The quest for 21 wins, part 1

Fishing is a sport of numbers, whether you choose to think of it that way or not. If you’re a tournament angler, it’s all about cumulative weight – pounds and ounces. If you’re a casual angler, I’m sure you know the weight of your biggest bass or the number of fish you caught the last time you went out. And if you fish with a friend but claim not to know who’s caught the most or biggest on any particular day, I’m prepared to call you a liar.

No matter your level of interest or avidity, the numbers in fishing are inescapable.

And some of them are indelible, too. Take 22-4. That’s the weight of George Perry’s world record largemouth in pounds and ounces. Then there’s nine. That’s how many Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles Roland Martin won. 45-2? That’s the weight of Dean Rojas’ five best bass on the Kissimmee Chain one day in 2001 – still a B.A.S.S. tournament record.

And then there’s 20. That’s how many B.A.S.S. events Kevin VanDam has won in his unparalleled career – more than anyone else in history and one more than the legendary Roland Martin.

Can VanDam’s record be broken? Can an angler get to 21 wins? And if so, what needs to happen … apart from that angler being very, very good? And who can do it?

Here are four things you have to do to get to 21 wins.

1. Start young

If you want to get to 21, you’d better start early. KVD won his first B.A.S.S. event at 24, though Roland Martin didn’t get his first trophy until he was 30. Of course, the Great American Fisherman has a terrific excuse. There was no B.A.S.S. until he was 28, and his first win came in just his second tournament. He started about as fast as he possibly could, notching 10 of his 19 wins in his first decade on the trail.

But forget about Martin’s age. It was a different era, and Martin stood head and shoulders above his competition. The playing field is more level now. It’s unthinkable that an angler could start at 30 today and still have a shot at reaching 21 career wins.

VanDam had three wins before 30 and claimed number 10 at 37 years old. He tied Martin (at 19 wins) when he was 42 and passed him at 43.

Looking at it practically, there’s almost no way to get to 21 without winning at least three or four events by the time you’re 30. Pro anglers typically reach their peak between 30 and 45. You have to make hay then, but you lay your foundation for legend earlier.

2. Fish a lot of tournaments

Like they say about the lottery, you can’t win if you don’t play. The more tournaments you fish, the more opportunities you have to win. Pretty simple.

The problem is that the best anglers in the business are in the Bassmaster Elite Series, and most of them fish the Elite Series exclusively. That gives them just a handful of chances each year to win an event. Most years, it’s not going to happen. Even VanDam has only won events in 11 of his 26 seasons. Had he fished more tournaments, he almost certainly would have won more.

Of course, the reason Elite anglers don’t fish a lot of Opens is they feel they don’t have time. In addition to more chances to win, more tournaments mean less time with family and more expenses. But if you really want to break the record for career wins, those kinds of sacrifices must be made.

3. Fish the right tournaments

Face it – some tournaments are easier to win than others. If you agree with me that the Elite events and Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens all have plenty of top anglers competing, then the “easiest” tournaments are the ones with the smallest fields. The smaller the field, the easier it is to come out on top. In his 19 wins, Roland Martin’s average field size was more than 200 anglers. In his 20 wins, KVD’s average field size was less than 125, and half the time he faced fewer than 100 opponents.

Martin’s smallest field in a win was 107. VanDam won two events that had fields of just 12 anglers. I’m not trying to take anything away from KVD here  he beat everyone who showed up at each and every one of his wins and four times he beat fields of 329 or more (something Martin never did). I just want to point out that if you can qualify for the reduced field events (the postseason tournaments and even the GEICO Bassmaster Classic), your odds of winning go way up.

4. Hang around

If you truly want to make history and win a record number of events, you can’t retire early and rest on your laurels. You need to hang around and pick up a few victories when others might be shopping for a recliner.

Roland Martin won three tournaments in his 50s. Denny Brauer (17 career wins) had four in his 50s and one in his 60s. VanDam will be 50 in 2017. If he sticks around, he could add to his win total, too.

Next time, I’ll take a look at the anglers with the best chance to win 21 B.A.S.S. events.

Read part 2 here.