By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Finishing within 13 places of his celebrated uncle in the Toyota Tundra B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year (AOY) race would normally mean that Jonathan VanDam had a very good season. That wasn't the case in 2014.
His bid to make his third consecutive Bassmaster Classic was thwarted on the same day that Kevin VanDam's streak of 24 straight qualifications for the sport's premier event came to an end. After a breakthrough season in 2013, when he ended up 23rd in the points, he plummeted to 66th this year.
"After having the year I did (in '13), I had a lot of confidence coming into this year and I was feeling really good about where I was at as an angler," he said. "Then the bad start I had just took the wind out of my sails and I was playing catch-up the whole time.
"I fished my butt off to get back in the Top 50 and I thought I was on my way, but then we hit the Delaware River."
Buried from the Start
The first quarter of this year's campaign almost couldn't have gone worse for the 26-year-old VanDam. He logged a 97th in the opener at Lake Seminole and then ended up one place lower the following week at the St. Johns River.
After two events, he was 105th out of 108 anglers in the AOY race with a whopping 7 points to his name.
"To be honest with you, I think (the horrible start) was a matter of circumstance more than anything," he said. "At the first event, for instance, I had a really good practice. I wasn't sight-fishing – I was on pre-spawners and post-spawners and I was catching some really good fish early in the week.
"The problem was I was catching them out in the open and then the wind blew pretty good the first 2 days of the tournament and it was coming from the wrong direction for me. I don't know if those fish vacated the area and fled for the bank or if they were still there and I just couldn't catch them, but it was what it was. All I had to fall back on was some sight-fish I had."
Things didn't improve at the St. Johns, where he'd posted finishes of 73rd and 88th during his previous Elite Series visits in 2011 and '12, respectively.
"I've never had a good tournament there for some reason," he said. "This year and the last few times I've been there the tournaments have been won on Lake George, but I was doing a sight-fishing deal and I spent my whole practice looking for them. I found some, but I never could get the big ones to bite."
He said he had three bed-dwellers in the 7-pound class pinned down in one small area that nobody else was fishing and found a couple others that were pushing 10. He didn't put any of them in the boat.
"Just one or two bites like that can make a big difference – not only in the tournament, but in your whole season. I spent a lot of time on those big fish and then I'd look at the clock and I'd be like, crap, it's noon already and I've only got one 12-incher in the livewell. After that it was a scramble just to try to make something happen.
"The St. Johns is a place where I should do well because you can catch them just fishing, too. Terry Scroggins and those guys who really know that place usually don't end up sight-fishing there."
Ready to Rebound
VanDam will endure a long, cold Michigan winter before he gets his shot at redemption next spring. The 2015 season can't come around quickly enough for him.
"I'm really looking forward to next year," he said. "I've had some time now to sit back and think about what went wrong this year and I couldn't really come up with anything in particular.
"The places we're going next year and the way the fish should be set up when we get there should fit my style pretty well. There shouldn't be too much sight-fishing going on – it should be just a lot of fishing."
His specialty, of course, is catching smallmouths, and the circuit will visit two bronzeback venues during the regular season – Lake St. Clair and the St. Lawrence River. If he fares better in the points than he did this year, he might get a crack at a third as there are rumblings that the AOY Championship will once again be staged in the North Country.
He's also excited about taking his longest Elite Series road trip to date for the stops at California's Sacramento River and Arizona's Lake Havasu.
"The West is going to be a totally new place for me and those (fisheries) might be tough to figure out in 2 1/2 days of practice. It's a part of the country I've never been to and it'll be cool to see what the differences are compared to the other places I've been."