TAVARES, Fla. -- On his first day of the Elite Series, Jonathon VanDam got to say something few other rookies do.
"I was leading when I came off the stage," he said, "but Kevin Wirth weighed in right after me, so that didn't last long."
The guy with the famous last name is one of the 15 newcomers to the Elite Series this year, but he's not having anything given to him. He qualified and is competing the old-fashioned way -- through hard work.
"This kid really doesn't have much of a future in this sport," JVD's Marshal joked after the first day of competition at the Bassmaster Elite Series Sunshine Showdown. "Nah ... we had a great day out there. "
The Marshal, Jim Embry of Highland Haven, Texas, lives on Lake Lyndon B. Johnson and couldn't resist ribbing the 23-year-old rookie by asking, "You ever heard of him, LBJ?"
JVD shot back, "Yeah, I had history classes in college."
You don't grow up fishing in Kalamazoo, Mich., with the last name of VanDam without developing a quick wit and thick skin.
JVD described his first day as an Elite Series angler as "awesome."
"I wish I had brought a couple more big fish in. I lost a good one that would have helped," he said after his 13-14 put him 20th place. Not bad for a rookie.
By now, most B.A.S.S. fishing fans have heard the stories of Kevin VanDam working in his brother Randy's tackle store -- D & R Sports Center in Kalamazoo. Jonathon VanDam worked there, too. Randy is his father.
"He grew up around all these guys," said his mother, Janice VanDam. "The big names in the sport would come in for promotions and Jonathon would be in there talking to them and hanging out with them."
JVD and his father started a website to help support his Elite Series career. RadicalOutdoors.com will aggregate outdoor goods, including marine parts, a shooting store, fishing shop, recreational parts and even a trolling motor store. JVD's boat wrap advertises the RadicalOutdoors.com site and they hope to keep adding to its offerings as the season progresses.
While JVD has fished Bassmaster Northern Opens and the Bassmaster Southern Opens in 2010 and has already won more than $64,000 in his short career, he's still a rookie in the big leagues. But he fits right in to this game.
He is running with Casey Ashley and Marty Robinson on the Elite Series. He got to know them at the Bassmaster Bass Pro Shops Northern Open in Detroit last August.
"We stayed in the same hotel and became buds," he said.
That makes Mom feel better.
"Casey and Marty have taken him under their wing, and we feel good about that," Janice said. "And of course, he's got his uncle Kevin out here, too. So we're not too worried about him."
But it's worth noting that both his parents and grandparents were present at the weigh-in this week, 1,100 miles away from Kalamazoo.
JVD is focused on winning Rookie of the Year and qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic this year.
After the second day of competition, he said, "If I can just make a check here at Harris Chain, I'll feel good going into the next three events. Those lakes suit my style of fishing more."
Of course, he went on to finish fifth in the Sunshine Showdown, just one spot back from uncle Kevin.
While JVD is far from home, Brandon Palaniuk has an even longer commute to work. Hayden, Idaho, is 2,800 miles away, but Palaniuk's journey here might have been faster than VanDam's.
Palaniuk won the B.A.S.S. Federation Nation Championship presented by Yamaha and Skeeter Boats on the Red River in Shreveport, La., at the end of October. That win secured a spot in the Bassmaster Classic as well as the Elite Series for the 23-year-old.
He's the first to make the jump from the B.A.S.S. Federation Nation to the Elite Series, and he takes his role as a representative of the grass roots anger seriously.
"When I was 8 years old, a guy took me under his wing and taught me about bass fishing. His name was Jeremy Trip, and he had been taught by a bass fishing legend in Idaho by the name of Charlie Lynch," Palaniuk said. "That's one of the cool things about this sport, is people paying it forward. "
Brandon has taken his turn paying it forward by befriending a youngster in Idaho and showing him the ropes. But he knows the time is right for him to make a name for himself and the B.A.S.S. Federation Nation on the Elite Series.
"I'm out here to win," Palaniuk said. "I've got a lot of support from B.A.S.S. Federation Nation members around the country. I'm not going to let them down."
While much as been made over the fact that he has been sleeping in the back of his truck while fishing in tournaments, Palaniuk says he's doing it his own way.
"I'm fishing. I'm having fun. I'm not in debt. I'm doing it my way. I really like camping in my Toyota Tundra," he said. "Except for when it's really hot outside."
Palaniuk finished 44th place in the Harris Chain Sunshine Showdown. Both he and JVD have served notice they are out to make their mark, but Bradley Roy has a word of caution for them.
Roy was the 2010 Bassmaster Elite Series Rookie of the Year. But his second season didn't start off as well as he had hoped as he finished 2 pounds out of the cut at Harris. When asked what advice he might give them Roy said this ...
"Do your homework. Put as much effort into this as you can. Don't worry about who you're fishing against. It took me a while to get over that. "
He added, "Last year I was trying to make a check and pay for my season. This year I have better sponsor support so I'm in a little better mindset. Last year, I didn't really know what my goals should be. This year I have a more realistic handle on that."
Watch this column for more news on the New Young Guns as the Bassmaster Elite Series progresses.