PARIS, Tenn. — It was more a question of when, not if, five-time Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam was going to make a late-season charge. Heading into the Tennessee Triumph this week, the planet's best angler was in 26th in the Angler of the Year standings. Respectable for mere mortals, yes, but for VanDam, it wasn't good enough.
But this week looked like an obvious springboard. VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., has posted first-, second- and third-place finishes on Kentucky Lake in the three previous Bassmaster competitions here. A Wednesday limit of 25 pounds, 0 ounces, on the fish factory has him in the catbird seat to start the week. Just ounces off the pace, Rick Morris of Lake Gaston, Va., registered 24-15 and sits in second.
"It's not easy out there," said VanDam, a three-time Bassmaster Classic champion. "The areas that I typically go to have been beat to pieces. The biggest thing that has changed is everyone has the equipment to find fish out here. And it shows. But you still have to know what to throw and how to throw it to get the big bites."
VanDam didn't say much about his pattern — the typical VanDam formula is a crankbait over shell beds — but left little to the imagination when he said, "I'm fishing my style."
Despite the lead, VanDam was hardly all smiles after weigh-in. He missed on a handful of opportunities to upgrade his weight and cull out a 3-pounder that dragged down his total. He is battling local pressure — something that has become constant for VanDam — but said it isn't hindering his fishing.
"I wanted to have a better day than I had today," lamented VanDam, 42. "But I wanted to be in the lead and at least I accomplished that. I knew, coming in, I had a great shot at doing well here."
Fishing fans can catch all of the on-the-water action from the Tennessee Triumph on The Bassmasters, which airs Sunday, July 4, at 10 a.m. ET on ESPN2. The daily weigh-ins for all regular-season Elite events and the two postseason events will air live on ESPN3.com.
Bassmaster.com will follow the Tennessee Triumph each day with BASSCast, BASSCam, real-time leaderboards during weigh-ins, photo galleries, daily results, and Hooked Up with ESPN Outdoors personalities Mark Zona and Tommy Sanders. Live, streaming video will be carried by ESPN3.com.
With the lead, VanDam will accumulate a five-point bonus in the AOY standings and while it might seem minimal, the 20-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier is starved for any points he can get. Facing a virtual unknown next week at the Arkansas River, VanDam said he hopes he can build enough points to put himself in Postseason contention — the top in the AOY standings qualify — heading into the regular-season finale.
"Next week worries me," said VanDam of the Arkansas River stretch out of Muskogee, Okla. "But most importantly, I need to take care of business this week. I had a good practice and I feel really confident."
While VanDam wasn't satisfied, Morris was ecstatic. His weight of 24-15 included the day's largest bass, an 8-15. The brute came on a 14-inch Prowler worm in plum. If not for an 8-ounce expired fish penalty, VanDam would be trailing Morris heading into the second day of competition.
Like VanDam, Morris has produced on Kentucky. He scored a fifth-place finish here last year and he is an adept crankbait angler. Morris spent most of his day running a pattern where he rotated between a slew of areas, then repeated.
He worked two different crankbaits to areas filled with shellbeds. The key to enticing the biggest bass was long casts, which allowed the crankbait to get to the bottom. Morris isn't getting a lot of bites but is making it count when he puts one in the boat.
"It's scary fishing," said Morris, a four-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier. "I'm not on a massive school. But what a day. I'm going for the gusto and today it really paid off."
In third with 23-12 was Timmy Horton of Muscle Shoals, Ala. It has been a struggle this season for Horton, the 2000 Angler of the Year, but a trip to Kentucky Lake, where he posted a second in 2008, was just what the Doctor ordered.
In fourth was Kotaro Kiriyama of Moody, Ala., with 22-10. Rounding out the top five was Chad Griffin of Cresson, Texas, with 22-0.
With the race for qualifying berths in the Postseason (top 12) and the Bassmaster Classic (top 37) heating on, anglers are beginning to feel the pressure. Skeet Reese of Auburn, Calif., stumbled to a 48th-place finish, opening the door yet again in the Angler of the Year race. With a stout lead of 170-plus points heading into this week, Reese had a nice cushion but his closest competitor, Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla., is in 13th here and charging fast.
Kentucky Lake has hosted a dozen BASS events, including the 2009 Tennessee Triumph, at which then-Elite Series sophomore pro Bobby Lane of Lakeland, Fla., won his first BASS tournament with a total of 97 pounds, 9 ounces, after leading through all four days. Lane was 23rd Wednesday and 2006 Kentucky Lake champion Morizo Shimizu of Japan was 18th.
Kentucky Lake is 185 miles in length, with 160,000 surface acres and 2,380 miles of shoreline. Lake Barkley adds another 80,000 surface acres.
The top prize of the Tennessee Triumph is $100,000.
The public is invited to attend the daily launches (6 a.m. CT) through Saturday and weigh-ins (3:30 p.m.) at Paris Landing State Park, 16055 Hwy. 79 N., Buchanan, Tenn. After Day 2's competition Thursday, the field will be cut to the top 47 anglers for Day 3. Only the top 12 will go on to compete in Saturday's Day 4.
Other activities Friday and Saturday at the Tennessee Triumph will begin at noon CT at Paris Landing State Park. All events are free and open to the public.
The local sponsor of the Tennessee Triumph is the Paris-Henry County Chamber of Commerce.
Up next for the Elite Series is the regular-season finale, the June 17-20 AutoZone Sooner Run on the Arkansas River out of Muskogee, Okla.
The Bassmaster Elite Series Postseason, Toyota Trucks Championship Week, is set for July 24-31 and will be played out once again on two productive Alabama fisheries. The first leg, the July 24-25 Trophy Chase, returns to Lake Jordan out of Wetumpka. The finale, the Evan Williams Bourbon Trophy Triumph, is slated for July 30-31 on the Alabama River from Montgomery.