AOY Playoff: VanDam

WETUMPKA, Ala. -- The bar is open for Kevin VanDam.

 While the five-time Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year is known to enjoy the occasional adult beverage, it was a sand bar that offered him refreshment Thursday.

 At noon on the first day of practice for the Ramada Trophy Chase on Lake Jordan, a school of Coosa spotted bass jumping after shad caught his attention. He zoomed over, quickly shut down and had a 3-pounder in the boat in seconds.

The discovery made the defending champion feel like he was a little bit more in business.

 "There are right there at the bar," he said. "Nothing like playing at the sand bar."

 The school chased more shad, surfacing several times to VanDam's delight.

 "They're all around here," he said. "It's an A-list spot."

 Such is the fortune of KVD, seeking to overcome a 31-point deficit to Skeet Reese in the two-event Toyota Trucks Championship Week. Reese leads the field of 12 with 216 points, 15 ahead of Edwin Evers. In third is Cliff Pace with 187 points and VanDam and Derek Remitz have 185.

 VanDam rallied last year to the thrill of victory, while handing Reese the agony of defeat. Reese had the opportunity to become only the second angler to win the Classic and AOY in the same season before KVD played spoiler.

 Last year the two started championship week almost even, but VanDam knows he has his work cut out for him this time.

 "I've really got to catch them and Skeet's got to mess up," he said. "But I can't worry about Skeet. He got the fish last year. He knows what to do.

 "I'm going out trying to win both of them. I have to go out and try to win both."

 First place in each event is worth 50 points, second 45 and third 40, then points descend by four through the next two spots then three for the final seven. KVD said if Reese takes third twice, no one can catch him.

 The others will have a major say in how the week plays out.

 "You can't hold anything back," Evers said. "It's going to be a two-day shootout."

 Pace takes the same tack, saying the winner will have to really catch them all four days. Gary Klein, among four tied for ninth with 177 points, would love to make some noise.

 "I have everything to gain and nothing to lose," he said. "All I have to do is beat 11 guys."

 Each began scouring Lake Jordan at dawn Thursday and stayed through dusk. John Crews (eighth at 181) was among those who said Friday might be a shorter day as each will have to assess time prepping tackle for Saturday's 6:45 a.m. ET launch, which means leaving the hotel at 5 a.m. ET.

 KVD spent Thursday revisiting areas he found last year, making sure fish were still there. Despite different conditions, he said experience on the lake is beneficial.

 "At least I got a basic understanding, but it's a different time of year, different conditions," he said. "At least I know the lay of the land. That's a big part of it. Practice is going to be important."

 Last year rains had the dam generating water and fish were staged beneath it looking for easy meals. The anglers were, too. VanDam says if they do end up generating, he'll be there.

 Most were looking for another pattern, that ledge or point, all the while battling the heat. The anglers sported sun hats, long-sleeve shirts and downed copious amounts of water to ease their acclimation.

 "I'm from Michigan," KVD said. "You don't get used to 100-degree heat and 90 percent humidity."

 A run on the lake was one way to cool off a bit, but VanDam's main tactic to confront the conditions? "You just suck it up. That's all you do."

 KVD started hot, opening the day with a flurry of catches topping five pounds, but they were hybrids. Although he enjoyed hooking into the big fish, including a 10-pounder, finding the school of spots made his day.

 "When you see it going shallow or around a point, you know it's Mr. Greenjeans," he said smiling. "They live here. See them schooling. They live here. Geez, it's hot."

 A tropical depression heading toward Florida had picked up some wind strength Thursday, and KVD has hopes it will work through the Gulf and bring some weather to Alabama by competition days.

 "They're not active. They're not eating during the day," he said, noting water temperatures in the 90s. "With the temps up, they're metabolism is up and they have to eat more, but the problem is they're

probably feeding mostly at night.

"That storm would bring a low pressure and would just help the level of the fish activity. Some rain. Raining fish."

 KVD also said the fish are finicky about colors of bait. While changing to lighter line to get his Sexy Shad deeper, he said matching the color was critical to get bites.

 Another spot comes in the boat and spits out about five shad.

 "This is what I need … five of these," he said of the 3-pounder. "One hit it, came off and this one got it.

 "It's always key to figure out where they are. Last year, it was won on boat docks. Good chance it will be again."

 KVD explored his newfound bar a bit more, saying he'll definitely hit it sometime on the first day of competition, which could lead him to buying rounds at another bar Sunday night.

 "It's always good to be at the bar."