MONETA, Va. — To the extent that it occurs at all, the redistribution of wealth occurs slowly on the Elite Series tournament trail.
For example, Kevin VanDam, the Day Three leader at the Advance Auto Parts Blue Ridge Brawl and a habitual top 12 qualifier, doesn't seem inclined to give up his spot to any of the less-accomplished anglers in the field. He'll scratch and claw to get here every week and on the rare occasions when he doesn't make it to Sunday, heaven help anyone who gets in his way at the next event.
As Skeet Reese, another angler who frequently gets to fish for cash on Sunday, said: "The only way for (Kevin) to slow down is for him to get fatter and lazier, but he just keeps on getting skinnier and meaner."
Reese should talk. In addition to his recent Bassmaster Classic win on Louisiana's Red River, he's had 13 top 12 finishes in Elite Series competition since its inception in 2006, including a win on the Potomac River. This week he has made it an even 14.
The seemingly super-human VanDam, who has 14 wins in his storied but far-from-over BASS career, should make it a habit to extend his hotel reservations through Sunday during tournament weeks. This is his third "championship Sunday" appearance in four Elite Series events this year. He had five last year, four the year before and six in 2006. An off year for KVD would be a career-season for the vast majority of the field.
Among that list of Sunday stalwarts, Grigsby is the only one without an Elite Series victory, but he also has the most total BASS wins among the group, with eight since becoming a professional nearly three decades ago.
Interspersed among that murderer's row of seven all-stars are five pros in today's field — Matt Herren, Matt Sphar, Byron Velvick, James Niggemeyer and Jeff Connella — with a total of seven Elite Series Sunday appearances. Herren, in his rookie season, notched a ninth-place finish last month at Lake Dardanelle, but none of the other four has made it to Sunday this year.
For Velvick, who made his only Elite Series top 12 just under a year ago at Falcon Lake in Texas, this tournament could not have come at a better time. After barely making a check at this season's opening event on Amistad, he stumbled at the past two events.
"I was in the top 30 after the first day at both of them," he said. "But then I dropped out of the money. So I was hoping for a top 20 here. This is the type of fishing that I love to do. It's a California deal. I call it the "double S's" — sight fishing and swimbaits. I respect all of these guys, but this is how I made most of my money out west."
Perhaps no angler exemplifies the difference between the Sunday "haves" and "have nots" this season better than James Niggemeyer. He endured heartbreaking near-misses at Dardanelle and Amistad, where he finished 13th and 15th, respectively.
This is his third top 12 as an Elite Series angler — the other two came at Florida's Lake Toho and the California Delta, both in 2007. He said that the difference between the VanDams and Reeses of the world and those who just miss the cut is often just a matter small decisions which translate into additional ounces.
"Really, it's a matter of getting quality bites and then executing," Niggemeyer said. "But this is where you have to be to accrue the points you need to make the Classic. But you can't worry about the other fishermen. All you can do is just go fishing. It's not that I don't absolutely respect them, it's just that if they've only got 2 pounds and I've got nothing, it doesn't matter how they did."
Connella agreed with Niggemeyer that the gap between the perpetual top finishers and the mid-range anglers, or even the bottom dwellers, is not huge at the Elite Series level.
"Anyone can win at any time," he stated. "The difference between making it and not making it is not a whole lot. I was poised (to make the top 12) at Wheeler but I didn't make the right decisions. This week I made some good decisions. I had to change a little bit every day.
"On the first day I went sight fishing but then on Friday things changed and I just went fishing with a chatterbait-style lure made by V&M and I caught 25 keepers. It really helps your confidence when you're making the right decisions and doing the right things."
Connella hasn't made an Elite Series top 12 since the June 2006 Sooner Run on Oklahoma's Grand Lake, but despite the relative novelty of his situation this week, he said that he wasn't intimidated by the fact that he was almost 7 pounds behind world-beater Kevin VanDam, and trailed eight other top sticks heading into the final day of competition.
"We see them every week," Connella said. But isn't that exactly the point? The VanDams of the world never stray far from everyone's radar.
VanDam, for his part, didn't discount his competition's skills, but refused to think about anything other than how he'd get five quality fish into his livewell. "I can't control what anyone else is doing," he said. "I just can't worry about that."