Day 3. Kevin VanDam. Saturday morning dawned with more threats of severe storms. Fortunately, there was a break in the weather long enough to get things started on time. Being in Kevin's boat had a different feel to it. Even when he was just beached at the ramp, talking on his cellphone before the tournament started, a crowd stood watching and snapping pictures. He seemed to take it all in stride–gracious and humble.
As we waited for takeoff, his mind worked overtime, trying to make a final decision on his plan for the day. Fortunately for me, he verbalized many of those thoughts.
"I want to go north, but I'm afraid all the rain we had last night and the past several days is finally going to ruin my fish up there," he rationalized. "I've got something good down south that I don't think will be as affected by the rain, but I caught them pretty good yesterday up north. It just depends on how fast the creek I'm fishing is going to rise. I'd hate to spend the time locking through to find the place a mess." Back and forth he went, weighing his options. He looked at the sky to the west and cringed a bit at the sight of yet another storm cell forming.
I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to interfere or influence his decisions. As we took our place in the line of boats and idled through the long, no wake section, I could tell he still hadn't made a final call. Just before he pushed the throttle down he said, "I think I'd be safer is to head south."
His casts were surprisingly short and impressively fast and accurate. It didn't take long for him to boat a couple keepers. I'm so glad I'm right here watching this, I thought. But then the daylight turned to dark as the storm that we had seen approaching earlier finally found us. The volume of rain that fell over the next several minutes was epic! The wind howled and thunder rolled as I huddled down in the passenger seat. VanDam never missed a beat. His cadence was consistent. His casts remained accurate. His posture never slumped. He kept catching fish!
The storm passed and KVD continued to catch fish. But I started to notice something change about his demeanor. He never stopped casting but he was busily analyzing, observing, computing, and deciding. He had been working this area for a couple hours and he had 4 smallish keepers in the box. He looked at the western sky one more time and announced, "Alright, we're going to make a move."
Through the lock and into the next pool we went. We headed north and ended up in a spot not too far from the area where Duckett and Ike had started on Day 1.
"Looks good," he confirmed as he jumped to the front deck. "Probably should have started here," he admitted. But unlike a lot of anglers, he didn't dwell on it. He never mentioned it again. He started catching fish. And every fish he caught brought him closer and closer to maximum efficiency. As time went on, he changed spots more frequently, but not in a desperate way–instead, a very calculated way. He had determined exactly how the fish were using huge expanses of available cover and only fished the highest percentage spots quickly and accurately to maximize efficiency. On several occasions, he called the exact spot or cast where he would catch his next fish.
He pulled up to a large, windswept point of reeds, much like dozens of others he had been hitting. On his second cast he was rewarded with the kicker he knew he would eventually catch.
"That's a game changer!" he shouted as he swung the nearly 4-lb. largemouth into the boat. I could sense his intensity ratchet up yet another notch. "Now, one more like that!" he hoped.
For the last hour of the day, his fishing was fast but not frantic. His casts remained accurate and controlled. He was focused and unemotional. But despite his best efforts, the clock ran out before he found "one more like that".
At the end of the day, I couldn't help but think that today hadn't gone exactly like the day in the boat with VanDam I had always imagined. He didn't invite me to fish his private pond in Kalamazoo. He didn't ask for my cell phone number or say that we should do this more often. He didn't comment on my neatly trimmed beard. But the truth is, I really couldn't have asked for more. He was friendly, cool, professional, and gave me a first hand lesson in what it takes to be the best. I'm sure he would argue that it wasn't his best day, but I think the most insightful lessons came in the moments between the fish.
Mixed in with my three days on the water, were tons of priceless, behind the scenes, bass geek moments. At the end of day two, I had a one-on-one, philosophical discussion with the legend, Rick Clunn. I've learned so much from that man! Friday evening Craig and I had dinner with Elite Tour rookies, Josh Bertrand and Cliff Pirch, and Cliff's father, Dennis. Those are some great guys and exceptional fishermen! Oh, and here's one more peek into the life of KVD. I was glad to help him get his boat on the trailer at the end of day 3. As I sat behind the wheel of his Tundra, a man approached the window.
"I just want to shake your hand," he blurted and offered his hand. I smiled sheepishly as we shook. He continued, "Man, I have waited my whole life to meet…wait a minute. You're not Kevin," he accused.
"Sorry," I told him sincerely as he left dejected. I wondered to myself if this level of easy access to the world's best performers is what fosters that kind of fan dedication. Maybe it's because the Elites compete on 100-percent public playing fields all across the country. Maybe it's because of the rare opportunities that the Marshal program offers. As fans of this sport, we've got it pretty good! I thought. I wondered how often that sort of fan adoration happened to KVD. Just then I caught the reflection of my well-trimmed beard in the rearview, and guessed it probably happened a lot.
Originally published July 2013