By Todd Ceisner
Eight Top-50 cuts. One Top-12 finish. Three others in the Top 20. Enough points to place 7th in the Toyota Tundra B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year (AOY) standings and earn a berth in the All-Star Championship event as well as an invitation to next year’s Bassmaster Classic.
Pretty good, right? It’s fair to assume many Bassmaster Elite Series anglers would gladly add a season recap that reads like the above to their résumé.
But for Kevin VanDam, to whom that summary belongs, the 2012 season will go down as a collection of missed opportunities and frustration. You could hear it in the seven-time AOY’s voice – the wry chortle when asked to boil his season down to a few sentences.
It was, after all, the first year since 2006 that he didn’t take home at least one of the following: a Classic win, the AOY title or an Elite Series victory. His first 0-fer in 6 years. The ho-hum campaign saw him make just one Top-12 cut (Lake Okeechobee) and dropped him to 7th in the latest BassFan World Rankings.
While he finished 11th at the Classic in February, he wasn’t ever in contention to notch a record fifth win at the event, nor was he a real threat to hoist a trophy during the season. His final placement in the AOY points was the highest he’d been all season as Brent Chapman ended KVD's record-setting 4-year reign as AOY.
“The last 4 years finished a lot different for me,” he said. “It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. I had a few high points, but probably the biggest disappointment for me was really not being in contention to win a tournament all year long. Even though I had a couple good finishes, I just didn’t put myself in that position.”
It’s pretty preposterous to call his season an average one or even below average, but the Kalamazoo, Mich., native always expects more from himself, which is why he’s itching to get back out there next season.
Series Of Swings And Misses
After leaving Florida with a 24th at the St. Johns River and an 8th at Okeechobee to open the season, VanDam felt like he was gaining momentum as the schedule shifted to points northward.
An early spring had gripped much of the country and when the Elite Series went to Bull Shoals and Douglas Lake, it was evident that the bass were ahead of their typical schedule. Both Bull Shoals and Douglas were ultimately won with deep crankbait patterns, but they represented VanDam’s lowest finishes of the season.
“A couple of pounds goes a long way in the standings at those tournaments where it’s real close,” he said of Bull Shoals, where he finished 45th. “After practice, I thought I was on the fish to win there. I just could not get those bigger bites. Finally, on the 3rd day I had two good bites and both of them got away.
"That one was really disappointing because I felt, after practice, I was on the right pattern and doing the right thing. I caught a ton of fish. I just didn’t get the quality bites like I had in practice. That one was a tough one to swallow.”
Two weeks later, he wound up 41st at Douglas as he was unable to crack the deep-water code.
“We had such a big warm-up nationally so early in the year that it really prolonged the spawn and stretched it out,” he said. “In a lot of cases, I think it got a lot of the fish into their summer patterns a little earlier than usual. You saw that at Douglas (Lake). Normally, there would’ve been a lot more shallow fish there, but they were already set in their summer pattern.”
He had a 13th and a 19th at the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan, respectively, leading into the season finale at Oneida Lake, where he’s enjoyed a fair amount of success through his career. He was in 7th place in the AOY race and knew that if those above him stumbled, the door could be open for him to continue his AOY reign. Chapman never faltered, closing out the points title on the 3rd day, and VanDam walked away with a frustrating 15th-place showing.
VanDam is excited for next year's Elite Series schedule and has been encouraged by the progress made under the new B.A.S.S. owners.
“I really like the lake and I knew what I needed to do because I needed to have a top finish there to have a chance (at Angler of the Year),” he said. “I was close. I was right there and just a few ounces separated people. I lost a couple key fish that really hurt me. When it’s all on the line like that, that’s when you have to step up and make it happen. You can’t miss opportunities like that on quality bites at fisheries that have so many cookie-cutter fish in them.
“That was the challenge for me all season long in those situations where you had to have a big day on the final day. I just was not able to make the right adjustments, try as I might, where in the past I was able to do that.”
Making a Point
VanDam is a veteran of just about every system that’s been used to crown an AOY. Whether it’s a measure of total weight caught through the season to accumulated points or a bracket-style fish-off, he’s been through it all and seemingly won under every imaginable scenario.
That doesn’t mean he was a fan of the new point-per-place system used for the Elite Series this season (for a 99-angler field, the winner received 99 points, 2nd 98, 3rd 97 and so on). He’s always maintained that the winner’s reward should be more substantial than just a 1-point difference in the standings.
“I prefer the old points system,” he said. “I think that if you win a tournament, you should get more than just 1 more point than the 2nd-place finisher. I’ve fished under all of the formats, but I liked the system where you got rewarded for performing at the top level.
“It’s really hard to win and even finish consistently in the Top 5 and I just always felt that it deserves more than 1 more point than the next guy.”
Don’t expect to see VanDam attempting to fish both the Elite Series and FLW Tour in 2013. He just doesn’t feel it’s viable time-wise with his heavy load of sponsor obligations in between events and his desire to have down time at home with his family.
“The thing for me is having a family and having the sponsor base that I have and all of the commitments that go with that, I’d have a hard time putting those two schedules together,” he said. “I don’t want to put myself or my family through that. I really think you have to focus on one tour or the other. Quite a few guys have done it, but you haven’t seen anybody dominate both trails in the same year. The level of competition is almost to a point where it’s almost impossible for it to happen.”
He likes the look of the 2013 Elite Series schedule, as it includes venues where either he’s registered wins or that suit his style.
“There are some that I’m really looking forward to,” he said. “The Sabine River is a big question mark for everyone. And then from there, we got right to Falcon, so you go from one that nobody’s heard of to one of, if not, the greatest fisheries in the country. We have a good schedule in that it’s real diverse. We have rivers and lakes and a good mix of different seasons with a couple northern events where smallmouth will be a big factor.”
Asked about recent comments made by B.A.S.S. co-owner Jerry McKinnis regarding changes that could be made to the Elite Series and Opens by 2014, VanDam said he wasn’t privy to any inside info, but feels the organization has made a change for the better since McKinnis and Co. took over in late 2010.
“He hasn’t confided in me about what they’re planning to do,” he said. “I think the biggest thing that B.A.S.S. is focused on is doing a great job for their sponsors to make sure it’s a really viable place. Still, they’re going to have to attract sponsors that aren’t your Berkleys and Mercurys and Bass Pro Shops of the world. They need more people like Toyota and some non-endemic sponsors.
“To me, the last couple years under Don (Logan) and Jerry and Jim (Copeland), I’ve seen a lot of changes. Not so much in the way they run tournaments, but in the fundamental workings of the organization and employees. I see a lot of things going in a positive direction. It’s a tough economic climate out there for all of us.”