By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
It's pretty difficult to find fault with the performance of an angler who finishes no lower than 32nd during the course of an entire Bassmaster Elite Series season and winds up 3rd in the Angler of the Year (AOY) race, as Kevin VanDam did this year.
There's another end of that spectrum, though, and that's the one VanDam focuses on when assessing his campaign. The 14th he posted last month at the St. Lawrence River was his high-water mark for the year, and he feels as if he mismanaged several opportunities to end up inside the Top 12.
He's made a ridiculous 28 straight 50-cuts, but he hasn't advanced to the final day in a regular-season derby since the 2012 opener – a span of 15 outings.
The vast majority of the Elite Series roster would take his '13 ledger (and the eight five-figure paychecks it produced) and be positively tickled with it. The bar that KVD has set during his illustrious career is a bit higher, though, and he's grown weary of constantly having Sundays off during tournament weeks.
"I'm not going to lie, I'm disappointed in the year I had," he said. "There was something (bad) that happened in every event and a lot of those things were my own fault.
"I let my history at some of the places I've been cloud my judgment. It's great to have all this experience, but sometimes it can get you in trouble, especially when you've got extreme conditions with the weather or the water."
Three that Really Hurt
Three events this year stand out as instances in which VanDam felt like he underachieved – the opener at the Sabine River, the mid-season derby at the raging Alabama River and the finale at Lake St. Clair in his home state of Michigan.
At the Sabine, he lost three fish in the 5- to 6-pound class en route to a 15th-place showing. For that fishery, those were monstrous bites.
"That was a place I'd never seen, and I had a chance to do exceptionally well if those three giant bass hadn't come off," he said. "That normally doesn't happen on a jig with braided line, but it was one of those things that cost me right out of the gate.
"When you're looking at making a run at the AOY, it doesn't matter whether it's the first event or the last – when you get your chances, you've got to capitalize on them."
The Alabama River and St. Clair represented his two lowest finishes of the season (32nd and 31st, respectively). At both he made decisions about where to focus his efforts that, in hindsight, he deemed erroneous.
At the Alabama, which was roaring in early May due to a wet spring, he knew the area directly below the Bolden Dam would play a big role in the outcome. He had a solid practice on the lower stretches, though, and never ventured up there.
VanDam said hard-headedness cost him at the Lake St. Clair event in his home state.
Three months later, he opted to stay on St. Clair when the consensus opinion was that the event couldn't be won there due to the streamlined state of the lake's biggest smallmouths. Most of the top finishers went to Lake Erie, while winner Chris Lane and 3rd-place finisher Alton Jones traveled to Lake Huron.
"That was pretty much me being hard-headed to the fact that St. Clair had been so good for the last 3 or 4 years," he said. "I don't fish over there too often, but I fished it before the off-limits and a few times last summer and fall and we always caught a lot of big, quality smallmouths. The first day of practice I knew something was definitely up, but I thought that in a different area the fish would be healthier.
"What really blows me away was the fish were not in that condition right before the off-limits. I couldn't imagine that things could change that much in a month, but they did."
One More Shot
VanDam will get another chance to shine in his home state this month when Toyota All-Star Week comes to Lake Muskegon on the final weekend of September. That's only about a 1 1/2-hour drive from his home in Kalamazoo and it's a venue that he fished frequently prior to turning pro more than two decades ago.
After that he'll embark on an ultra-busy fall schedule that'll include competing in the Toyota Texas Bass Classic and the second Major League Fishing event of 2013, along with numerous sponsorship commitments. In between, he'll try to take in at least a couple of his sons' high school tennis matches.
All the while, 2014 won't be far from his stream of consciousness.
"There's definitely plenty to work on in terms of next season for me," he said. "There were some lessons learned this year, for sure. I'm excited to see what the schedule's going to look like and I hope there's some new bodies of water on there.
"The longer you do this and the more experience you have, the harder it is to forget the past. You want to utilize what you've learned from past experience to your advantage, but you've got to focus on the current conditions. That's what I have to do a better job of."
> VanDam appeared to be a real threat to win the St. Lawrence River event as he was in 3rd place at the midway point, just a little over 2 pounds behind leader and eventual winner Brandon Palaniuk. His day-3 bag was 6 pounds lighter than his average to that point, though, and he slid to 14th. "Saturday was a lot tougher, but I still got some good bites," he said. "I just didn't get all of them in the boat. At one point I had a 4 12-pounder in my hand that would've given me plenty (of weight) to fish on Sunday, but I didn't get him."