Most people credit their fathers for taking them fishing for the first time, but mine was a little different than what most anglers experience.
My first outing was ice fishing. I was about 3 years old when my dad took me onto the ice at School Section Lake near my home in Kalamazoo, Mich., one winter. From what I am told, I didn't do much fishing, but I sure had a lot of fun talking to other fishermen on the lake, kicking snow into their holes and picking up their fish. I liked being out there, and I give my dad credit for having the patience with me for the few hours we were there.
I was fascinated with fish and water. My grandparents bought a house on that lake and we spent summers there bluegill fishing. My brother and sisters enjoyed fishing as much as I did, so it was truly a family affair.
It was at School Section Lake where my love of the sport blossomed. I spent every hour from daylight to dark roaming the banks and fishing off people's piers. It wasn't long before they all knew me as "that little VanDam kid out on the dock."
I was about 6 years old or so when I got my first fishing outfit, a Zebco 202. I wore out quite a few of those before I graduated to the Zebco 33, and it wasn't long after that when the company came out with the "high speed" 33, and I had to have one. I was just as hyper then as I am now, so fishing fast came to me at an early age.
It was also about that time when I caught my first bass at School Section Lake, although, frankly, I don't remember it.
But I do remember my first smallmouth like it was yesterday. My dad was a building contractor and took his workers on a weekend smallmouth trip to northern Michigan every year. He had a rule for us kids — we had to be 7 years old before we could go. My older brother Randy had been going, and I couldn't wait until I was old enough.
My first smallie was a 12-incher that came from Lake Leelanau. I was fishing from a 14-foot V-bottom boat powered with a 7 1/2-horse Mercury outboard, and we were drifting nightcrawlers over spawning beds. That fish pulled, jumped, ran drag and was everything I could handle. I also caught a 14-incher and an 18-incher, the latter of which was one of the biggest smallmouth caught by our group that weekend.
I was hooked on smallmouth after that. By the time I was 11 or so, we made the transition to fishing all artificial lures on spinning rods. I had my own polarized sunglasses, and we added a MotorGuide trolling motor to that little boat. I was hot stuff.
By then, I was catching over a 100 smallmouth in a weekend on a Mann's watermelon Stingray Grub. (That was before tube jigs were known as good smallmouth lures.)
I spent my summers on my grandparent's lake, and that's where I learned to flip and fish many of the lures I use today. You could say I went to school on School Station Lake.
There were trout streams near my home, and I'd ride my bike to fish them. Trout season opened earlier than bass, so that's how I occupied my time. Even though they aren't bass, I learned a lot about fish and current from fishing for trout in that clear, cool water. I walked the banks and waded narrow streams, and that's where I learned the importance of casting accuracy.
As I got a little older, my dad and brother started taking me with them to practice for their bass club tournaments.
There were a few farm ponds within bike-riding distance, so my buddy and I would knock on doors and ask permission to fish. Who could turn down a couple of 10-year-old kids?
We fished for carp, dogfish, pike and bullheads at night. We didn't care what we caught, and we learned a ton about fishing by doing that. Once I got my driver's license, I started hitting the river banks and Lake Michigan piers for trout and salmon.
The second year after I joined a bass club, I won Angler of Year. When I was about 17, I won Michigan's Angler of Year and won their Classic and a boat and motor.
I guess you could say I've been hooked ever since and, to be honest, I still have that same boyhood fascination with the sport.