From "train wreck" to champion

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Jonathon VanDam was a self-described "train wreck" at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, after a five-pound smallmouth bass, then a six-pounder broke his line when he didn't have one fish in the boat. Only 90 minutes later, he was golden. Standings | Photos

VanDam, the 23-year-old nephew of B.A.S.S. legend Kevin VanDam, made a name for himself by posting a five-bass limit weighing 23 pounds, 4 ounces Sunday to win the Bassmaster Elite Series Green Bay Challenge with a four-day total of 79-2.

"I had a crazy day," VanDam said. "Words can't describe it."

VanDam entered Sunday trailing his friend and fellow second-year pro Brandon Palaniuk by only four ounces.  Palaniuk made VanDam earn the title with a second-straight day of over 20 pounds. But sometimes you just get beat, simple as that, and VanDam beat the other 11 finalists Sunday, even on a day that began like a nightmare.

"At noon, I was about to have a breakdown," VanDam said.

But at least he knew he was around fish, after doing some running and gunning Sunday morning in search of smallmouth bass. His primary area had become murky overnight, so VanDam had to search for clear water Sunday.

He ran all the way to Little Sturgeon Bay at mid-morning, a place he hadn't fished all week in the crowd assembled there. He came back south, saw Palaniuk on the next area he wanted to fish, then hooked a turn into what become "the promised  land" for him.

"It was pretty magical," said VanDam of his next few hours.

He used a drop shot rig on a braided line and an eight-pound test leader. That light line always makes for some adventures landing smallmouth without a net, as B.A.S.S. rules require. VanDam, in maybe the biggest testament to his victory, overcame the trauma of losing two giants and kept working.

VanDam weighed the Carhartt Big Bass of the tournament – 5 pounds, 11 ounces – and another one weighing 5-6 Sunday.

On a day when only 12 Elite Series pros were competing, three 20-pound-plus bags came to the scales, equal to the other three tournament days combined. It showed what could be caught in the limited waters of Lake Michigan, established by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' arbitrary boundary, without all the pressure of the original 98 anglers competing there.

And, sadly, it also illustrated a lost opportunity for the great city of Green Bay, which supported this event whole-heartedly.

Veteran Great Lakes anglers in this field built their strategy on the history of the weather here. It's almost unheard of that a week goes by on Lake Michigan when the wind doesn't blow enough to make long boat rides hazardous, at best, and often out-of-the-question. But, amazingly, that happened this week for all three days of practice and all four days of the tournament.

Ott DeFoe of Knoxville, Tenn., who finished fifth with 61 pounds, 5 ounces, said on the weigh-in stage Sunday, "If we could have gone just a little further north, 61 pounds wouldn't have been any good at all, unless it was a three-day total."

Several Elite Series anglers, after being eliminated in the cuts to the top 49 Friday, and then the top 12 after Saturday, took the opportunity to go fishing north of the tournament boundary this weekend.

"Without a (boundary), several guys would have cracked 100 pounds (over four days)," reported one Elite Series angler, after what he witnessed while fishing north of Little Sturgeon Bay with his wife on Sunday.

But to his credit, Jonathan VanDam made that boundary work out like a dream.

Standings | Photos

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