Ever wish you could be a first-hand witness to how the man that most consider to be the best to ever pick up a bass fishing rod, figures-out a winning strategy on the eve of a major tournament?
Well, that’s exactly what we did as Kevin VanDam prepared for the Toyota Texas Bass Classic on famed Lake Fork, Texas.
6:00 a.m. – VanDam pulls into popular Lake Fork Marina and Motel with a text to announce he’s 10 minutes early. No surprise … that’s classic KVD style. Be prepared. Be organized. Arrive early.
6:05 a.m. – Still dark outside, he pilots his Tundra to nearby Mustang Resort to launch. It’s less crowded than Lake Fork Marina. Along the way he chats with his twin sons Jackson and Nicholas, and then wife Sherry, as they prepare for one of the final days of the twin’s junior year as Ostego High Bulldogs back in Kalamazoo. He tells Jackson, “I hope you have an awesome day. Be your best.”
6:10 a.m. – The front deck of his Nitro is aglow with red LED lights made by Rigid Industries, as he hangs on to a travel mug full of coffee with one hand, and straps down a group of Quantum rods and reels with the other, and prepares to launch.
6:15 a.m. – The northerly air is gusty and unusually cold for late May in Texas as VanDam idles away from the launch ramp at Mustang Resort. The sun is just beginning to rise over the Sabine River Authority dam, when VanDam’s attention to every detail in life begins to shine between layers of bacon, egg and cheese on an English muffin from Tiffany’s Restaurant. “Those people over at Lake Fork Marina are just good at the small things, the egg is perfect, not overcooked at all. And dude, look at the birds diving on that point – ya’ think the shad might be spawning this morning?” he asks with a sarcastic grin.
6:28 a.m. – VanDam rolls up to a flooded island to make his first cast. Indeed the shad are spawning. It’s an early morning ritual in southern reservoirs all over America this time of year. Shad spawn in the shallowest of available habitat during low light conditions, and the bass move in to take advantage of an early meal.
“To be honest, fishing the shad spawn won’t be a major player for me in this tournament, especially since I’m one of the last boats to take-off. By the time I make my first cast of the tournament, most of the shad will either be done spawning, or a local boat will be sitting on the key points,” he explains. “But I can’t rule it out completely on this lake – there are too many big fish swimming around – and it doesn’t take but a few casts early to catch a couple of 5-pounders,” says VanDam, winner of more than $5 Million in career earnings.
6:40 a.m. – VanDam has only been casting for 12 minutes on this practice day, and he’s already hooked and lost two bass on a sizeable jointed hard-bodied swim bait. He adjusts by turning to a slightly smaller lure of similar style called a Strike King Wake Shad, and sure enough the third bite of the day coverts to a 3-pounder.
6:50 a.m. -“My favorite jointed swimbait is the King Shad from Strike King, but it dives to about 3’ – whereas with this Wake Shad you can crank it real fast and it barely gets under the surface to avoid getting snagged in all these flooded bushes,” he explains, illustrating that to him, every lure is a tool, not magic.
He lobs the hard-bodied swimbaits with Quantum’s TKVDC150PPT reel featuring his beloved 5.3:1 retrieve and a TKVD706MB rod.
7:55 a.m. – In 90 minutes, he’s had seven bites shallow on a variety of shad impersonating swimbaits. “I started practice this week looking for the shad spawn because it was so strong here last year at the TTBC, but really it’s just an option for early morning this year,” he says, as he adjusts one of three GoPro cameras mounted on his boat.
“So far this morning, I’ve learned there’s still plenty of shad spawning, but I’m not confident there’s a lot of big bass up shallow eating those shad.”
8:05 a.m. – VanDam calls the kind of dramatic time-out that more amateur anglers could benefit from. After a morning of solid shallow water activity, VanDam knows he has little chance of winning near the shoreline. Lake Fork is loaded with big bass, the spawn is long past, and the majority of them are in deep water summer haunts located from 20 – 40’.
“We’re done with the shallow stuff,” he punctuates, and proves his point by storing most of the rods he’s been using all morning – and begins to pull out a half-a-dozen others rigged with deep diving crankbaits and oversized flutter spoons. “We’re goin’ riding and lookin’ for big schools out deep.”
8:45 a.m. – VanDam has spent thirty minutes idling over deep water, and staring at his Humminbird’ KVD 1199 HD without ever making a cast. “This lake has schools of huge bass, it’s for sure a really special place, but there’s also a ton of white bass in here too, and the challenge is differentiating between the largemouth and white bass on your sonar.”
“Typically, the largemouth appear closer to the bottom, and the white bass appear in larger schools, and more off the bottom,” explains VanDam.
9:10 a.m. – Not only does VanDam have the challenge of identifying white bass from largemouth, but he also must be cautious not to disclose his off shore honey hole to local anglers, as well as his fellow TTBC competitors fishing nearby, by standing over a school of potentially winning fish and setting the hook like a lighthouse beacon.
9:25 a.m. – Fact is, when you’re the most accomplished professional bass angler of the past two decades, you struggle to hide from anybody. A TV crew affiliated with the Toyota Texas Bass Classic rings his cell, beckoning his location so they can film a fast on-the-water segment with him for the TTBC. VanDam graciously agrees.
We watch as the crew consumes about thirty minutes of his practice, before agreeing they got the footage they needed. Not wanting to intrude any further – we bow-out to let VanDam focus on the final remaining hours of practice. “Yep, man, I’ve got work to do, more schools of bass to locate, but thanks a bunch for joining me this morning.”