By BassFan Staff

For Jonathon VanDam, the dream began to take shape when he was a kid roaming the aisles of his family's sporting goods store in Kalamazoo, Mich. He did the grunt work any other storeowner’s kid had to – washing boats, stocking shelves, selling tackle and hunting gear. He’d talk fishing with everyday folks and meet the industry types that came through the doors. He still pitches in when time allows.



The dream continued to form through watching his uncle, Kevin VanDam, emerge as an icon in the sport and re-write the pro bass fishing record books as one of the premier anglers of his generation.

When he was ready and able, Jonathon launched his own career as a pro angler, steadily climbing the ranks through the Bassmaster Opens (he won a Lake Erie Northern Open back in 2009) and earning an invite to fish the Elite Series last year. He made a couple 12-cuts as a rookie and many thought his own path to stardom wouldn’t be that long. This year's road, however, has featured some of the bumps that most young anglers must overcome.

The dream culminated today on the shores of Lake Michigan in Green Bay, Wis., the place they call Titletown. Facing a 4-ounce deficit to begin the day, JVD smoked a final day- and tournament-best 23-04 to finish with 79-02 and capture his first Elite Series victory and secure a berth in next year’s Bassmaster Classic.

He is the second-youngest Elite champion in history at 23 years, 10 months. Casey Ashley was six months younger when he won at Smith Mountain Lake in 2007.

VanDam overtook Brandon Palaniuk, who held a slim lead on his 20-something counterpart this morning. Palaniuk, who brought in 21-02 on day 3, caught 20-10 today to finish 2nd with 76-12.

Aaron Martens weighed 20-03 and held down 3rd with a 73-03 aggregate for his second 3rd-place finish of the season. Dean Rojas maintained 4th after he caught 15-14 to finish with 66-14. Ott DeFoe jumped a spot to 5th, boxing 14-15 for a 61-05 total.

Here's how the Top 12 finished up:

1. Jonathon VanDam: 79-02
2. Brandon Palaniuk: 76-12
3. Aaron Martens: 73-03
4. Dean Rojas: 66-14
5. Ott DeFoe: 61-05
6. James Niggemeyer: 60-08
7. Skeet Reese: 59-05
8. Tommy Biffle: 58-15
9. Bernie Schultz: 57-04
10. Ish Monroe: 57-01
11. Stephen Browning: 44-08
12. Russ Lane: 42-09

James Niggemeyer registered his best career Elite Series finish this week, catching 17-13 today to move up from 9th to 6th. Skeet Reese jumped up to 7th and also shot up 15 spots to 16th in the Toyota Tundra B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year (AOY) standings.

The 9th-place finish is Bernie Schultz's best result since he was 8th at Oneida Lake in 2006.

Martens remarked on stage about the calm conditions all week and how he cruised back to the ramp doing 70-plus mph today, at one point removing both hands from the steering wheel to demonstrate the smooth ride.

“I thought you guys said it was supposed to get rough up here,” he said to the crowd through a smirk.

The weather conditions were indeed a Godsend for the field and B.A.S.S. Cancelling a day or confining the anglers to the Fox River would’ve been a blow to an event already beset by the touchy topic of the boundaries put in place by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that prohibited anglers from venturing past specific coordinates. Such restrictions resulted in heavily-crowded areas the first 3 days of the event, especially in the northeast portion of the fishable water.

The winning weight far exceeded what many thought it would take to prevail after practice due to the boundary restrictions. It was also expected that the weights in general would come down as the tournament wore on, which they did, but few could've predicted the big weights that came across the scales today.

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

VanDam is heading to his first Classic next February.

As for the race for the AOY title, the lead still belongs to Brent Chapman. Here’s a look at the updated Top 5:

1. Brent Chapman: 566 points
2. Ott DeFoe: 553
3. Todd Faircloth: 546
4. Terry Scroggins: 527
5. Bill Lowen: 518

The Elite Series will take a 6-week break before heading to Oneida Lake outside of Syracuse, N.Y., on Aug. 23-26 to close out the season and crown an Angler of the Year (AOY) as well as determine the field for its postseason.

VanDam Elated

> Day 4: 5, 23-04 (20, 79-02)

When it came time to present the trophy, it was Kevin VanDam emerging from backstage to hand off the hardware to his nephew, not tournament director Trip Weldon as is normal practice.

“It was unbelievable,” Jonathon said. “It meant a lot to me to have him there with my whole family. Their support has been incredible.”

While capturing his first Elite Series win was certainly sweet, he’s also excited to know he’ll be fishing his first Classic next February at Grand Lake in Oklahoma.

“It’s huge,” he said. “It’s a dream come true. I had to win one to make it just the way the points are, but this erases the frustration from earlier this season. I started slow in Florida and then had a couple good events. The last two didn’t go as well as I’d hoped they would. These last couple were the ones I was looking forward to because they were on Northern waters where I knew we’d be fishing for smallmouths.”

