"Kevin isn't going to beat himself. He's found that space where only a few have been, and he's not even close to the last chapter of what he's writing.”
- Rick Clunn following Kevin VanDam’s record-tying fourth Classic victory in 2011.
My uncle watched the greatest boxer of all time fight, and he’s sure of it. He’ll debate you all day that no one since could have touched Muhammad Ali. And I’ve got a buddy who loved Dan Marino: “Better than Montana or Bradshaw or any of them," he’d say. Maybe he’s right.
But there’s one thing sports fans should never again debate. No one – ever – has dominated the sport of professional bass fishing like Kevin VanDam. Sure, others have had runs that defy reality, seemingly placing at or near the top in nearly every event they competed. But these streaks were just that, temporary plateaus that, although some lasted a decade or more, eventually came to an end as the angler aged. Not so with VanDam.
Last week marked VanDam’s 25th career victory in B.A.S.S. competition (for statistical gurus, he never did win an FLW Tour event, although he quickly banked over 300 grand there), a record in itself, and likely just a marker in a career that will continue to accelerate.
The win was vintage KVD; chunk-and-wind power fishing, hopping from place to place, running, casting, grinding. How many reels this guy must go through …
His technique was one of mastered simplicity: square-billed crankbaits in just the right color, carrying his proven set of hooks, fished on his intimately familiar rod and reel set-up. What’s old is new again; out of fashion, back in vogue.
For his entire career, VanDam has gone against the grain of new techniques and trending lures, and relied upon the principles built by the legends of the sport, the original road warriors who likely coined the principle that a bass is a bass, taking their Southern-based methods coast to coast.
Remember, VanDam hails from Michigan – hardly the epicenter of bass fishing culture – but quickly developed a skill set more closely matching a bubba basser than a Northern finesser.
A look at VanDam’s titles is a case in point. He’s won at nearly all the famous fisheries: Buggs Island, Kentucky Lake, Rayburn, the Potomac, the Delta. And he’s done so, primarily, through the use of cast-and-retrieve-based techniques, fished aggressively, regardless of conditions.
His Classic wins are a case in point: twice he’s won at the Louisiana Delta; once power-fishing a square-bill and the other by relying on the fast drop of a heavy jig. His Lay Lake victory in 2010 was built on cranking, when much of the field found it necessary to slow down and beg for bites. Even his Classic win at Pittsburgh – the stingiest dinkfest of all time – was built on toned-down power fishing, where VanDam relied on an antique jerkbait to get the job done.
Throughout time, VanDam has adapted his fishing to meet the circumstances, utilizing shaky-heads, swimbaits or dropshots like the rest of us. But, in time, he returns to his roots, and those entrenched in tournament bass fishing, to again convince us all that there’s nothing wrong with the original. Once again, he’s illustrated that there’s more to life than worrying about nail weights, under-spins or spy baits. Guys like me thank him for that.
I remember when VanDam single-handedly introduced painted-blade spinnerbaits to the world as a way for catching smallmouth that didn’t involve the use of a spinning rod. I also recall the first 3-pounder I boat-flipped utilizing the method, and how it made me feel to really be bass fishing again.
Who could forget VanDam’s contribution to deep cranking, and the way he put Strike King crankbaits back on the map, by designing lures that casted well and caught fish? Again, he was partially responsible for a lot of my best days cranking bronzebacks.
And what about VanDam’s aforementioned 2010 Classic win – who could ever forget that? With water temps hovering just above freezing, VanDam made a liar out of anyone who ever insisted on slowing down their fishing in early spring, instead blistering the field through the time-tested method of cold-water rattle-bating, but with a Red Eye. I was dumbfounded, but again quickly adapted the method to fit my needs.
Perhaps that’s the most impressive part of VanDam’s legacy. Maybe it’s more than his 25 victories, someday certain to eclipse 30, or 40, or who knows? Maybe it’s more than his run at an inflated Angler of the Year record, or the bizarre tie with Clunn, King of the Classic.
No, I’m sure of it: for me, VanDam’s greatest feat is his contribution to the sport. As I’ve mentioned here, no one can touch VanDam on his humbleness and humility, his generosity to the fans. But, even more, VanDam has given us all untold knowledge in our personal pursuit of bass. Thanks, KVD.
I have a feeling no one ever told VanDam he couldn’t accomplish something.
If they did, he ignored them.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)