I said at the start of the season that one of the best parts of my job was the opportunity to fish with the pros during practice for each of our Elite Series events. New rules for 2009 and beyond state that the Elite Series pros will no longer be permitted to have practice partners during official practice days, so that made the invitation to spend a day on the water with Kevin VanDam that much more special.
As a lifelong fishing junkie, I can't help but sponge as much knowledge from the pros as I can to apply to my own recreational habit, and I was really eager to finally get to see what makes KVD so good. Since I keep telling my wife that those fishing trips are all for work, I have to claim to be doing some research along the way. This trip was a great opportunity to get a smallmouth lesson from KVD on Oneida Lake, and since my motor home was parked next to Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points leader Todd Faircloth all week long, I had an incredible perspective on how the race would end.
The day started with KVD rolling up to the campground at 5:55 a.m. to pick me up. As I went to retrieve my rods and tackle bag, he said, "Leave that tackle here. I promise you I've got everything you need."
No need to argue that point, so I hopped in his Toyota Tundra, and by 6:05 a.m. we had already splashed the boat and were rocketing across Oneida. As the 63-degree morning air rushed past my face on the 65-mph boat ride to the first spot, my eyes were treated to a picture perfect sunrise reflecting off of the mirrored surface of the lake. It's hard to picture a better way to start any day, let alone a day of smallmouth fishing with Kevin VanDam.
While Kevin and I have developed a good friendship over the years, I admit, I was a little nervous about fishing with him during such an important event. After all I didn't want to be a distraction. He was there to take care of business and figure out how he could beat Todd Faircloth and win the AOY race, not guide me around the lake. In fact, at one point when he was tying on a lure for me I had to say, "Dude, I can tie on my own lures. Get your ass back on that front deck and get back to work." He laughed and then obliged, but the fact that he was that relaxed and concerned with making sure I had a good time out there while he was having a tough practice speaks volumes for the type of guy KVD is.
The first spot in the morning was good for three smallies for me and a few for KVD. We weren't there for 20 minutes before we went looking for something else.
Practice Strategy #1
Find them, and then leave them. There is no need to beat those fish up. That area was the best he had found the previous day, and while it didn't produce every day for him, it would ultimately be the spot that helped him win the Angler of the Year title.
We spent the rest of the day covering water with spinnerbaits, tubes and jerkbaits. He was looking for concentrations of fish that were in not so obvious places. In fact, at one point we passed a big rock jetty and KVD never even thought about stopping. Being a Florida guy with about a day's worth of smallmouth experience, I inquired why he didn't stop and take a look at the jetty. His simple answer was, "It's too obvious." While he felt those rocks might hold some fish, he felt that the structure was so obvious that it probably gets hammered by so many guys that it wouldn't be as productive as it looked. You can't second-guess a guy like KVD, but I'd still like to go fish that jetty some day.
Practice Strategy #2
To set yourself apart from the field, look for something unique and avoid the obvious. Todd Faircloth's "Magic Tree" on Amistad and Tim Horton's isolated rockpile on Champlain last year were great examples of that. While he did avoid obvious spots like the jetties, he looked for fish in typical habitats, including shallow flats with rock, deeper water with clumps of grass and scattered rock; and when that wasn't producing, he started graphing deeper and found good concentrations of fish in about 22 feet of water that he could entice with a drop shot. I never expected to see KVD slow down and fish a drop shot like that, but he claims he loves looking at them on his Lowrance and catching them off the screen like that.
There was a lot of talk about the largemouth bite that typically wins at Oneida but the consensus among the pros was that there weren't enough largemouth to go around. Even though largemouth have dominated the last two events at Oneida, KVD didn't have much confidence in the largemouth bite, either. Through the course of our 13-hour day on the water, we spent no more than 10 minutes pitching frogs and soft plastics at pads, mats and docks and never saw a largemouth. While the bite on Oneida wasn't as generous as it has been in the past couple of years, there were still plenty of smallmouth swimming in it, and VanDam felt his best strategy was simply to catch as many fish as he could and play the numbers game hoping to cull his weight up through each day.
Practice Strategy #3
Always keep an open mind, but whenever possible, fish your strength. Nobody throws a spinnerbait or works a jerkbait as effectively as Kevin VanDam, but when those stopped producing, he didn't hesitate to pick up a spinning rod and drop shot.
Through the course of our day together, we caught fish from the surface to the bottom of the water column, never locking ourselves into any one technique or pattern. Instead we looked for as many different patterns or concentrations of fish as we could find. While I watched intently, looking for that secret lure or magical technique that would reveal the secret to KVD's consistency and success, what I learned was that his equipment, his tackle, even his techniques were not notably different from those of anybody else in the field. What I witnessed was supreme decision making and very efficient use of his time. Simple as that! We've all heard and discussed mental toughness and the importance of confidence over the years, and it is just that and an unbelievably competitive desire to win that drives Kevin VanDam. Simply put — it's all in his head.