Kevin VanDam is in unfamiliar territory as he prepares for the second quarter of the 2010 Bassmaster Elite Series season. Never before in the 5-year history of the circuit had he failed to notch at least one finish of 8th or better in the first two events.
That's the case this time around, though, as he departed the West Coast with placements of 29th at the California Delta and 59th at Clear Lake.
The two-time defending Angler of the Year (AOY) is in 42nd place in the points standings, 201 behind leader Skeet Reese. He's even outside the Bassmaster Classic cutoff for now, but as the reigning champion, he has a guaranteed berth for the 2011 edition.
This might come as a surprise to BassFans familiar with his legendary competitive drive, but his own assessment of his performances in the Golden State isn't overly harsh. Like many competitors at the Delta, he had a tough time when the tide was at any stage other than high, and at Clear Lake he lost a couple of very large fish on day 2 that induced an early start to his trip back to Michigan.
What follows is his own breakdown of the first two tournaments of 2010.
California Delta (29th)
> Day 1: 4, 9-06
> Day 2: 5, 14-08
> Day 3: 5, 9-05
> Total = 14, 33-03
VanDam couldn't think of much he'd do differently if he could fish the Delta event over again under the same circumstances. A chilly spell at the tail end of a colder-than-normal California winter presented unusually tough conditions, and nine anglers zeroed on day 1.
"As tough as it was, I thought that was a pretty decent performance for me," he said. "In reality, I made the most of what I had. It could've been a lot better, but it also could've been a lot worse.
"I think the biggest thing for me there was the tides. I checked them for the week, but they don't always follow the chart exactly, and I didn't realize they were going to be such a factor for the patterns and areas I was fishing."
He said he had no problem catching quality fish on a spinnerbait and a swim jig during the first 2 days of practice and he also had some decent flipping action going. The best bite was on the high tide, which anglers got less and less of as the week wore on.
"When the tide was high (the fish) were close to the banks and the reeds, and as it was falling I thought I'd be able to catch them by pulling to the outside edges. It just didn't happen for me – I could not get bit unless the tide was at the higher level."
Clear Lake (59th)
> Day 1: 5, 15-06
> Day 2: 5, 15-10
> Total = 10, 31-00
Even when Clear Lake is a little off, as it was for this event, 15 1/2 pounds a day just won't get it done. It ended up being VanDam's worst-ever finish in an Elite Series tournament in which he actually made a cast.
"That's the one that was really frustrating because I was really close to having good days on both days," he said. "The thing about fishing a swimbait is sometimes (the fish) will just barely get it and you'll think you've got them hooked, but they'll come off.
"On the second day I lost two big ones – 7- or 8-pounders – that were hooked and came off, I saw both of them and they continued to follow the bait even after that."
He also threw a jerkbait, a dropshot rig and a Strike King Ocho.
VanDam (right) is 201 points behind Angler of the Year leader Skeet Reese (left).
"With an unweighted, 7-inch Ocho, you're liable to get some big bites. I lost one first thing on the second morning that really hurt me.
"The fish were changing all the time and late on the first day I figured out what I needed to do, and it was definitely an afternoon bite. Then on the second day I just didn't capitalize on my opportunities. It could've easily gone the other way and I could've had a 25-pound bag or more."
"It was disappointing, but I know I kind of had things figured out," he concluded. "I knew where some of the better fish were located and it was unfortunate that I didn't take advantage of that. If I'd have caught just one of those good fish, it would've gotten me another day there and given me a chance to move up."
Wrapped up with a Bow
When asked to give himself a letter grade for the California swing, VanDam said he'd assign a C-minus for results, but perhaps a B for decision-making.
"It'd be a better grade than you might think for where I finished, but one little thing one way or the other can really change your day," he said. "One thing's for sure – I learned a tremendous amount that'll not only help me the next time we go back there, but other places, too.
"I've been at this for 20 years now and I'm still learning each time out. It never ceases to amaze me how much things change and how much I still have to learn. That's one of the things that makes it fun."
> VanDam will attempt to launch his comeback in the AOY race 2 weeks from now at Virginia's Smith Mountain Lake. He won there last year.
> He'll anchor a lineup of heavy hitters this Friday and Saturday at the 2010 Spring Fishing and Boat Show at D&R Sports Center in Kalamazoo, Mich. – the store owned by his brother Randy. Reese and Aaron Martens will also present seminars, along with several local pros. Details and directions are available at DandRSports.com.