MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- In the end, it wasn't so much about who won first place, as who didn't win fourth place.
When Kevin VanDam was proclaimed the Bassmaster Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year here on a gloomy, rainy Friday night, it was the culmination of a dramatic photo finish that pitted professional bass fishing's two glamour boys in one of the tightest races in recent memory.
Technically, VanDam won the title by virtue of a two-day stringer of 10 bass that totaled 30 pounds, 6 ounces. In the convoluted formula that decided who was the best fisherman of the year in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year (AOY) race, however, much depended on what other anglers did to help the Kalamazoo, Mich., angler beat down a strong bid by Skeet Reese.
The California challenger needed to finish fourth in order to retain the points lead he had snatched away from VanDam last weekend in the Berkley PowerBait Trophy Challenge on Lake Jordan. It didn't happen.
VanDam, who had led the competition most of the tournament season before slipping to second place behind Reese in last weekend's preliminary, reckoned that he would have to win this week's finale and get some help from other contestants to neutralize Reese's finishing kick.
Instead of finishing fourth, Reese slipped to sixth place in the final tally as four contestants -- Tommy Biffle of Oklahoma, Kelly Jordon of Texas, Michael Iaconelli of New Jersey and Randy Howell of Alabama -- brought bragging-size stringers to the scales and bumped Reese out of contention for his second AOY title in three seasons.
Biffle wound up in second place with 22 pounds, 11 ounces; Jordon had 21 pounds, 15 ounces; Iaconelli weighed in 21 pounds, 15 ounces; and Howell totaled 20 pounds, 11 ounces. Reese's final tally was 20 pounds, 7 ounces.
In claiming the championship, VanDam became the first fisherman since Missouri's Guido Hibdon to win back-to-back AOY rings. Hibdon won consecutive titles in 1990 and 1991. VanDam, 41, won the first of his five AOY championships in 1992, his second year on tour.
Twenty-four years old at the time, he was also the youngest angler to ever win AOY acclaim, and is second in total titles only to superstar Roland Martin, who won nine titles before retiring from competition in 2005.
As champions often do, VanDam had to put aside what was for him a bad tournament on Lake Jordan and set himself up to win here on the Alabama River.
Reese, who shadowed VanDam through much of the season, slipped ahead of him in the point standings by virtue of his strong showing at Lake Jordan and looked to have a clear path to the title when this week's Evan Williams Bourbon Trophy Triumph got under way Thursday morning.
"Skeet did the job on Lake Jordan and I had an awful first day when nothing seemed to work and it seemed as if every fish I needed came unhooked," VanDam told reporters as he cradled the AOY trophy. "It was a Herculean task to beat Skeet Reese.
"I knew I had to win on the river to have a chance. But I had a good practice round here; I caught some good bass and felt like I had the right pattern to win."
Though there was no single spoiler for Reese in this, the first postseason AOY showdown in BASS history, the fisherman who figuratively slammed the door on his bid was Iaconelli, who finished in fourth place instead of Reese.
As fans watched, Iaconelli signaled that Friday would be a day when anything was possible by catching five keeper bass at the dock in downtown Montgomery from which the boats left each morning. Iaconelli took off as if he were heading upriver, but then suddenly turned off his boat's outboard and started fishing.
Within 30 minutes, he had his limit weighing 11 pounds, 7 ounces. It was a typical performance from the flamboyant Iaconelli, who won the Berkley PowerBait Trophy Challenge at Lake Jordan with his dock-fishing expertise.
Biffle, who was a pre-tournament favorite here because of his ability to vacuum bass from dense shoreline cover by pitching or flipping lures, was hampered by falling water Thursday, but took advantage of a rising river Friday and caught a stringer of five bass that weighed 14 pounds, 2 ounces. Jordon came in with 11-0, and Howell, 12-1.
Reports had trickled in all day from camera boats and spectators roaming the 80-mile run of river available to the anglers that VanDam had caught a hefty five-fish limit that was only getting bigger as he culled bass during the afternoon.
Reese, too, had a limit by midday and kept trying to improve it ounce by ounce. In the end, he ran out of time and bass.
VanDam returned to the dock with a 16-pound, 3-ounce stringer, caught mainly with crankbaits or soft-plastics that mimicked the threadfin shad that constitute the main forage in the river. Reese used a variety of lures to produce his 10-pound, 2-ounce bag of bass.
"I figured I needed at least 12 pounds to pull it out," said Reese, who won the 2009 Bassmaster Classic in February and seemed destined to become the first angler since Mark Davis of Arkansas to win a Classic and an AOY title in the same year. Davis accomplished it in 1995.
"Today I missed a 4-pounder twice, and had a 3-pounder pull off," Reese said. "It happened to Kevin last weekend, and it happened to me today. I'm glad this season is over. This postseason provided some real drama, so mission accomplished there. But I'm just glad it's over."
At one point Friday, as VanDam and Reese sat under the tarp where the anglers waited to be called to the weigh-in stand, the two confronted each other's demons of doubt in a surreal, spontaneous moment.
VanDam was sitting bent over with his chin nestled in the palm of his left hand. Reese was sitting up with his legs akimbo, his arms resting on his bodybuilder's thighs, wearing the look of a beaten man.
"I have a bad feeling about ... I think you've got the fish to win," VanDam said as the rain pattered against the top of their shelter.
"Kevin, there's no way I can beat those guys; Randy [Howell] has more weight than me, Tommy [Biffle] has more weight, Mike [Iaconelli] has more weight," Reese answered.
"You always underestimate your weight," VanDam said.
"Dude, there's no way I've got 12 pounds," Reese countered.
And then came the weigh-in. VanDam went first, and when Tournament Director Trip Weldon relayed the weight to emcee Keith Alan, the crowd of 2,000 roared their approval.
As VanDam was herded to the stage to weigh his fish, Reese turned to fellow contestant Todd Faircloth of Texas and said: "I think Kevin's going to win."
"I've been there before, brother," answered Faircloth, who finished runner-up to VanDam in 2008.