By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Remember back when Kevin VanDam was on a 5-year non-winning streak and a lot of people said his days of collecting trophies and six-figure paychecks were over? Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?
After topping the field at Oklahoma's Grand Lake last week, VanDam has now has four full-field Bassmaster Elite Series events wins in the past 23 months. Only five anglers (Skeet Reese, Todd Faircloth, Tommy Biffle, Aaron Martens and Mike McClelland) have won that many or more in the 12-plus years of the circuit's existence.
He didn't catch the biggest bag in the field on any of the 4 days at Grand (where he also prevailed in 2007), but his consistency was unrivaled. He weighed 20-pound-plus stringers on each of the first 3 days and sewed up his 25th career B.A.S.S. win with 18-07 on the final day. Slightly more than 5 pounds separated him and runner-up Biffle in the final standings.
Following are some of the particulars:
The first thing VanDam noticed when he arrived at the lake to begin the 3-day practice period was the color of the water it was considerably darker than he'd expected.
"I knew the temperature was going to be warming, but it was going to be hard to sight-fish," he said. "Also, with the water being lower that what we've seen before, I knew people wouldn't be flipping bushes, either.
"The spawn would normally be happening, but when we got there the water temperature was in the low to mid 50s and it was just too cold. Time of year can actually be more important than the temperature, though and a lot of the fish were staging and ready to go. They were just waiting on that warming trend."
The warmup occurred last week and there was indeed a mass migration of males toward the banks. The larger females were naturally a bit behind, and those were VanDam's focus.
"I didn't find much on the main lake most of them that I found were on secondary points in some of the creeks. They were definitely related to bottom composition, like where two different types of rocks came together.
"Once I figured out what the fish were using, it was real easy to find because the LakeMaster mapping (on his Humminbird electronics) is so accurate it's got every pocket and every creek to a T. I could see every channel swing and every place where the creek ran closer to the bank and every little flat spot. It showed every contour change and what the fish were relating to was anything irregular."
The key depth range was 5 to 8 feet, although some of the fish were shallower. He enticed quality bites paralleling the bank with a square-bill crankbait and if there were docks sitting atop the transition zone, he'd skip a jig behind them.
"I wasn't sure I was really them or that I was going to catch big bags, but every day I was getting three 5-pound-plus bites and a good number that were 3-plus. I knew it was going to take 20 pounds a day to have a shot at winning."
> Day 1: 5, 21-15
> Day 2: 5, 20-10
> Day 3:5, 22-04
> Day 4: 5, 18-07
> Total = 20, 83-04
VanDam amassed high-teens limits in short order on each of the first 3 days, which allowed him to spend much of those days pursuing kickers and searching for additional water to exploit on ensuing days.
"The first couple hours of the morning before the sun came out, they were more aggressive and the strike zone was definitely bigger," he said. "They were really eating the crankbait just choking it.
"The reason I chose the dark brown craw color for the crankbait was from seeing the moss on the rocks and the crayfish were the same color they're like chameleons when it comes to blending in with their surroundings."
The majority of the fish he caught during the first half of the tournament were pre-spawn.
"The first day I had a 6-pounder that had eggs just pouring out of it it hadn't spawned yet and it didn't have a mark on it. That showed how ready they were.
"By Saturday and Sunday I was catching some that were spawned out and had bloody tails. It's not like the females stay on the beds long, but they'll stay in those same areas for a while after they've dropped their eggs."
He visited dozens of places each day from the Sailboat Bridge down to Horse Creek, but methodically fished what he considered the best transition areas.
"Sometimes it would be a 20-yard stretch or less, like maybe even 5 yards if there was a point at the end of a channel swing or something like that. I'd cover all the different depths and really pick those apart making multiple casts.
"I rarely caught a bass from a place that didn't have some type of irregularity.
Winning Gear Notes
> Crankbait gear: 7' medium-action Quantum Tour KVD cranking rod, Quantum Smoke 200 HD casting reel (5.3:1 ratio), 12-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line, Strike King KVD 1.5 (brown craw).
> He swapped out the stock hooks on the bait for size 2 Mustad KVD Triple Grip trebles.
> Jig gear: 7'4" heavy-action Quantum KVD Tour graphite rod, Quantum Smoke S3 casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 20-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon, 1/2-ounce Strike King Denny Brauer Structure Jig (green-pumpkin), Strike King Rage Menace trailer (green-pumpkin).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success "Probably focusing on trying to cover as much water as I could during those first 2 hours when the bite was so aggressive. I pretty much knew that if I kept myself in that key water, I was going to get my bites. I just didn't know how many big ones I was going to get."
> Performance edge "The two most important things were definitely the LakeMaster mapping and the hooks on that crankbait. You heard a lot of guys talking about losing fish on crankbaits, but that wasn't happening to me. I've got a ton of confidence in those hooks."
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