VanDam: Firing ‘em up on Chickamauga

DAYTON, Tenn. — It’s rare when Kevin VanDam can’t sleep on the night before a Bassmaster event. The Bassmaster Classic? Sure. Anyone loses a few winks when the world title is on the line.

Any other time is indeed rare for a man with four world championships and $5.5 million in B.A.S.S. earnings to get pre-tournament insomnia. But it happened at the inaugural BASSfest.

“I was so excited about the school of bass that I’d found in practice that I couldn’t sleep,” he said.

VanDam’s sleep pattern returned to normal after reality set in. After a quarter century of bass fishing on the Tennessee River, he’s learned there is one constant factor when tournaments are won on river channel ledges.

That factor is the current. It’s game on when the Tennessee Valley Authority flips the switch on the power-generating hydroelectric turbines. With the generators idle the bass scatter and suspend widely across the water column.

 “Current helps put the fish down on the bottom and on top of the ledges,” he said. “That’s where you can target them a lot easier and more precisely.”

Precise gets even more detailed with recent advancements in electronic mapping software. Few pro anglers can leverage that technology like VanDam. And max it out he did. That was until modern science got reduced to the primal behavior of the very fish he relies on for a livelihood.

After the first two rounds, VanDam was a threat to win it all at BASSfest. On Saturday, a floating gallery of 50 spectator boats greeted him at the ledge shared with Jeff Kriet and Russ Lane.

That day, VanDam would return with one bass shy of a limit. Four bass on the scales can make or break a winning effort. It did for VanDam at BASSfest.

 “I’ll think about that day for a long time,” he said. “It killed my chances because I had a really good shot at the win.”

 “Firing up” was the catch phrase of the week. It described the magic moment when the current locked the bass tightly on the ledges. Synchronized bass fishing created bass fishing mayhem in the strike zone.

VanDam, Kriet and Lane all worked together to use lures and tactics to “fire up” the bass. Twenty-pound plus weights were commonplace.

The fire-up factor boiled down to making precision casts while keeping watch on the graph display. There’s more to it. VanDam learned that current speed, not just the current itself, is the determining factor for how fish set up on a ledge.

“The speed of flow concentrated the fish more to a particular side of that piece of cover,” he explained. “And you had to put the bait precisely on that sweet spot.”

He said the fish used the “sweet spot” as the ambush point for feeding on pods of shad coming down stream.

The “sweet spot” moved around a lot at BASSfest.

“Every time the current moved the bass were on a different spot,” he said. “You had to constantly adjust to where they were setting up on the ledge cover.”

VanDam remained a threat, as usual, until the very end. He’s also learned to ignore the water release schedule posted by the TVA on its website.

The final day is a case in point. The schedule said 8 a.m. but the real time was three hours later.

 “You can’t play the guessing game with the schedule,” he said. “You just have to be ready and game on when the current does begin to run.”

VanDam was indeed game on but the “sweet spot” moved just a bit too much. 

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