MONTGOMERY, Ala. — At this point, the only thing hotter than Kevin VanDam is Alabama in late July. The Kalamazoo, Mich., veteran closed in typical fashion on the Alabama River Saturday, scoring his sixth -- third consecutive -- Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. VanDam's 20-year career has played out like an assault on the BASS record book. Consider: VanDam notched his 19th BASS career victory Saturday at the Evan Williams Bourbon Trophy Triumph — which ties him for the most victories with Roland Martin.
Paired with VanDam's earlier February Classic win — in Alabama of course — VanDam is only the second angler to score both of the sport's most prestigious titles in the same season. And probably most important — at least to his twin boys, Jackson and Nicholas — VanDam netted $200,000 to push his career earnings to more than $4.5 million, by far the most in BASS' 40-year-plus history.
And the popular perception might be that VanDam would lose a touch of motivation and get fat and happy, but exactly the opposite is true.
"I never get tired of winning," said VanDam, 42. "This title was the hardest for me to accomplish so it means that much more. I take nothing for granted because I face competition every day that can beat me. It's easy to stay motivated when that's the case."
It was an uphill climb for VanDam, who waded through a tough stretch early in the season. In fact, at the midpoint of the season, VanDam looked like a long shot to even qualify for the postseason. But VanDam has made a career on turning it on when it matters most and after a victory on Kentucky Lake in June, it was only a matter of time before VanDam threatened for the title.
"When people count me out, it really motivates me," said VanDam. "I have a lot of confidence that the next spot or that next cast is going to be the one. Every time I win, it gets better and I just crave that feeling."
Still, heading into the postseason, VanDam felt he had only a puncher's chance at another AOY. In his mind, he figured that he needed to win both legs of the postseason to catch Skeet Reese of Auburn, Calif., who put together possibly the best regular-season run in BASS history. But as it turned out, VanDam only needed to win one leg with Reese's postseason struggles.
VanDam's river strategy — which netted him 26 pounds, 0 ounces — was much like the plan of attack that carried him through the season. He worked a variety of Strike King crankbaits — a Strike King Series 5 in sexy shad and a KVD 2.5 and 1.5 — fast and furiously.
While his power approach is trademark VanDam, it was patience — mixed with extreme confidence — that was the key for VanDam. Friday, he went without a bite until 11 a.m. but his confidence and strategy were unwavering.
"On a place like this, its only matter of time before you get a bite so you have to stick with it," said VanDam. "It was such a magical week. Anything can happen when you get into a format like this and I love it."
A dejected Reese can take solace in the fact that he smashed VanDam in the regular season. That magical run included six top-five finishes and two victories that resulted in a media firestorm. But in the end, it wasn't enough and though Reese held a commanding lead to kick off the postseason, he finished in a distant third.
It is a tough pill to swallow for the 2007 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year and he was visibly shaken after ceding his lead to VanDam for the second consecutive season. But while VanDam's resume is sterling, Reese has cemented his reputation with a fantastic run over the past five years in Bassmaster Elite Series competition.
"I'm proud of the season I had," said Reese, the 2009 Classic champion. "I guess I peaked a little early. I had one of the greatest seasons ever and I know what I've accomplished. The only thing you can do when you spill milk is clean it up and move on. I missed some opportunities that will play over in my mind for the next while."
Those missed opportunities included failing to boat a five-fish limit on the final day of competition on Lake Jordan, the first leg of the Postseason. Additionally, Reese missed a 3- and 3-plus pounder early Saturday morning, which probably would have been enough to leapfrog VanDam, exhibiting how tight the race was. As it was, Reese finished sixth with 21 pounds, 7 ounces.
Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla., was able to capitalize on Reese's slip-up and finish in second in the event and the AOY race. His two-day total was 24 pounds, 0 ounces.
Finishing fourth in the AOY race was Terry Butcher, Evers' brother-in-law, while Aaron Martens of Leeds, Ala., improved on his last-place standing heading into this week to finish fifth. The full standings with points can be seen here. The icing on the cake for VanDam was that he also earned a $60,000 boat package with the Trophy Triumph victory.