VanDam up to challenge

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — Kevin VanDam has won two Bassmaster Classics and three angler of the year trophies.

 However, the 39-year old bass fishing legend had never won an event on Alabama's Lake Guntersville, which is known as one of the most diverse and challenging fisheries in professional angling.But VanDam's streak of close calls at Guntersville ended on Sunday when he claimed first place in the Southern Challenge presented by Purolator.

 The Michigan pro, who entered the day in fourth place, blew the field out of the water in the final round with a five-fish limit that weighed 25 pounds, 5 ounces and gave him a tournament total of 66 pounds, 3 ounces. Making that weight even more impressive was the fact the event was reduced to three days when foul weather forced cancellation of Thursday's opening round.

 VanDam is one of the more stoic anglers on the Elite Series, but he let the emotion flow after claiming the victory before several thousand fans gathered in the bleachers of Guntersville High School's football stadium, site of the weigh-in. VanDam seemed to choke up as he referenced his wife, his children and his affinity for this fishery, which he said reminds him of the waters he fished as a youngster.After he left the stage and was mobbed by adoring fans, VanDam said the Southern Challlenge victory always will hold a special place in his prestigious career, which has netted him dozens of top-10 finishes and well over $2 million in earnings.

 "Without a doubt, this is the top series that there is in the world," VanDam said. "These guys are really good. And I've been waiting since the inception of the Elite Series to win one. It's been a while since I've won a regular-season event."

 VanDam, one of the tour's most prolific power fishermen, was in third place after Friday's opening round, but fell just slightly off the pace on Saturday. He struggled to find fish early on Sunday, but after two moves, was able to boat a 20-pound limit by 9 a.m."That gave me the confidence to sit down and fish real slow," he said.

 The strategy paid off.

 Shortly before 11 a.m., VanDam bagged a 7-pound, 5-ounce lunker that pushed his catch well past the rest of the field. He caught the fish in clean water off a grass point near the South Sauty Creek and, like most of his fish this week, it came on a Strike King KVD Pro Model spinner bait (½-ounce double willow in blue shad.) VanDam also utilized Series 5 and Series 6 crank baits."When it got sunny and bright (as it did Sunday), I could catch them ripping that crankbait out of the grass, better than with the spinner," he said. "But after lunchtime, the spinner was better."VanDam said the shad bite was key in the overwhelming majority of his catches during the Southern Challenge."If the shad get active, then the bass get active," he said. "If they get nervous and start following your bait, the bass are sure take a look at it."

 VanDam said he felt overdue for a win at Guntsersville. After finishing fourth here last season and second in 2002, he claimed the $100,000 first-place check in 2007.

 "It's something that's really bothered me over the years," he said. "I've been on winning fish here multiple times and wound up second or third. I don't know how many top fives I've had here. It's a big lake. It fits my style. You can run and gun on it, but it has the same milfoil like we have on our natural lakes at home in Michigan. If you're good at fishing milfoil in Michigan, you're going to be good fishing it on Guntersville."Missouri's Mark Tucker, who also had a top-12 finish at Guntersville last season, placed second this year with a three-day total of 59 pounds, 1 ounce. Terry Butcher, who led both the first and second days of the tournament, placed third with 58-4. Terry Scroggins finished fourth with 58-0 and Jason Quinn was fifth with 57-2.




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