The 2009 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year, Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., added another accolade to his career Sunday, winning the 40th Bassmaster Classic on Lay Lake.
After a banner final day with a haul of 19 pounds, 7 ounces, VanDam will take home the $500,000 first-place prize from the total Classic payout of $1.2 million, along with bass fishing's most coveted trophy. With the win, his career BASS earnings topped $4 million, making him the first BASS pro to hit that mark.
With a three-day total of 51 pounds, 6 ounces, of Lay Lake bass, KVD held off a determined and confident Jeff Kriet of Ardmore, Okla., who finished second with 46 pounds, 6 ounces, and third-place finisher Todd Faircloth of Jasper, Texas, who had 44-3.
Alabama's Russ Lane, from Prattville, made a charge Sunday with an 18-1 haul, ending up fourth. Brent Chapman of Lake Quivira, Kan., was fifth with 37-14, and Mike Iaconelli of Pittsgrove, N.J., the 2004 Classic champ, finished sixth with 37-5.
A majority of the top finishers, including the top five, fished all three days in Beeswax Creek, not far from the Classic's daily launch site at Beeswax Creek Park. All fished roughly 2 to 10 feet of water, relying on a plentiful crop of submerged coontail in the creek, where bass were bunched up in the cold weather.
VanDam had an area to himself, save for a short visit to the spot by Takahiro Omori, who told VanDam once he realized the bounty of fish VanDam was focusing on that he would back off the area.
"That's the class of anglers that we have on the Elite Series, and that's one of things that makes it special to compete with these guys," VanDam said. "It's an honor for me to get to fish with them through the year. I love the competition; it's how we measure ourselves... they're the best in the world. You don't see that in other sports."
VanDam knows Beeswax Creek well, having fished it during the 2007 Bassmaster Classic. The only major Lay Lake creek with grass in it, the area holds a lot of food, along with two feeder creeks with channels, stumps, coontail grass, slime and shellbed points, all good habitat for bass.
With water temps in the low 40s as the Classic started Friday, VanDam had success with a lipless crankbait. He said that the shad kill wasn't as bad in Beeswax, and the bass were a little more active than they were elsewhere. As the weather warmed, more fish moved into Beeswax.
VanDam caught every bass he weighed on a ½-ounce Strike King Red Eye Shad in plain gold along with a new color, gold Sexy Shad. He used Quantum Signature cranking gear: a 7-foot, medium-action KVD Tour cranking rod with a Signature KVD Tour reel and 17- and 20-pound-test fluorocarbon, a larger size that helped slow down the bait, important in the shallow water.
Kriet, who went into Sunday with a 2-ounce lead over VanDam, has battled and lost to VanDam before in a high-stakes competition, and was clearly disappointed with Sunday's outcome.
"What do you do?" he said. "I figured I had to have my best day today. None of these guys are really fun to have behind you. I respect him (Kevin), he's great — obviously. But I guess I shouldn't want him there... that's two big tournaments I would've won if he hadn't been there. That's twice I've been leading and he's been in second and he's beaten me. This one hurts a little more than the first time."
Faircloth, who lost the 2008 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race to VanDam by a few pounds on the last day of competition, also felt the sting of going home without the trophy.
"It's a good finish, but not where I wanted to be," he said. "Third place. People say that's great but that's not what I came here for."
Pam Martin-Wells of Bainbridge, Ga., the 2009 Toyota Tundra Women's Bassmaster Tour Angler of the Year, made history Saturday as the first woman to make the cut into the Top 25. Martin-Wells weighed in a third five-fish limit Sunday for 25-0 overall and a 22nd place finish.
Onstage, Martin-Wells told the crowd of 58,478 fans at BJCC that her Classic experience has been indescribable.
"I tried to prepare myself coming into this so that I wouldn't be overwhelmed, so I could come and fish," Martin-Wells said. "Now probably tonight, tomorrow or the next day, I might fall to pieces — or tonight, when I watch it on TV, because every time I see it I get goose bumps. It has been incredible; the guys have been wonderful. There are really no words to describe this whole feeling."
Martin-Wells will continue to compete with the guys as she participates in the 2010 Bassmaster Southern Open and Central Open circuits. Up next is the April 8-10 Central Open on Lake Amistad in Del Rio, Texas.
VanDam said that the physical demands of his style of fishing — fast and constant casting — took its toll by Sunday, but it didn't lessen his intense satisfaction of winning his third Bassmaster Classic.
"I'm worn out right now, but this means everything," VanDam said. "It's what I dreamed about as a kid, it's very special. I'm going to really enjoy it. Everybody that's ever fished a bass tournament dreams of being on that stage. I'm as motivated as ever. I love the competition; I love the people that I get to be around.
"There's a bunch of dang good people in our sport. Outdoorsmen, fishermen are good people — we're passionate about what we do. Any of these guys, you ask them to do something and they're willing to do it. They give their time freely because they care so much about the bass that we fish for and the water we get to do it on."
Sponsors of the 2010 Bassmaster Classic: Toyota Trucks, Berkley, Evan Williams Bourbon, Mercury, Humminbird, Minn Kota, Skeeter Boats, Yamaha Marine.