MONETA, Va. — Bassmaster Elite Series anglers beware. If there was a technique Kevin VanDam hasn't quite mastered, most would agree that sight-fishing would be it. VanDam, the current and four-time Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year, is closer to dispelling that notion as he successfully sight-fished his way Saturday to a three-day total of 47 pounds, 15 ounces — enough to take the lead heading into the final day of competition at the Advance Auto Parts Blue Ridge Brawl.
Plagued by another slow start on picturesque Smith Mountain Lake, VanDam persevered to boat 15 pounds, 6 ounces, Saturday while most at the top of the leaderboard struggled. He holds a modest 3-plus pound margin over Elite rookie Matt Herren (44-7) of Trussville, Ala. Day One leader Kelly Jordon of Mineola, Texas, held on in third place with 44-5, followed by skilled sight-fisherman Dean Rojas of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., in fourth with 43-7 and Greg Hackney of Gonzales, La., with 41-14.
While sight-fishing has been a popular technique this weekend for most in the field, VanDam is executing it a bit differently. Primarily targeting smallmouths — a favorite of VanDam's — he has been finding fish by sight while using his customary fast-paced style to fish for them. Mixing in as much patience as possible, VanDam's style is a bit of a departure from the textbook sight-fishing technique employed by Dean Rojas and others.
"I'm really proud of the way I have been fishing this week," said VanDam, a two-time Bassmaster Classic champion. "I have made solid decisions and the right adjustments. But it has been a grind."
With a solid tournament at Smith Mountain, VanDam should take the lead in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. Alton Jones of Waco, Texas, who led the standings heading into this tournament, failed to make the top-50 cut, and others in the top echelon struggled, which left the door wide open for perhaps the most dangerous man in the field.
Searching for his 15th BASS victory, VanDam said he was confident that he could end up taking home the $100,000 top prize.
"Sometimes when you put your fish on the scale and you have a good day, it looks pretty easy," said VanDam, 41. "But it has not been easy. Still, I've got a solid pattern and my record is pretty good when I have a lead."
Herren jumped from seventh to second. The Alabama pro managed 15 pounds, 0 ounces, Saturday but still lost ground to VanDam. With other competitors struggling, Herren is closer to notching the best Elite finish of his rookie season.
Like VanDam, Herren has been sight-fishing, but in the more traditional sense. He was targeting the banks with a variety of lures, including a swimbait and a skinny dipper. He said he felt that finding kicker fish would be the key to the tournament.
"All these anglers know how to catch them, so it could be just a matter of who finds the right-sized fish tomorrow," said Herren, 46. "There is just a ton of 2-pounders here and I'm pretty confident I can catch my fair share of those."
Jordon and Rojas could be dangerous Sunday, as the lake has been experiencing a warming trend, making for a likelihood of larger, bedding bass to be visible. Hackney is looking to turn around what has been a disappointing season and still has to be considered a threat.
The field will cut to the top 12 for Sunday and will include Matthew Sphar (6th) of Pavilion, N.Y.; 2007 Bassmaster Angler of the Year Skeet Reese (11th) and 2005 AOY Aaron Martens (12th). Reese is one of the hottest anglers in the field right now and, like VanDam, has his eye on the AOY title. A solid finish on Smith Mountain Lake will put him in prime position behind VanDam.
The Blue Ridge Brawl includes a top prize of $100,000 and awards valuable points in the 2009 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title race. The top 12 pros in the AOY standings at the end of the regular season will advance to the two-event postseason, during which the Angler of the Year will be determined.