VanDam vs. Starks

DECATUR, Ala. — With the U.S. Open beginning this next week, much will be made of Tiger Woods' continued pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' legendary mark of 18 professional major golf championships.

But for all of the talk about how many times Jack won the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship titles, odds are there's another amazing number the Golden Bear put on his career ledger you'll hear very little about.

That's 19 ... the number times Jack finished second in a major championship.

In a similar line of thought, Kevin VanDam sat on the hot seat during Sunday's final round weigh-in of the Elite Series Southern Challenge on Alabama's Wheeler Lake with a five bass limit of 20-0 pounds, good enough for the overall momentary lead at 78-2.

But would it be good enough for the current king of bass fishing to notch his 14th career BASS victory?

Would David, in this case Jeremy Starks of West Virginia, have the five bass necessary to knock off Goliath — the almost-legendary VanDam?

When the scales settled for BASS tournament director Trip Weldon, the answer by a mere 8 ounces was no in one of the closest tournament finishes in BASS history.

Starks capped off a brilliant week of fishing on Sunday by weighing in five bass at 21-15, good enough for his first career BASS victory and a $100,000 payday, nearly doubling his career earnings in one fell swoop.

VanDam, ever the class act, walked over and genuinely shook Starks hand and turned away to settle for his own Nicklaus-like number of nine second-place finishes, not to mention the 16 times that he has walked away in third

"I'm disappointed, but I wish I was in that position every week," said the three-time Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year and two-time Bassmaster Classic champ from Kalamazoo, Mich.

"I lost six big ones today cranking," he added. "Probably any one of those fish would have been the difference."

But VanDam quickly pointed out he wasn't trying to diminish Starks winning effort in any way. "Jeremy had a heck of a spot," he said. "I didn't lose, I got beat."

VanDam also showed some fire-in-the-belly when questioned further about his runner-up finish: "I try to win every time I go out there," said the winner of some $2.8 million in career BASS earnings.

"I'm not fishing for points and I'm not fishing for a check.

"You know, against these guys, you've got to take a few chances and look for patterns that are going to produce winning size stringers for the body of water — that's what you look at."

For VanDam, winning is what matters most when he launches his Nitro bass rig into the water at every tournament. But he was as gracious in defeat as he is when he wins.

However, what of the eyebrow-raising remarks Starks made in the direction of VanDam throughout the week?

"We talk a lot and we're pretty good friends," VanDam told BASS emcee Keith Alan on the weigh-in platform. But he quickly added he certainly noticed what was said, too.

"He didn't need to do that to motivate me any more (than I already am)," VanDam noted.

"But it didn't hurt, either (in terms of providing motivation).

"I really wanted to win this tournament and while I know it is very important to him and his career, that doesn't mean that I don't want to win, either."

VanDam said despite his storied success, he clearly realizes how tough it is every week for an angler to put themselves in contention to win on the final day, so he cherishes such moments every time they happen. "You don't take this for granted," he said.

Backstage, VanDam added to what he had told the noisy 'Bama crowd moments earlier. "No, I mean he was having fun," VanDam said of Starks comments. "It was very motivating.

"I went out there and caught everything I could catch and that's just the way it goes."

While VanDam fished 15 to 20 different spots during the four days of the Southern Challenge, there was one hot spot he fished thoroughly — even taking an unusual defensive posture at times to protect — instead of running-and-gunning as he often does.

Part of the reason he stayed put much of this week is due to the natural progression of Wheeler's largemouth bass toward this particular spot he discovered during practice.

"Basically there's a really long inside turn of the main river channel on the outside edge of Decatur Flats," VanDam said. "So there's a huge flat and it's half a mile or three-quarters of a mile to the bank ... and there's a lot of ridges and ditches.

"Then behind it there's a lot of creeks and bays that are great spawning areas," he added. "So a lot of those bass moved in there in the spring, they spawned, (and) they hung around there and stayed in the shallows and on the ridges during the whole shad spawn and now they're just filtering back out to get to the main river ledge itself."

In addition to VanDam's money spot being good in a general sense according to seasonal bass biology, he said there was a specific reason or two which made his good spot absolutely golden.

"The stretch that I was fishing had isolated patches of clams on them, you know, shells on them," he said. "Those hard-bottomed areas like that was where the fish would really gravitate towards."

To mine that location thoroughly throughout the week, VanDam relied on one of his favorite go-to baits as well as a hodge-podge collection of others.

"I was throwing a Strike King Series 5 Sexy Shad and a chartreuse Sexy Shad," he said. "I'd also throw a jig, a Sexy Spoon, a worm, a spinnerbait, and just (about) everything.

"These fish, you had to throw them everything in that stretch just to catch them."

Even so, much of his success this week en route to a $30,000 payday came thanks to the Sexy Shad crankbait. "For me I'm just real persistent with a crankbait," said the 2001 and 2005 Classic champ.

"If the fish are active and aggressive they're going to bite probably anything you're going to throw. They are going to hit your crankbait real well.

"But if they are not and you can get that thing bouncing up off the bottom, you can trigger a lot of them to react."

That aggressive retrieve is one way that VanDam was able to come within mere ounces of capturing his 14th BASS title.

"When the water is hot like this, you want a little faster retrieve, you want that bait digging the bottom — and you want to make it so that it's coming across them," he said.

"So if they're facing into the current, it's real important to be pulling the bait back towards the front of the bass from up current to down current, or across the current — that's probably the biggest thing about cranking."

In the end, VanDam was excited for the sport of bass fishing after today's exciting finish, while being disappointed he missed out on another chance to add to his growing list of career accolades.

And he was also enthused by the best bass fishing action he's personally ever experienced on Wheeler, where just days ago experts were predicting that it would take 15 pounds a day to win.

For the record, neither Starks nor VanDam ever weighed in less than 16-14 during this tourney, while each angler also brought to the scales two bags each of bass weighing 20 pounds or more.

"This is by far the best I've ever seen them get caught here," VanDam said.

"You talk about the good old days of bass fishing, the good days are here, right now. I mean our lakes around the country are just fantastic."

Especially here in the Southland.

"Really all of these Tennessee River lakes (are good)," VanDam said, attributing that fortune to plenty of fish, plenty of water fertility, good amounts of grass, large bodies of water and top management.

All of that describes next week's tournament venue, too.

"Kentucky Lake, where we're going to next week, it's going to be another slugfest," VanDam said.

And just as Jack Nicklaus always seemed to be hanging around the top of the leaderboard on Sundays when it really counted, don't be surprised if VanDam isn't involved in another Elite Series hot seat shootout one week from today.

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