Kevin VanDam has won the Bassmaster Classic four times during his illustrious career, and he remembers vivid details of each victory.
It’s hard to forget 2001, after all, hoisting his first Classic trophy in the Louisiana Superdome to cap a harrowing week in which Tropical Storm Barry threatened the Gulf Coast with high winds, rain and lightning. In Pittsburgh four years later, VanDam’s three-day total of 12 pounds, 15 ounces was the lowest winning weight in Classic history.
In 2010 on Alabama’s Lay Lake, VanDam’s third Classic title helped make him the first B.A.S.S. angler in history to surpass $4 million in earnings. And back on the Louisiana Delta a year later, he became only the second man in history to clinch a fourth Classic title, tying fellow bass fishing legend Rick Clunn for most wins on the sport’s biggest stage.
KVD wouldn’t trade those victories for anything, but there is one thing in bass fishing that means every bit as much to him – if not more – than winning a Bassmaster Classic.
And that’s the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Award.
VanDam has an eye-popping seven AOY titles to his credit, which is second only to Roland Martin – yet another fishing legend that, like KVD, transcends the sport.
VanDam said while winning a three-day Classic is a career-altering experience, it’s the AOY award that the world’s best anglers truly covet. The fact there’s only been 22 different men clinch the award in its 48-year history further proves it’s an award that separates the good from the great.
“The fans and the media always have focused more on the person that wins the Classic rather than the person who wins Angler of the Year,” VanDam said. “But if you talk with the anglers, they’re going to tell you that AOY is a much bigger deal. It’s a lot harder to win an award that measures how good you are over the course of an entire season.”
“It’s hard because there are so many different variables to winning it,” he said. “When you get to the AOY Championship, you have guys fighting for spots in the Classic. You have bragging rights for points that get you higher in the final standings. You have a $1 million payout.
“But the biggest thing that makes it special is that there’s no simple way to win AOY,” VanDam said. “Everything has to go right throughout the whole year.”
The 2018 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship will be held Sept. 20-23 on Lake Chatuge – a 7,500-acre Tennessee Valley Authority impoundment on the Georgia/North Carolina border. The 50 top Elite Series anglers in the AOY race will compete, and all of the pressure-filled moments VanDam mentioned will be in play at the championship.
But the stakes are higher this go-round for Elite anglers Justin Lucas and Josh Bertrand, who sit first and second in the current AOY standings. Lucas holds a nine-point lead on his good friend Bertrand, who happens to have a 50-point lead on Bradley Roy, who’s third in the standings.
In all likelihood, that means this year’s battle for AOY is a two-man race between Lucas and Bertrand. And that’s created perhaps even more drama for a tournament that historically is filled with it.
Just ask two-time AOY award winner Gerald Swindle, who said this year’s AOY Championship is “going to make great TV.”
“I know exactly how those guys feel right now,” he said. “They’ve worked so hard. They’ve practiced hard. They’ve driven all over the country. They’ve had perfect years, but even when they’re not on the water at Chatuge, they’re going to be thinking, ‘Don’t screw up.’
Swindle means no disrespect to either angler, both of whom he said are among the nicest guys on tour. But G-Man knows that a lot goes through your mind when you get this close to an AOY title.
“In a Classic, you don’t have time to think about the pressure,” he said. “It’s a three-day event and it goes so quick. In the AOY race, if you’re in it at the end, you’re thinking about it on the way home from Tournament Number 8 and on the way to Tournament Number 9. You’re thinking about it in practice and you’re thinking about it every day of the championship.
“You’re having some sleepless nights. I know they are. I’ve been there.”
Swindle said he probably didn’t appreciate his first AOY award enough when he won it in 2004. When he led the point standings again in 2016, he realized just how difficult it is to accomplish the feat.
“I had only been around for a few years when I won that first one,” he said. “I thought, ‘Shoot, there’s nothing to this.’ Then when it took me so long to win AOY again, I finally realized how big a mountain it is to climb.”
But even after that first AOY title, things didn’t necessarily get any easier for Swindle. He said it was like “a business that grows too fast, too soon.”
“You do have growing pains getting used to the extra attention and demands on you,” he said. “The financial gain for the first AOY was a huge catapult. It put me at the top of the pay scale. But when you’re new to making so many appearances, getting with new sponsors, it’s hard to stay focused. You can’t let all that get you off your game.”
Brandon Palanuik, the 2017 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year, said winning the award didn’t have the same meteoric effect on him like it may have had on Swindle.
“I already had won a couple Elite Series tournaments and done well in the Classic when I won AOY last year,” Palanuik said. “Now if you don’t have those things and you win AOY, then yeah, it’s going to have a huge effect on your career.
“But I really think it has a different effect on each person who wins. I mean, if Kevin (VanDam) wins another AOY, is it going to get him more sponsors or media attention? He’s already at the top (of the sport.)”
Aaron Martens, who won AOY titles in 2005, 2013 and 2015, said his first AOY title was a stabilizing factor for him after jumping from West Coast events a few years earlier into a sport that at the time was centered almost exclusively on the East Coast.
Martens agrees that winning AOY, and not the Classic, is the premier honor in bass fishing. And he said that’s not sour grapes coming from a man who’s been runner-up in the Classic four times.
“If you have one bad day in your season, an electrical issue, something breaks; it’s all over (for your AOY chances,),” he said. “I was close to winning (AOY) in 2014, but we had a long delay (because of high winds on Bays de Noc in Michigan). When we got back three days later, my electronics went out. I hate to talk about it, but I couldn’t graph anything. I finished third overall in AOY that year. There are so many variables. It happens.”
That twist of fate stung Martens, but it helped Greg Hackney turn 2014 from a great season to an unforgettable one. Hackney won the 2014 AOY award and said his focus toward the season’s end was unlike anything he’d ever experienced.
“I had just had my worst finish of the year on the Delaware River and I still took the lead in the AOY race right then,” Hackney said. “I can remember being in my hotel room looking at the points and thinking ‘I’m not losing this.’ I figured I had to win the next tournament (on New York’s Cayuga Lake) to really get myself in position, and I did win it.
“You could feel it all coming together. People say you’re in the zone or whatever. I don’t know what it was, but it felt pretty incredible.”
Eight former AOY winners will compete at Lake Chatuge – Hackney (42nd in current AOY standings), Swindle (40th), Skeet Reese (30th), Michael Iaconelli (17th), VanDam (11th), Palanuik (10th), Martens (seventh) and Brent Chapman (fifth). Whatever happens, they’re excited to have a front-row seat as another angler joins the esteemed their esteemed club.
“Whoever wins, whether it’s Justin or Josh, it’s going to be life-changing,” VanDam said.