He said he was a “train wreck for a while,” this morning when he found the water in his primary starting area had dirtied up and he couldn’t muster a keeper bite.

He recovered in fine fashion, though, weighing more today than he had during the first 2 days of competition at four other Elite Series events this season.

“The way the day went it was just one of those things,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. It was an up-and-down kind of day. At noon, I didn’t have a fish. And then within 10 minutes, I lost a 5 and 6, then I caught two 5s. It was a crazy sequence.”

The morning lull prompted him to vacate his primary area and run north to Little Sturgeon Bay. When he got there, he second-guessed himself.

“I said, ‘What am I doing here,’” he said. “I knew the winning fish were back there. I just needed to go back and figure them out.”

“I was honestly real frustrated. I came into this deal thinking if I had a chance to win one, this would be it. I knew the area better than most and I put myself in a position and halfway through the day, it felt like I was watching it slowly slip away.”

Nothing got away from him after that. After a bit he returned to his starting spot, but the water was still stained, so he made a slight move and his graph lit up.

“It was like an aquarium,” he said. “There were so many fish in there. I’m guessing the fish that were on (my starting area) moved up in there.”

He had the big bass of the tournament, a 5-11 brute from day 3, and his big fish today was a 5-06 smallie.

Full details of his winning pattern, as well as those of the other top finishers, will be posted soon.

2nd: Palaniuk Bummed, But Happy For Pal

> Day 4: 5, 20-10 (20, 76-12)

There’s nothing more Palaniuk thinks he could’ve done to overtake VanDam this afternoon.

“My goal was to catch 20 pounds,” he said. “I figured that would be enough. Obviously, Jon got on some big fish and he was able to pull it out. He just got the bigger bites today and caught them better.”

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Brandon Palaniuk thought he'd done enough to close out the win.

He said he and VanDam have become friends over the years rising the through ranks together.

“He earned it,” he added. “It’s not that I didn’t catch them and just handed it to him. I’m happy for him.”

He was aiming to join Skeet Reese (2010) and Kevin VanDam (2007 and 2008) as the only Elite Series anglers to win two tournaments in the same season.

“I’m obviously upset I didn’t win, but I made great decisions this week,” he added. “In a lot of tournaments this year, I made some poor decisions and I got super frustrated. This week, I struggled in practice for a couple days and went for broke on the 3rd day and finally figured something out and was able to build on it.”

He got several fish to follow his topwater bait this morning and he boxed a 4-pounder right away on a dropshot that eased his nerves.

“The way it started I though it would be lights out,” he said. “I’m not sure if I could’ve caught 23 there, but I know that there were the right kind of fish in the area I was fishing. Things had to line up just right for me to get the right five bites.”

He noticed his area was starting to slowly muddy up and he sensed it was pushing the fish out of the area. He made a move in the late morning to an area where he’d caught a 4-pounder yesterday, but he hadn’t fished it much since practice because he hadn’t had to. He caught a flurry of 4-pounders and had his sights set on a 5.

“I felt like I was on the deal to win,” he added.

3rd: Martens Had More Freedom

> Day 4: 5, 20-03 (20, 73-03)

Martens was happy with days 1 and 4 of the tournament, but feels he stayed on some areas too long the other days and that may have cost him.

“I screwed up on a couple of days,” he said. “It was a spot tournament. I didn’t find the amount of fish I needed to find. I think my weight would’ve won at the start of practice, but I’m good with it, though. I’m happy that I moved up to 13th in points. I feel like I’m on a roll now, but I need to win one of these things. I’m getting close too many times.”

His catch rate went up today without having to contend with other anglers around him aside from the occasional local.

“I caught a lot of 3-pounders today,” he said. “The fishing was really good. It was very calm. I was able to move around and find some more schools today. It was fun.”

4th: Rojas On A Roll

> Day 4: 5, 15-10 (20, 66-14)

Rojas put the finishing touches on another rock-solid tournament by bouncing back from a so-so day 3 to hold onto a Top-5 finish. He’ll leave the upper Midwest with a pair Top-10s (he was 8th last week at the Mississippi River) after never before fishing either body of water. The result also moved him into 10th place in the AOY standings, which virtually locked him into a Classic berth and put him well within reach of the Top 8, which would assure him a berth in the Elite Series postseason.

“I’m very happy with the way things turned out this week,” he said. “Not having seen this place before or La Crosse and coming out of here with two Top-10s and a ton of points, I feel really good.”

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Dean Rojas will carry plenty of momentum into the finale at Oneida Lake.

Not in all of his years of fishing at the pro level and fishing big-water lakes had he seen a body of water the size of the Bay of Green Bay so calm for so many straight days.

“I’d never seen it like it was this week,” he said. “We had maybe one bad day, but this morning and afternoon, I was running wide open 45 miles out and back in. That’s unheard of.”

His primary area was a little slow to produce today and that kept him on the move.

“With it being so flat and still, I went to the bank,” he said. “I could see them cruising around and I was able to catch them on a dropshot.”

