2011 Elite Series - Diamond Drive Arkansas River - Little Rock, AR, Jun 9 - 12, 2011

Fishing's "unwritten" rule?

Elite anglers say VanDam shouldn’t have returned to leaders’ spot

James Overstreet
Elite rookie Jonathon VanDam learned some of the code firsthand last week.

LITTLE ROCK – Bassmaster Elite Series rookie Jonathon VanDam essentially tried to bunt for a hit in the eighth inning of Denny Brauer’s no-hitter last week during the Diamond Drive tournament on the Arkansas River. Or maybe what he did was like stealing a base in the ninth inning with his team ahead by a half-dozen runs.

If you’re a baseball fan, you know that those are violations of “the code” – the unwritten rules of the game. In baseball, you shouldn’t stand at home plate and admire a long home run either.

There’s nothing in the rule book that says you can’t do those things. But all are examples of violating “the code” of how the game should be played.  Sometimes rookies are simply unaware of the unwritten rules.

VanDam, 22, is certainly aware now of the “code violation” he committed last week. If he were playing baseball, he could expect an inside fastball sometime soon.

“These younger guys don’t have that sportsmanship etiquette yet,” Elite Series veteran Skeet Reese said. “They are making some bad decisions. Unfortunately, that’s part of being young.”

So what did VanDam do in violating the code? On the surface, he did nothing other than go back to a spot in Pine Bluff Harbor to fish an area he’d found in practice. It was also the same place where VanDam said he lost two “good fish” during Thursday’s first day of competition.

VanDam zeroed on Thursday – meaning he didn’t catch a largemouth bass that met the minimum 15-inch length limit or a spotted bass that measured at least 12 inches. Zero fish. Zero total weight.

But he went back to the same place Friday and had one of the top days in the tournament – five bass weighing 15 pounds, 10 ounces. And VanDam went there again Saturday, where he caught another limit weighing 18-5, which moved him up to fourth place in the overall standings after three days of the four-day event.

“It’s not a secret spot by any means,” VanDam said on Saturday. “I found it in practice, and I’ve fished it all three days.

“I’m not doing anything wrong, so I’m going back there (Sunday).”

But if VanDam hadn’t done anything wrong, why would tournament leader Denny Brauer say, while on the weigh-in stage Saturday, “I won’t be joining the Jonathon VanDam fan club anytime soon?”

VanDam, it seems, had violated “the code” of tournament bass fishing.

As one observer stated it, “Probably THE biggest unwritten rule of bass fishing, especially on the Elite Series, is that you don’t jack with the leader.”

Brauer, a 62-year-old Camdenton, Mo., resident, has won over $2.5 million on the Bassmasters tour. And he was fishing the exact same spot in Pine Bluff Harbor where VanDam had suddenly vaulted himself into contention for the $100,000 Diamond Drive first-place prize.

According to several fellow Elite Series pros, VanDam violated the code by going back to that place in the Pine Bluff Harbor on Friday, after Brauer had taken the tournament lead Thursday. And by fishing there again Saturday, VanDam might as well have stood at home plate after hitting a home run into the upper deck.

“The first day, everything is open,” said 38-year-old, Muscle Shoals, Ala., pro Tim Horton. “The second day, if a guy is in there who is leading the tournament and a second guy is there who is doing pretty good, then it’s still open water. But if you zero and a guy’s leading the tournament, then you don’t go back in there. That’s the unwritten rule. That’s just the way it is.”

Isn’t that the equivalent of giving up while trailing 14-0 in the first quarter of a football game?

It wasn’t like VanDam came back to that spot just to “jack with the leader.” VanDam, the nephew of six-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam, put himself in contention for the title on Saturday when he jumped in the standings all the way up to fourth place.

However, many of the other pros agreed with Horton’s assessment of the situation.

“Anybody who fished where Denny fished that first day is out of there,” said Reese, the 2009 Bassmaster Classic champion. “I’ve turned my boat around many times when I pulled in an area where there was somebody who was leading the tournament.

“It’s not very often that an angler is in position to win, so when you have somebody that’s in that position, you don’t hurt his chances.

“You’ve at least got to ask the guy if he minds if you fish there. If he says, yeah, come on in, that’s fine.”

Needless to say, that conversation never took place between VanDam and Brauer. As it happened, Brauer was more threatened by a barge making him late for Sunday’s weigh-in than he was by another big day from VanDam.

Brauer captured the 17th victory of his pro career Sunday, but his first since 2006. VanDam  earned  $13,500 for sixth place and got a lesson in the unwritten rules of bass fishing.

Unlike baseball, bass fishing doesn’t have a long list of unwritten rules. There is no bass fishing equivalent to laying down a suicide squeeze bunt in the seventh inning of a 10-1 blowout.

In fact, you can probably skate by just fine in tournament fishing if the worst thing you do is punch a GPS coordinate when you see a competitor reeling in a fish during practice. That’s an unwritten no-no as well. But based on a quick survey of the Elite Series pros, nothing riles these guys like “jacking with the leader.”

“If I don’t catch nothing the first day, I’m not going in on the leader where he’s catching fish, even if I found that spot,” said 39-year-old Jason Quinn of York, S.C. “He’s got all the rights to that place, and I’ll go do something else.

“(VanDam) zeroed the first day. That’s all that matters.”

It seems as though VanDam might as well get ready for the bass fishing equivalent of a fastball in the ribcage one day soon.

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