The episode of The Bassmasters featuring Kevin VanDam’s win at Grand Lake is incredible, not just because it’s his record-setting 25th B.A.S.S. victory. It’s not just because he gives a Ph.D.-quality lesson on squarebilling in and around the spawn, either. It’s because you get an hour-long insight into the mental makeup that has contributed more than anything to his long-term success.
My favorite part of the show is almost a throwaway line. As he’s idling out on Day 4, he opines that it’s great to be leading heading into the last day because you get a smooth boat ride to your first spot. Then he winks. It’s not an exaggerated action, but just a quick flicker of the eye, to let you – the cameraman, the viewer, the other angler – know that he’s got this one.
Let’s unpack that a little, because there’s a lot going on.
First, he’s staking a claim, making it clear that he’s been there before. How else would you know about the typical conditions of that Day 4 boat ride unless you’ve had multiple bites of that apple?
Second, he’s telling us (and his competition) that he’s not afraid to be in the lead. How many times have you heard an angler say that he wants to be just out of sight heading into Sunday, ready to make a charge with some final day heroics? Not Kevin. Not only is he not afraid to lead, but he’s happy to step on your neck on Day 1, 2 or 3 and then steadily increase the pressure as the tournament goes on.
Third, he knows that things are going to be smooth for him. You may beat him, but you’re going to have to ride over his wake to do it.
And then there’s the wink. If you’ve been around VanDam at all, you’ve seen it – so quick that you’re not sure that it happened, so defined that you know that it did. I’ve seen him with a scrum of reporters, offering up flawless, full-paragraph answers, and without missing a beat he’ll wink to a friend or a sponsor walking by. I’m sure that James Overstreet has seen it, and captured it, hundreds of times. It’s a knowing reminder that you’re on the inside, and that he has this under control. Mark Zona, who has spent much more time with VanDam than virtually anyone on earth, and certainly thousands more hours than I ever will, recently offered up a partial list of factors that make VanDam so exceptional. To those, I want to add the wink. It is the complete encapsulation of the mental abilities which have made him the greatest angler of all time.
While I have no doubt in my mind that KVD is the G.O.A.T., he’s not on my list of the top three transformational anglers of the modern era. Those would be: Roland Martin, who popularized the concept of pattern fishing; Rick Clunn, who first examined the mental part of the game; and Mike Iaconelli, who fully bridged the young sport into the media era. While VanDam wasn’t one of them, what he’s done is to be at least as good at all three in their fields of expertise. While he’s a supreme technician with a rod and reel and an unparalleled media presence, I believe that it is the mental side of things that distinguish him most. To put it bluntly, nothing fazes him.
I’ve had the good fortune to watch him on the final day of several events, including multiple Bassmaster Classics, and while the intensity never falters, it’s a strength coated in softness. Very little flummoxes or confuses him. He doesn’t yell or throw things. He’s in control at all times. Watch most young pros on their first day with a cameraman and even if they’re not nervous, they still don’t get the dance of how to stay out of each other’s way. By contrast, if you watch VanDam, there’s a constant ballet between the two of them. I’ve seen cameramen perched on his trolling motor mount, lying on the carpet underneath him, and pushing a camera in his face as he casts, and nothing alters his affect or his motion. The only person who’s likely to get further up in his business this year is the doctor who performs the colonoscopy that became advisable when he turned 50.
Every time he’s in the hot seat, he gets a little bit better at it, too, while the newcomers and less-accomplished pros still have to map out their steps. It’s the same with spectator boats. While no one emotionally feeds off the spectators as much as Iaconelli, no one controls them as gracefully as VanDam. It’s the type of talent that you only get by making it to Championship Sunday, and he makes it there more than anyone else. It’s an advantage that snowballs with age, and it almost seems unfair.
Just as no lake baffles him, I also think you could plunk him down in the middle of anywhere and he’d feel at home. Over a decade ago I went to a meeting in New York City with VanDam and another pro angler. The other one had never been to Manhattan before, and starting with the cab ride from the airport he was in a near state of panic. VanDam, meanwhile, acted as if he owned the town. As we walked into a building on Columbus Circle, a television camera was filming. He walked right up to it, made a funny face, kept on moving. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had channeled a bit of Travis Bickle and walked up to the toughest dude on the street and asked, “You talkin’ to me?”
VanDam will be inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame this September, in his first year of eligibility, as he should be. My hope is that when they unveil his plaque it’ll show him winking. His opponents, meanwhile, would be well advised to keep both eyes open until he retires. I have a feeling that win number 25 will be just a short-lived stopping point.