Being a VanDam in the bass fishing trade cuts two ways. High-quality, reliable advice is usually available, and it opens a lot of doors; family history and reputation counts for something in this business.
But that history also puts a lot of pressure on a guy. You're expected to catch fish and finish high in every tournament you enter. After all, you're a VanDam, and everyone knows that VanDams catch fish. That wouldn't be such a problem if the fish knew how good the VanDams are, but they don't.
"I was nervous going into the Southern Open on the St. John's River, (January 17, 2008). It was my first professional tournament. I'm not going to deny that. I knew everyone was wondering if I could fish like my uncle," says Jonathon VanDam, 19-year-old nephew of three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year and two-time Bassmaster Classic champion Kevin VanDam. "But if fishing bass tournaments is what you want to do — and that's all I've ever wanted to do — you have to ignore all that stuff and go fishing."
That's an attitude that's easy to display at the dock but comes a lot harder on the water. Still, this young man does a credible job of it.
Jonathon traveled from Kalamazoo, Mich., with a family friend and practiced with another friend to get ready for his professional debut. He left his father, Randy, and better known uncle at home. This was his tournament, not theirs.
"I learned a lot from my dad, Randy. He owns D & R Sports Center (www.dandrsports.com) in Kalamazoo. We sell fishing and hunting supplies as well as boats and service. He can fish; he caught the Ohio state record smallmouth bass in 1993 from Lake Erie. It weighed 9.5 pounds. I learned a lot about bass fishing from him when I was growing up, especially smallmouth bass fishing. He's great.
"And I learned a lot from Kevin, too. I've prefished with him around the country and learned a lot about tournaments doing that. All that's a big advantage, but when you're on the water you've got to catch your own fish. They can't pick your spots, tell you when to move or choose lures for you. You've got to do that yourself. You've got to make your own decisions."
So that's what Jonathon did. The St. John's River in Florida hardly offers a home water advantage to a Michigan native. Smallmouth bass are nonexistent; and his dad and uncle were back home, unable to offer anything other than moral support. It was Jonathon against some of the toughest competitors on the planet — man and fish. It was his tournament, no one else's.
Jonathon finished third on the St. Johns. (Kevin finished 110th in his first professional tournament.)
"Overall I feel pretty good about it. I was leading after the second day. If I had gotten a big bite or two that last day things would have been different, I might have won. But it didn't happen that way. My hat goes off to Peter T. He did a heck of a job on some very tough water. He caught a big bag when it counted. That's what tournament bass fishing's all about," he says, reflecting on the event and his performance in it.
The tournament's over now; his first professional event is behind him. Next is the Southern Open on Santee Cooper in May. VanDam's primary career focus will be to develop sponsorships. Otherwise he'll be in class at Western Michigan University, studying, working at his father's store and spending time with his girlfriend.
"The only sponsor I have at the present time is D & R Sports Center, owned by my dad. But I'm working on changing that. I've spent time this week putting together a résumé and will be sending it out next week," he explains. "Hopefully, I'll get some responses."
The name VanDam is not a gift or a curse. It's a fact, and Jonathon VanDam deals with it as such, much like he would the weather or the bite.