By Todd Ceisner
Jonathon VanDam attended his first Bassmaster Classic in 1993 at the age of 4 and hasn’t missed one since. Mostly, he’s been there to root on his uncle, Kevin VanDam, who’s won a record-tying four Classic titles with his nephew in attendance. The last couple years, the younger VanDam’s role as spectator has remained, but his main focus has been to work the Classic Expo for his sponsors.
In less than 2 months, though, he’ll get his first taste of the Classic from the competitor’s side of things. And by the sounds of it, the 24-year-old can’t wait to get to Grand Lake.
“It’s going to be pretty awesome and pretty surreal,” he said. “I’ve been going to them and watching my uncle Kevin since I was 4 years old. As much as I’m going to miss working the booth for my sponsors, it’s going to be a pretty awesome feeling to be out there on the water with a chance to fish.”
He earned that chance by winning the Lake Michigan Elite Series this past July – his first victory in 2 seasons with the Elite Series. He shrugged off a miserable morning on the final day to weigh the heaviest stringer of the tournament and win by more than 2 pounds over Brandon Palaniuk. He learned a fair bit about himself at that tournament, especially when it seemed like nothing was going to go his way on day 4.
“I was always confident in my abilities, but that was one of those days where I learned that the only way to win tournaments is if you make all the right decisions,” he said. “If you make a decision that costs you, most of the time you won’t win that tournament. Early in that day, I didn’t have anything going on and my mind started racing trying to put the pieces of the puzzle back together. That’s the one thing I learned about myself – how much I’ve changed in being able to do that. From when I started fishing the Elites 2 years ago to where I’m at now, I’m a lot more mentally sound.”
It was his lone Top-12 cut of the 2012 season and only result higher than 36th in a season that was otherwise unremarkable. In his first two Elite Series campaigns, he’s logged five Top-50 finishes and three Top-12s, a respectable total for an angler still 8 months shy of his 25th birthday. He’s still getting his footing at the top level of competition and is hopeful 2013 will result in a string of more consistent finishes.
Not That Far Off
While his triumph at Lake Michigan will always define the 2012 season for VanDam (and for good reason), his average finish of 65th in the other seven events was a result, he said, of the classic “just missed a few bites” curse. It started during the season-opening swing through Florida, where he’s still trying to get a grip on bed-fishing.
“At a lot of other events I feel like I wasn’t that far off,” he said. “There were just a few missed bites and a few lost fish here and there that cost me quite a few places. At Okeechobee, I was fishing right in the same area as Davy Hite and Chris Lane and some guys that did really well. They just seemed to get the key bites where I didn’t. The bait I was throwing wasn’t really any different from what everybody else was throwing. When it’s a flipping tournament like that, you pretty much have to hit them on the face. You have to flip it to the spot where they’re sitting. It’s not like you’re making a cast and covering lots of water.”
Like most young anglers, he’s been hamstrung by a lack of experience at certain lakes or in some regions of the country. The only way to solve that, he says, is to spend time on the water and begin to put the pieces together in his mind. Only then will he be able to strive for the consistency that some of his elders on tour have displayed.
“It’s real important,” he said. “I expect a lot more out of myself than what I’ve been able to accomplish in the last 2 years. The one thing that’s different (in 2013) than it has been in the past is I’ve actually been to a majority of the places that we’re going to. I have some knowledge and that’s just how it seems to work out. Your first couple years you don’t really have much knowledge of the lakes and the places we go to and you lose a lot of time. Whereas some people are fishing older spots or they’ve been to the lake a number of times so they have ideas of areas to go look at. If you haven’t, then you’re running all over the lake trying to see as much as you can see.”
Bring On The Chill
As one of a handful of northerners in the field for the upcoming Classic, count VanDam among the crowd that wouldn’t mind seeing air temperatures hover around the freezing mark. He’s grown up fishing in some less-than-inviting conditions and during a recent fun-fishing outing with Mark Zona, they had to chip through a thin sheet of ice near the ramp to access some fishable water on a lake near his Kalamazoo, Mich., home.
“I love the fact that it could be 20 degrees and snowing down there,” he said. “Looking at the lake and how it lays out, I really feel like I’ll be able to Michigan-fish them. A lot of the things that we do up here in the early spring that’s kind of different from anywhere else in the country, I feel like that could possibly be really good down there.”
He spent 3 days at Grand Lake before it went off limits and likes the potential it holds.
“It was definitely very beneficial to get down there and spend a few days riding around and getting a layout of the lake,” he said. “From everything I saw, there’s a lot of different opportunities and a lot of different ways to catch them. There will be something that plays to the strengths of just about everyone. That’s the thing with the Classic – you’re not there to finish in the Top 10. Everyone’s swinging for the fences so it’ll be interesting to see the kinds of patterns that are going to be prevalent.”