(Editor's note: In observance of the Independence Day holiday on Wednesday, a new top story will not appear until Thursday.)
By Todd Ceisner
When it was announced that B.A.S.S. would be filling the mystery slot on the Elite Series schedule with a stop at Lake Michigan in late June, the smallmouth fanatics on tour began to lick their chops.
Among them was Jonathon VanDam, a native of Michigan who’s spent many a day chasing brownbacks on the Great Lakes. He was comfortable on the big water, so that was one factor working in his favor.
Also, in May and prior to the mystery announcement, he fished the Sturgeon Bay Open, a major regional bass tournament that typically attracts 150 boats. This year, the weights were out of sight for the buddy tournament and it got the Elites to thinking about the possibilities for when they arrived in Green Bay, Wis., about 45 miles south of Sturgeon Bay by water.
Then the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources stepped in and issued the B.A.S.S. tournament permit, but it restricted the field to the lower portion of the Bay of Green Bay, citing concerns over fish mortality. Sturgeon Bay was suddenly out of play. It resulted in some grumbling amongst the pros and griping at each other on the water as boats bunched up on areas holding the best fish.
VanDam was able to avoid all of that, finding a couple sweet spots south of where the crowds were concentrated and had them to himself for 4 days, plenty of time to catch 79-02. Over the final 2 days, when only two others (Brandon Palaniuk and Aaron Martens) broke the 20-pound barrier, he averaged 22 pounds, including a tournament-best 23-04 on the final day to win by more than 2 pounds.
“Words just don’t describe what this means to me,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming of this for a long time.”
In winning the Lake Michigan Elite Series, he scratched two major items off of his career to-do list – collecting a tour-level victory and qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic. And he did it in just his 15th Elite Series event and 2 months shy of his 24th birthday.
Here’s how he did it.
With many fish in a funky mood, either cruising the shallows or just beginning their typical postspawn migration to deeper water, it forced the Elites to have a couple programs working. It wasn’t like past events at Lake Erie where it was dominated by dropshotting suspended fish or bottom-huggers in deep water.
The wind blew sharply on the first day of practice, but calm conditions the rest of practice made for easy maneuvering and the ability to break down as much water as they needed.
VanDam was able to key in on an area about 10 miles south of the most cluttered spots that featured a rocky point with an adjacent flat. He said it seemed the bass were chasing alewives, which were spawning in the shallows.
“I basically was trying to concentrate on shallow water where the fish were feeding,” he said. “There was a lot of bait up shallow.”
He nailed a 5-pounder on a spinnerbait the first morning and saw a bunch of other good fish nearby.
“At that point, when it comes to smallmouths, you’ll get the biggest bites on reaction baits and they would consistently hit the spinnerbait,” he said.
> Day 1: 5, 17-11
> Day 2: 5, 17-07
> Day 3: 5, 20-12
> Day 4: 5, 23-04
> Total = 20, 79-02
A lot of pros fishing the northeastern portion of the fishable waters last week were able to pounce on some sight-fishing opportunities the first day of the tournament due to the flat-calm conditions.
VanDam was no different. He boxed a solid 17-11 to start out in 7th place.
“I was up in Rileys Bay sight-fishing and that kind of saved me,” he said. “It just wasn’t happening on my spot. The fish may have been there, but I just couldn’t get them going.”
On day 2, he started to get dialed in on the fish he had to himself.
“That was a huge factor,” he said. “I could manage things a little better and not worry about someone moving in and catching a 4-pounder that I could’ve used the next day.”
VanDam will fish his first Bassmaster Classic next February.
After having to switch trolling motors in the morning, he caught a number of keepers on both a spinnerbait and a dropshot.
“That clued me in to what was going on,” he said. “The baitfish were continuing to spawn, but I could sense it was beginning to tail off.”
While his weight dipped slightly to 17-07, it was enough to move him into 3rd entering the weekend, behind Dean Rojas and Martens.
“I knew I was on the potential winning fish,” he said.
He eclipsed the 20-pound mark on Saturday with 20-12, but so did Brandon Palaniuk, who caught 21-02 and led JVD by 4 ounces entering the final day.
Between a slowdown in bites and a couple lost giants on day 4, his morning was one to forget. His afternoon, however, was one he’ll never forget.
He moved around trying to make sense of what was happening, but his final move to an area not far from where he’d caught most of his weight paid off as he located a wad of 5-pounders hanging in 1 to 2 feet of water. He picked up the dropshot and went to work.
“I had the trolling motor set to low so I could ease through real slowly and not spook them,” he said. “I’d find one I could see and let him see the bait. On some, I had to make multiple casts to and I changed up baits and colors.
“I basically had to guess where they were going and put the bait out in front of where they were and hope they’d go for it. If they could see it, they’d react to it.”
Winning Pattern Notes
While many were thrilled to not have to deal with windy conditions on the big water, a little breeze helped stack VanDam’s fish a little better.
“In the area I was fishing, the wind created a current and it was almost like a reservoir when they’re moving water through,” he said. “The current helps position the fish better on the structure.”
When it was breezy, he’d pick up the spinnerbait, but he caught the majority of his weight on the dropshot.
Asked if he thought those fish would still be holding in the area in a week or two, he said, “I think they’d still be there. Maybe not as many, but there’d still be a bunch in there.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Spinnerbait gear: 7’1” medium-heavy Shimano Cumulus casting rod, Shimano Core 50MG casting reel (7:1 ratio), unnamed 17-pound fluorocarbon line, 1/2-ounce Strike King Tour Grade Painted Blade spinnerbait (sexy shad or sexy blueback herring).
> He felt the painted willow-leaf blade on the spinnerbait was key to drawing reaction bites.
> Dropshot gear: 6’10” medium-action G. Loomis NRX dropshot rod, Shimano Sustain 2500 spinning reel (6:1 ratio), 10-pound PowerPro Super 8 Slick braided main line, unnamed 8-pound fluorocarbon leader, 1/0 Lazer TroKar light-wire finesse worm hook, 1/4- or 3/8-ounce unnamed dropshot weight, 4” Strike King Dream Shot (KVD Magic).
> The Dream Shot, developed by Mark Zona and Kevin VanDam, is expected to be unveiled at ICAST next week. The KVD Magic color is a green/silver combo with blue flake. “It’s by far the best smallmouth bait there is,” VanDam said.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “The biggest thing, especially the last day, was just sticking to what I knew best. Knowing the smallmouths were in that area, the key was getting them figured out and getting them to bite.”
> Performance edge – “My Strike King polarized sunglasses were tremendous (on day 4) with the sight-fishing I was doing.”
Much of the tackle referenced above is available at the BassFan Store. To browse the selection, click here.