This week brings the beginning of a new season in pro bass fishing, along with the end of an era. As competitors kicked off the Bass Pro Tour campaign, Kevin VanDam simultaneously announced his retirement from competitive angling upon the conclusion of the season.
Hardcore fans of the sport recognize VanDam as the undisputed greatest of all time. He’s won the most individual events and tied the record for Classic victories. VanDam’s lifetime earnings dwarf all others. Quite simply, KVD is "The Man," and has been for over 30 years.
I can’t help but be saddened by this news. Recognizing VanDam’s feats in the competitive circle, I wanted to see him win one more grand title, somehow pushing him over the mark only he and Rick Clunn have ever reached. Perhaps it’s better the parallel remains.
VanDam ages guys like me. I doubt I’m alone when I profess that I can remember when VanDam came on the scene. I was a little younger but just as consumed with competitive bass fishing. Here was a true phenom – a Midwestern kid, no less – taking it to the Dixie contingent that was pro bass at the time. The thought of a northern angler, at VanDam’s age, somehow being able to compete against that far more-seasoned group was shocking.
VanDam was a dorky, lanky kid. A collared Nitro shirt hung from his frame, revealing a lackluster physique. His hat didn’t fit right. By all accounts, Kevin VanDam looked like a high school golfer.
But he came out like a lion. Remember, this was a time before college tournaments and pro-fishing dads and hand-me-down bass boats at the age of 16. This was simply and undisputedly a kid with a God-given talent. Everyone could see it.
From what I recall, VanDam’s first recognized title was that of the check record. He never missed. Again, this was a different time when the big tours were the Invitationals and Top 100s, and only a small percentage of the field went home with a payday. It was vital for any competitor to be in the check line at the end of the day. VanDam would remain in that line for years, literally, before missing.
VanDam immediately fished like a veteran. His initial wins covered the map, from Texas to Virginia to New York. Immediately, VanDam was in the running for AOY, winning that title three times in his first decade as a pro. He power-fished with spinnerbaits, some featuring wacky, hand-painted blades, and took down a Classic by flipping plastics. There was nothing VanDam couldn’t do.
VanDam would win another Classic in short order, again forcing his cast-and-retrieve style on the minuscule bass of Pittsburgh in the toughest championship of all time. For the next decade, VanDam would light up the Elite Series, winning multiple tournaments in multiple years, followed by four AOYs in a row. This was the time period when deep cranking collided with reservoirs in prime condition, bringing a new age to offshore fishing. VanDam, of course, was there to teach the master class.
It was VanDam’s style that always attracted me as a fan. At his introduction, VanDam was instrumental in catapulting bass fishing toward recognition as a true sport, his athleticism and energy undeniable. Make no mistake: Kevin VanDam was the first high-speed power fisherman in bass fishing. Other competitors would marvel at the way he moved through the water. No longer the geeky kid, KVD had become a monster. To competitors sitting atop the leaderboard, he was the Grim Reaper.
Crankbaits. That was KVD’s deal. Big-lipped, square-lipped, no-lipped. He’d win the 2010 Classic in frigidly cold conditions, forcing the lipless bite. A year later, he’d again join Clunn in capturing another record – this time back-to-back Classics by wining for a second time in New Orleans. There, his approach matched his career: spinnerbaiting to start, cranking to win.
VanDam was always ahead of the curve. He adapted faster than the others. He outworked them, outperformed. He seemed to never tire. Until, maybe, now …
The advent of Major League Fishing was perfect for VanDam’s style. Initially, he crushed them. Early broadcasts of the Cup events showed competitors constantly looking over their shoulders, watching out for VanDam. When he wasn’t winning, VanDam was making a last-minute run. These brought some of the most exciting minutes of professional fishing ever broadcast. A crankbait in Florida; who’d have thought.
I’m fairly certain my cheering personally accounted for VanDam’s last win to date, his BPT title on Chickamauga. I was horse by the end of the tournament. It was vindication to all the fans like me, sick of the techno-focused, modern pros beating up on the best in the world. Once again, KVD took it to them out on the river ledges.
I’m a selfish fan. I want to see Rick Clunn win another Bassmaster Classic and put it all to bed. I want to see KVD win 10 AOYs. No offense, Roland. Strangely, I want to see Wheeler surpass them all.
I’m in it for the athletes. Not for the love of fans, or the meet and greets, or handshakes and “approachable heroes.” I want to see validation through domination. VanDam has always given me that. Because luck ain’t got nothing to do with it.
But even I have to recognize VanDam as more than Kong. I can’t begin to do justification to the charitable and selfless work he’s contributed throughout his career. This is March of Dimes and St. Jude's-level stuff. Big dollars and big help to families facing some of the toughest times of their lives. Not to mention VanDam’s relentless commitment to conservation work.
Kevin VanDam has pushed the sport of bass fishing further than any competitor ever. He won an ESPY. His name joins the likes of Ray Scott and Johnny Morris as individuals who have brought the sport to more homes than anyone.
That’s all great, but I’m still in it for me. KVD on the bow, casting farther, moving faster. Grinding baitcast reels into oblivion. Grabbing a 4-pounder across the back. Catching, and culling, so fast that he gets annoyed by his leisurely boat official. Black and red, dressed as the undertaker.
I still have eight chances, including REDCREST. That event would give VanDam the undisputed, and likely forever lead in world championship titles.
Join with me this March as we cheer the best our sport has ever seen. It will help me hold back the tears.
(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.)