LAKE WALES, Fla. — Kevin VanDam allowed Mike McClelland to be the only three-time winner on the Bassmaster Elite Series tour exactly one week. VanDam, who had never led for one day in a Florida Bassmaster event until Saturday, sealed the deal Sunday in the Citrus Slam, presented by Longhorn.
VanDam edged Ray Sedgewick by 1 pound, 11 ounces to take the $100,000 first-place check on the Kissimmee Chain.
But the 40-year-old, three-time BASS Angler of the Year hardly felt confident Sunday when he came in with a five-bass limit weighing only 10-6. Especially on a warm day, when the final 12 anglers expected the Kissimmee Chain to product its biggest limits of the week.
"I was real disappointed," VanDam said. "I thought I had let this one slip away.
"I was shocked it was as tough as it was."
Ray Sedgewick of Cross, S.C., started the day in third place, 2-13, behind VanDam. He caught the Berkley Heavyweight bag Sunday, but it weighed only 11-8. That was enough for him to jump Scott Rook, who finished third — but not enough to overtake VanDam.
"I lost a four-pounder, and I guess it cost me a $100,000," Sedgewick said. "But with this caliber of fishermen, everything has to be perfect for you. No mistakes."
In acknowledging his 13th BASS win and third Elite Series title, Van Dam said, "It never gets old."
The two-time Bassmaster Classic winner, who is approaching the $3 million mark in tournament winnings, relied on a Strike King Red Eye Shad lipless crankbait for the majority of his fish. He was ripping it through isolated clumps of hydrilla in Lake Toho and letting it fall after it came through holes in the grass.
"All my bites came on the fall or the pause, after I ripped it out of the grass," VanDam said. "That Red Eye Shad has a wiggle, a shimmy to it, that no other bait has.
"I love to throw lipless crankbaits, and I've got a lot of confidence in my set up. They are notorious for losing fish, but I think I lost only one quality fish all week."
VanDam used a Quantum PT cranking rod that has a fast, but fairly soft tip. He cast the lure on 17-pound Bass Pro XPS fluorocarbon line.
"There's no stretch in that line, so it's easy to feel the bites, and fluorocarbon sinks, so it helps keep the lure down," said VanDam, who also noted that he needed 17-pound test to successfully rip the lure through the grass.
He also added two extra-short No. 2 Mustad treble hooks to the lure, for their fish-holding ability.
Keeping a big fish hooked proved to be the key for every angler in the original 109-man field. The tournament started with a bang, when Byron Velvick took Berkley Heavyweight honors Thursday, with a limit weighing 25-0 — which held up the rest of the week. But there were three other 20-pound bags caught Thursday, three more on Friday and one Saturday.
Kenyon Hill proved that Florida-strain 10-pounders were no myth, weighing in a 10-3 Friday that took Purolator Big Bass honors here.
VanDam landed an 8-10 Friday and a 6-10 Saturday, which propelled him to the top of the leaderboard. He started in eighth place on Day One and was third on Day Two. But all the lunkers landed by sight-fishermen the first two days became a non-factor over the weekend.
"Florida has been one of those bittersweet places for me over the years," said VanDam, who was coming off a 31st-place finish on the Harris Chain last week, where McClelland won his third Elite Series title. "You've got to fish real slow, and that's not my style.
"I like to fish fast — crankbaits, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits. Reaction baits work well here."
VanDam said he'd never had a worse practice prior to a tournament. Even when he found the bigger bass hanging out in 7- to 10-foot depths, it was a struggle.
"I've never fished a tournament when I had a harder time keeping up with the fish than I've had here this week," VanDam said.
"This is the first time in quite some time that there's been some current flow through Toho. But the wind was the biggest factor."
When VanDam would catch a fish, he would throw out a marker buoy, because he knew another could be caught there later.
"You just had to be precise with your casts," he said. "Once I caught a fish, I could leave there for a little bit, come back and catch another one."
The ones he caught Sunday just weren't very big. However, they proved to be just big enough to put another KVD victory in the recordbook.