NEW ORLEANS -- Kevin VanDam's closest competition expressed hopes that he'd slip up on the final day of the 2011 Bassmaster Classic. Instead, VanDam stepped up.
Leading by more than 3 ½ pounds going into the last day, VanDam caught 28 pounds Sunday, his biggest limit of the world championship, and collected a record-tying fourth Bassmaster Classic title in dominating fashion.
His three-day total weighed 69 pounds, 11 ounces, the heaviest ever taken to the scale in a Classic with a five-fish daily limit. "I don't compete to break records or for how other people may view me," said VanDam, who won $500,000 to push his career earnings past $5 million, also a Bassmaster record. "I love competition. I compete to win."
VanDam tied legendary pro Rick Clunn for most Classic titles and also matched Clunn as the only angler to win the Classic in consecutive years. "He's obviously the best there is right now," Clunn said. "He's in that wonderful place you hope to reach when you start this. Kevin isn't going to beat himself. He's found that space where only a few have been, and he's not even close to the last chapter of what he's writing."
VanDam set another unofficial record for efficiency. VanDam's records came during a tournament that was shortened by fog delays on all three competition days. Instead of 24 cumulative hours of fishing time, VanDam had about 19 ½ hours. "The guy's an amazing athlete," 2003 Classic champion Mike Iaconelli said. "He's the best angler in the world."
Aaron Martens of Leeds, Ala., also broke Luke Clausen's Classic weight record of 56-2 from the 2006 championship on Florida's Lake Toho. But Martens' 59-0 left him more than 10 pounds behind VanDam, not enough to prevent him from finishing second for the fourth time in a Bassmaster Classic or playing Classic bridesmaid to VanDam for the second time. "This is the easiest second place I've ever had, and I'm not just saying that," Martens said. "If it would've been closer, it might be different. But there's no stress, no remorse."
VanDam and Martens fished within earshot of each other throughout the Classic, plying the waters of an area known locally as Tank Pond, a popular spot for recreational and local tournament anglers on Lake Cataouatche. It's a stump-infested backwater on the west side of the lake.
Decades ago it was a freshwater lake that fell on hard times after tropical storm systems pushed brackish water into the area, killing its thick stands of cypress and tupelo trees. The stumps remain, and freshwater diverted into the area from the David Pond diversion on the Mississippi River, in conjunction with Florida bass stocking by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, has breathed new life into the area's bass fishing.
This week's warm temperatures and full moon made it a highway for largemouth bass as they began a transition into spawning mode. Over the first two days of the 41st annual Classic, the competition appeared to be shaping up as a battle between Lake Cataouatche and the Venice area. But Cataouatche won by knockout Sunday. It produced four limits over 25 pounds on the tournament's final day.
The spot's productivity amazed even the best bass anglers in the world. Third-place finisher Derek Remitz of Grant, Ala., also fished there, hauling in a 26-5 limit on Day Three for a total of 56-8 that made him the first to surpass the Classic weight record. Federation Nation champion Brandon Palaniuk fished near Tank Pond, too, finishing fourth with 55-7. "We hit it a special week of the year," Martens said. "Today was probably the one of the best days of the year fishing on the Delta."
No one figured out the area like VanDam. He made a transition from a spinnerbait to a crankbait on Day Two, a move he credited for his victory. He found stumps by fan casting the crankbait and then repeatedly targeted them for numerous bites.
Brent Chapman of Lake Quivira, Kan., who went into Day Three trailing VanDam by about 3 ½ pounds, rounded out the top five with 54-8. Chapman was the only angler in the top five from the Venice area, which didn't produce like many anglers predicted. Fog played a huge part in that, with delays allowing anglers who made the four-hour round-trip run less than an hour to fish on Day Two. And when Chapman finally had a chance to work it over when Sunday's start was delayed only 30 minutes, cold water from the Mississippi River flooded into his small pond and dropped the water temperature by almost 10 degrees.
"I knew the Mississippi River would be cold this time of year," VanDam said. "I made the decision to stay away from Venice because I figured there was no way you could fish there three days without fog." VanDam, 43, has been peerless in his domination of professional bass fishing over the past decade.
Since winning his first Classic here on the Louisiana Delta in 2001, the angler from Kalamazoo, Mich., has notched 13 of his 20 career victories, eclipsing the previous mark of 19 B.A.S.S. victories held by Roland Martin. VanDam has Classic victories at Pittsburgh in 2005 and Alabama's Lay Lake last year. He already held the Bassmaster record for career earnings and added to that total today to surpass $5 million.
"VanDam seems to be quite a bit better than the rest of us," Martens said. "Sometimes I wish he wasn't here, but I like him too much. But I think a lot of us would do a lot better if he wasn't around."
Editor's note: The 2011 Classic was historic. Keep checking Bassmaster.com for more coverage of the record-setting event all week. Watch the 2011 Bassmaster Classic on Saturday at 10 a.m. ET on ESPN2. Complete Classic TV schedule.