MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Living up to his storied reputation, Kevin VanDam closed strong on the Alabama River at the Bassmaster Elite Series' first postseason.
The angler from Kalamazoo, Mich., won the Evan Williams Bourbon Trophy Triumph, which earned him enough points in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings to overtake California's Skeet Reese and win his fifth AOY title, his second consecutive.
With each accomplishment, VanDam advances his reputation as the best angler on the planet. The $200,000 top prize brings his career BASS earnings to more than $3.5 million.
"I'm overwhelmed," said VanDam, who wound up with 283 points, six more than Reese. "You can do a lot of things in this sport, but to the anglers, the Angler of the Year is the real deal. Every time I win one of these, it makes me want to win even more. It's just really special."
ESPN2 will carry all the on-the-water action from Toyota Trucks Championship Week on "The Bassmasters," which will air 4-7 p.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 27.
At the start of Toyota Trucks Championship week, things didn't look so promising for VanDam. VanDam struggled out of the gate at the two-day Lake Jordan event, also in Alabama, and Reese performed well. As a result, Reese overtook VanDam in the AOY standings heading into the second two-day event.
But VanDam developed a solid pattern in practice on the river and smoked the field with 30 pounds, 6 ounces. Still, Reese had a shot, needing to finish fourth or better, but the 2009 Bassmaster Classic champion fell short in sixth.
"I'm utterly shocked right now," said VanDam, who has three Bassmaster Classic victories. "After the first tournament, everything seemed to go wrong and I didn't think I had much of a shot. But I knew I had to battle through it. This format is definitely intense, and things seemed to work out for me."
VanDam had a mostly spectacular season, winning a Bassmaster Elite Series event on Virginia's Smith Mountain Lake in April and stringing together solid finishes throughout the year to head into the postseason in the top spot in the AOY standings.
On Friday, a trio of Strike King baits yielded his 16-pound, 3-ounce limit. The victory by VanDam cements the top position in his personal battle with Reese. Reese won the AOY in 2007, and VanDam took top honors in 2008. Some would consider 2009 the rubber match, but with both anglers at the top of their games, it's easy to assume the two will battle it out again in 2010.
Although Reese was "disappointed," he said this was easier to swallow thanks to a season-starting victory in the 2009 Bassmaster Classic. Reese also had a steady season after the Classic trophy, which is not an easy accomplishment considering all the demands that come with that.
"I had a great season,but I wanted to have a spectacular season," said Reese, who will defend his 2009 Classic crown at the 2010 edition in Birmingham, Ala., and Lay Lake in February. "I'm sure I will be riding the emotional roller coaster over the next few days, but right now I feel OK."
Reese's strategy on the river was different from that of the whole rest of the field. He was running north and put all his marbles into one spot. Reese said that the area had quality fish but that he missed a few opportunities that ultimately cost him.
"Yesterday, I missed a few bites, and today I had an opportunity for 14 pounds," Reese said. "But I just couldn't get the big ones in the boat. I will definitely have flashbacks of a 4-pounder I missed early this morning."
Reese was looking to become only the second angler in BASS history to score a Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title and a Bassmaster Classic trophy in the same season. That feat was accomplished in 1995 by Elite Series angler Mark Davis of Mount Ida, Ark.
Finishing third in the AOY race was Tommy Biffle of Wagoner, Okla. In fourth, moving up from 11th to start the postseason, was Mike Iaconelli of Runnemede, N.J. Randy Howell of Springville, Ala., took fifth.
The field qualified for the postseason through regular-season performance on the Bassmaster Elite Series. The top 12 anglers in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings after the regular season had their points recalculated and took those scores into the postseason. Each leg of the postseason will was scored on a 50-point sliding scale.