8-2. "I'm totally committed to one spot."
The combination of changing weather, tides and the anglers finding little productive water during practice led to several pros echoing Klein's thoughts.
"I don't know what to expect (Friday)," Reese said.
VanDam, the Kalamazoo, Mich., native who owns three Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles, has been in this position many times. Even though he was disqualified in a tourney last year, VanDam almost caught Mike Iaconelli by the end of the 2006 AOY race.
However, since winning a tournament on Oklahoma's Grand Lake in late June, VanDam has struggled. He knows he has to turn that around Friday. Not tomorrow. It's T.G.I.F. day for VanDam.
"I haven't had things go my way lately," VanDam said. "It's been just little things.
"A lot of times when things do go your way, it seems like you can't do anything wrong. It's interesting to me. In all my years of doing this, I've watched a lot of people get on a roll. When it happens, it's just magical. It's hard to figure out why that happens."
If that is indeed what's happening with Reese, it's well-deserved. Since joining the Bassmaster tour in 1999, Reese has won only two tournaments — the last one being in 2003. But during that time he has posted 38 top 10 finishes. Reese will go over the $1 million mark in career tournament earnings this week. Only 19 other pro anglers have done that.
Particularly in the last two years, it seems like Reese is near the top of the leaderboard every time, just never in that top spot on the final day. This year at the Bassmaster Classic in February, Reese finished second to Boyd Duckett by a mere 6 ounces.
"Absolutely, without a doubt, this is what I'm shooting for," Reese said of the AOY title. "I've always prided myself on being consistent. That's what allowed me to win some Angler of the Year titles out West. To have an opportunity to win this Angler of the Year title competing against the best of the best, well, this is the crown jewel of them all."
If VanDam can't close the gap between him and Reese on Friday, the Auburn, Calif., resident will have that crown jewel only an arm's length away.