FORT MADISON, Iowa — After holding a monopoly on the top spot in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, Kevin VanDam failed to weigh in a keeper on Day Three of the Genuity River Rumble, opening a window of opportunity for Skeet Reese and Alton Jones to close ground before the season wraps up on Lake Oneida.
In the land of the trains, VanDam struggled to get bites and execute on the few fish he did hook Saturday, but wasn't disappointed with the week in light of his difficult practice period.
"This was the one tournament I knew nothing about," VanDam said. "I didn't have anything going in practice, so really, I had a good week. I pretty much committed myself to one area. I had two good fish bite this afternoon that I just couldn't execute on. They weren't taking the bait well."While VanDam stuck to the same area every day, Reese made a big decision to abandon his primary area, which incidentally was in the same backwater as VanDam. When he left the dock on Day Three, he pointed his boat towards Pool 17 and never looked back. Locking twice from Pool 19 proved to be successful, and Reese brought back 7 pounds, 5 ounces to move him up into 29th place, 4 ounces behind VanDam who finished 28th.The two top-shelf anglers have locked horns in past years in the TTBAOY race and seem to push each other to new levels of excellence."Kevin keeps me in it — it's a challenge going into every event to keep yourself in the hunt," Reese said. "It's [TTBAOY] on my mind every day and now that we are coming to the climax of the season, that feeling is heightened. I think I push him because he knows he can't slack and he pushes me and the rest of the field."Off the water, the two share a friendship, but on the water, their competitive edge keeps them focused on one goal, to be the 2009 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year."It's not just Skeet that pushes you," VanDam said. "It's Alton, Aaron and Ike — the same group of guys every year. You compete against people that can beat you any time you take the water. The Elite Series gets better every year."That may be true, but over the four years since the inception of the Elite Series, VanDam and Reese have been head and shoulders above the rest. No other angler has come close to challenging that consistency."To be going head to head, day after day with the best in the world, there's nothing better," Reese said. "We have one regular season event left and that's when it's all on the line."
VanDam and Reese may be looking ahead to the next event, but the real story on Day Three was one angler who won't go away in the year-end race. Alton Jones slipped from first to fifth in the Genuity River Rumble standings, but was ebullient knowing that he would be closing ground no matter what the results Sunday.Entering the tournament 116 points behind VanDam, Jones rode a single spot on Pool 18 to the Day Two lead and eventually a spot in the final 12 anglers who will fish on the final day. Not only will he be fishing for $100,000, but there will be a chance to gain a few more TTBAOY points."I'm fishing tomorrow and they're not, so I gain ground even with a bad day," Jones said. "That said, I'm fishing to win this event first and foremost. Points ebb and flow with each event. I've done as well as I can expect and if that's not enough, then so be it."What Jones has done is put up consecutive bags of 12-0, 12-1 and 7-8 to head into the final day in third place behind Billy McCaghren and Tommy Biffle. He has been in position to win events before this season, leading at the season opener on Lake Amistad before eventually finishing second.
This time, he hopes to head to Oneida as a first-time Elite Series champion, but he knows that with the tough fishing conditions on the Mississippi River, certain things will have to work in his favor.All week, Jones and Kelly Jordon have been sharing a small backwater area in Pool 18, but each also have caught a keeper or two before or after locking.
"My plan will be exactly the same as it has been the first three days," Jones said. "Locking up, you are committing yourself to fishing there all day. I was just fortunate to catch a key fish on the way up, locking through."
With weights tight near the top of the standings, every fish Jones can boat on the final day means less of a gap in the TTBAOY race heading into the season's final event."The $100,000 prize and shot at angler of the year will make the gameplan that I'm going to sleep on tonight all the more important," Jones said.To see the full Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings after Day Three of the Genuity River Rumble on the Mississippi River out of Fort Madison, click here.