5th: DeFoe Did What He Could

> Day 4: 5, 14-15 (20, 61-05)

DeFoe had to rely more yesterday and today on spots holding largemouths as he weighed in three green fish to help him lock up his third Top-10 of the season, counting the Classic where he took 5th.

“I’m happy with it,” he said. “I never had any chances to have a better bags. I didn’t have any little ones, though. They were all 3-pounders.”

His morning bite had grown progressively slower through the event and today he reported catching about 10 keepers. He made a move today to an area he thought he’d be able to just catch 2 1/2-pounders. Instead, he pulled out a few 3 1/2-pound largemouths.

“I didn’t know there were that many 3-pounders in there,” he said.

By sliding up one position from day 3, he inched one point closer to Chapman in the AOY race. While Chapman plans to pre-fish Oneida before it goes off limits, DeFoe’s opting not to as he wants to head there in August with no pre-conceived notions in his mind.

Notable

> Day 4 stats – 12 anglers, 10 limits, 1 one, 1 zero.

> Russ Lane, who started the day in 11th, had mechanical problems today and took his boat out at a ramp in Little Sturgeon Bay. He said he'd caught a couple good largemouths early on, but was on his trolling motor from 8:30 a.m. on. He was fishing some areas by himself so he was unable to flag down another competitor and cellular service was spotty so contacting B.A.S.S. officials was a bit of a challenge. By the time, assistance reached him, he would've been too late for the weigh-in. Per B.A.S.S. rules, “Boats must remain in tournament waters during tournament days. Competitors must leave from and return to official checkpoints by boat.” He had to forfeit his day’s catch. The zero dropped him to 12th with 42-09.

> B.A.S.S. rules state that if a tournament ends in a tie for the lead, a fish-off would be held to determine the winner. Tournament director Trip Weldon said on stage if that had been the case today, the fish-off would’ve been held Sunday evening.

Final Standings

1. Jonathon VanDam -- Kalamazoo, MI -- 20, 79-02 -- 98 -- $103,000
Day 1: 5, 17-11 -- Day 2: 5, 17-07 -- Day 3: 5, 20-12 -- Day 4: 5, 23-04

2. Brandon Palaniuk -- Rathdrum, ID -- 20, 76-12 -- 97 -- $25,500
Day 1: 5, 18-00 -- Day 2: 5, 17-00 -- Day 3: 5, 21-02 -- Day 4: 5, 20-10

3. Aaron Martens -- Leeds, AL -- 20, 73-03 -- 96 -- $20,000
Day 1: 5, 20-00 -- Day 2: 5, 16-15 -- Day 3: 5, 16-01 -- Day 4: 5, 20-03

4. Dean Rojas -- Lake Havasu City, AZ -- 20, 66-14 -- 95 -- $15,000
Day 1: 5, 19-14 -- Day 2: 5, 17-14 -- Day 3: 5, 13-08 -- Day 4: 5, 15-10

5. Ott DeFoe -- Knoxville, TN -- 20, 61-05 -- 94 -- $14,000
Day 1: 5, 16-11 -- Day 2: 5, 14-11 -- Day 3: 5, 15-00 -- Day 4: 5, 14-15

6. James Niggemeyer -- Van, TX -- 20, 60-08 -- 93 -- $13,500
Day 1: 5, 16-09 -- Day 2: 5, 12-13 -- Day 3: 5, 13-15 -- Day 4: 5, 17-03

7. Skeet Reese -- Auburn, CA -- 20, 59-05 -- 92 -- $13,000
Day 1: 5, 16-00 -- Day 2: 5, 12-06 -- Day 3: 5, 16-01 -- Day 4: 5, 14-14

8. Tommy Biffle -- Wagoner, OK -- 20, 58-15 -- 91 -- $12,500
Day 1: 5, 17-01 -- Day 2: 5, 13-12 -- Day 3: 5, 16-10 -- Day 4: 5, 11-08

9. Bernie Schultz -- Gainesville, FL -- 20, 57-04 -- 90 -- $12,000
Day 1: 5, 14-14 -- Day 2: 5, 14-12 -- Day 3: 5, 12-13 -- Day 4: 5, 14-13

10. Ish Monroe -- Hughson, CA -- 20, 57-01 -- 89 -- $11,500
Day 1: 5, 16-13 -- Day 2: 5, 15-05 -- Day 3: 5, 12-15 -- Day 4: 5, 12-00

11. Stephen Browning -- Hot Springs, AR -- 16, 44-08 -- 88 -- $11,000
Day 1: 5, 14-10 -- Day 2: 5, 14-15 -- Day 3: 5, 13-06 -- Day 4: 1, 01-09

12. Russ Lane -- Prattville, AL -- 15, 42-09 -- 87 -- $10,500
Day 1: 5, 12-12 -- Day 2: 5, 17-04 -- Day 3: 5, 12-09 -- Day 4: 0, 00-00