MANY, La. — No one is ready to hand Kevin VanDam the title at the halfway point of the A.R.E. Truck Caps Bassmaster Elite at Toledo Bend. But he has led the first two days, which has served as a significant reminder of both what he means to the sport of bass tournament fishing, and how hot his competitive fire still burns.
Has there ever been a question about that? Well, yes, a lot of them lately, especially since the man with four Bassmaster Classic titles, seven B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year crowns and 20 Bassmaster tournament wins hasn't added any trophies since 2011. Plus, there was 2015, when VanDam didn't qualify to fish in the Classic.
"I've actually had some guys who've known him his whole career ask me if he'll ever win another one," said Davy Hite.
Randy Howell has heard the talk, too.
"When an athlete gets to a point like that, people always want to have something to talk about," said Howell, noting that golfer Tiger Woods and NBA great Kobe Bryant have dealt with similar issues.
But bass fishing isn't so dependent on physical skills, as was so emphatically pointed out by 69-year-old Rick Clunn's win at the St. Johns River. VanDam is only 48. He was so good for so long that any decline in his accomplishments tends to get people predicting the worst.
"If anybody ever thought that he wouldn't win again, they're delusional," said Skeet Reese. "There's nobody even remotely close to dealing with what he deals with – all the crowds that follow him, and especially all the people that come back and fish the water after he fishes. He's probably the best strategist ever in being able to save water, fish water properly and keep himself in position to win."
That's been on display through the first two days at Toledo Bend. Among the crowd following VanDam have been some "GPS pirates," anglers who "practice" for an upcoming tournament by following VanDam and marking waypoints where he catches fish. Not many other Elite Series anglers have to deal with that at all, much less to the extent that VanDam does.
"When he's on the water, whether he's catching 'em or not, he's always got the biggest crowd of boats following him," Howell said. "Dealing with that when you aren't catching 'em is probably worse than when you are catching 'em."
You have to put your name in some extremely bright lights for anyone to follow you on the water even when you're not catching fish. That's mostly what VanDam's "problem" is – he's been too good for too long.
"He's created that monster named Kevin VanDam," said Greg Hackney. "There are so many people out there pulling on him. He can't dedicate his time like he once did to just fishing. Now he's got to be KVD.
"It's incredible when you think about what he's done, then what he has to do when he's not fishing. I'd want to pull my hair out.
"Will we ever see him back to where he just dominates the world? I don't know. He's going to have to quit all his other jobs, and I don't think he's going to do that."
VanDam doesn't have to win another tournament to remain the greatest bass tournament angler ever, at least in the minds of his current Elite Series competitors.
"He's still amazing," Howell said. "He's still the best that's ever fished out here. I think he'll continue to do good. I doubt he'll ever miss another Classic again. He's just too good."
Again, nobody's is giving VanDam the title on Toledo Bend this week. But in the first two days, he has reminded the doubters that he's still got what it takes.
"Kevin's not done yet. I promise you that," said Hite.