DECATUR, Ala. — Kevin VanDam, often referred to as the Tiger Woods of bass fishing, said he feels like the underdog going into what appears to be a two-man shootout with Jeremy Starks in the Sunday finale of the Bassmaster Elite Series Southern Challenge presented by Advance Auto Parts.
VanDam the underdog, even though he's leading Starks by 1 pound, 7 ounces?
If that's true, it's because Starks has such supreme confidence in the hole of water he's found on Wheeler Lake. It's a spot that Starks has managed so carefully all week that he's made only about two dozen casts into it, including practice, and produced a second-place three-day total of 56 pounds, 11 ounces.
Saturday, Starks, who has never won a BASS event, only half-jokingly told VanDam, a three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year, that he'd better catch 25 pounds today if he wanted to win.
"You know what?" VanDam said Sunday morning, when asked about Starks comment. "I don't need a lot of motivation.
"He's just got a lot of confidence. But I feel pretty good about where I'm fishing, too."
VanDam took the lead Saturday with the Berkley Big Bag of the tournament so far, 22-12. He's found an area in the Decatur Flats where a mussel shell bed is holding big bass, just like Starks has. They are within a mile of each other.
The only reason that KVD might feel like an underdog is that Starks has taken such an extreme approach in managing the fish in his area, which appears to be loaded with big bass. Starks didn't intend to fish the spot at all Saturday, instead concentrating on some smaller shell beds near the bigger sweet spot.
Inadvertently he found out everything is still fine in the hole he's been saving for today.
"Someone tried to come in on me at one point," Starks said. "So I eased up that way. When I did, I went by my best spot. My co-angler fired over there, unknowingly. I didn't tell him where it was.
"As soon as his bait hit the water, he hooked a 5-pounder. I said if he's going to catch one, I am too. So I fired out there and caught a 6-pounder. That's the only two casts that were made on it (Saturday)."
Understandably, Starks was fired up Sunday morning. He wants to know, more than anyone else, just how big of a five-bass limit he can produce by pounding on the spot he's barely touched all week.
"They ain't seen enough of me yet," Starks said. "Today they're going to.
"They may all be gone, but we'll see."
Starks, a 35-year-old Charleston, W.V., resident, thinks he has finally figured out what is holding so many fish in this spot — besides just the bed of mussel shells — some of which came back attached to the Rat-L-Trap he was casting in practice when he found it.
"I've heard a lot of guys talking about how it's a popular area, but nobody had found this little deal," Starks said. "I had dinner last night with Greg Hackney. We talked about how it's more than likely an old berm that was built on the old river channel years ago.
"It's made a little ditch. I'm fishing 50 yards, maybe 75 yards, to the left of the ditch that everybody fished. But they didn't find this little key spot."
Starks didn't need much more confidence in that spot, but he got some Saturday.
"Yesterday was a big shot in the arm for my confidence," he said. "We had no current. I've thought from the beginning that current won't be an issue there because the lake is so wide. It's the widest part of the lake."
Saturday he found out for certain that current wasn't an issue, like it is in many parts of Wheeler Lake, when he brought in a 20-0 stringer, his best of the tournament.
But still, how can anyone be confident going into the final day trailing Kevin VanDam?
Starks just smiled Sunday morning and said, "If I'm going to beat somebody, it might as well be him."
There are 10 other pros fishing in today's final to determine the winner of the $100,000 first place check. Terry Scroggins, who led the first two days, is in third place with 53-11; Todd Faircloth is fourth with 51-13, just 6-15 behind VanDam's leading 58-2 total.
But both contenders acknowledged that VanDam or Starks would have to stumble for someone else to have a chance. And Sunday morning anyway, that seemed highly unlikely.
The weigh-in begins at 4 p.m. ET at Ingalls Harbor.