2008 has been good to Kevin VanDam. He won two Elite Series events, won his fourth Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title, qualified for his 19th Bassmaster Classic and passed the $3 million dollar mark in career earnings.
"I'll tell you the truth. I didn't realize I was approaching $3 million in winnings until someone told me I broke that mark. It's great, but I think it has to be put in context with some of the other money winners on the tour," he said.
"The money has really increased over the years. As an example, look at how long it took me to earn the first million, then the second, and now the third. The time has gotten shorter between each mark.
"Some of that is that I'm a better angler now. But a lot more of it is because of increased prize money. That makes a big difference when you compare anglers over the years. You've got to take that into consideration."
He points to the Classic as an example. In 1971 the champion, Bobby Murray, earned $10,000. In 2001, the year of VanDam's first Classic win, he earned $100,000. His second title in 2005 earned him $200,000. Last year, Alton Jones' win was worth $500,000. Jones made more money — a lot more — with one Classic victory than did VanDam with two.
"A lot of guys might not believe me, but the money is not what this sport is about to me. It's really not even about catching the fish, per se. It's about competition with other anglers and Mother Nature. I want to figure it all out and do better every time I go fishing.
"What makes them bite a particular lure? What can I do better to make them bite? Why are they where they are? Why are they behaving the way they do? What are they going to do later in the day or later in the tournament?
"I want the answers to those questions and a thousand more. If it's about money you won't last long out there. The competitive spirit is too high. There's too much drive in some of the guys to survive if you're only fishing to cash checks."
VanDam's feelings on this subject are strong. He believes prize money or tournament earnings should never be used as a measure success.
"Professional fishing isn't like other sports. You're not going to see an angler rack up successive wins like Tiger Woods in golf, Michael Phelps in Olympic swimming or Kyle Busch in NASCAR. It's just not going to happen."
He explains that every lake or river they fish has different factors to contend with every time they fish it. There's the season, the wind, the sun, the rain, the barometric pressure and the baitfish.
"And those are only the things we know we know. What about the stuff we don't know we don't know? That's even worse.
"Add to that the level of competition. As the money has gotten better, so have the anglers. I'll tell you, the Elite Series that BASS came up with has completely changed the sport.
"The money is huge. It's attracted really good guys. These guys aren't simple minded fishermen. They're educated technicians and true professionals. Mess around with them, and they'll eat your lunch."
So, how should anglers be measured? VanDam's answer is simple and straightforward, if unworkable.
"There should be a level playing field. The Classic should be run like it was in the old days. Put us on a plane and point it towards a mystery destination — someplace none of us have fished. When it lands tell us to go bass fishing. We'll find out quick enough who can figure them out!"