The newest BassFan reader poll grabbed my attention. What was Kevin VanDam’s greatest feat? Total wins, Classic crowns, AOYs? Or perhaps something else?
Rarely is my vote particularly meaningful. Instead, my attraction to polls is to observe the response of the readers; find out more about your view of professional bass fishing and the details you consider important.
This time, though, I contemplated my vote for some time before drawing a blank. Let’s dive deeper into KVD’s best attributes; maybe then I can reach a decision.
> 26 tour victories – This statistic is mind-boggling. Consider that many household names in bass fishing – guys with two, three million dollars in earnings – list a half-dozen wins or less on their résumés. In fact, a number of anglers with successful careers bookending VanDam’s – meaning they were there when he started, and there when he retired – have less than five major wins. Again, VanDam 26.
Winning at the professional level is extremely difficult. However, let’s get one thing straight before we go further: it’s not any more difficult today than it was 30 years ago. I see this debated all the time. The newest wave of fishing fans think that, just because Roland Martin wasn’t fishing against Kevin VanDam or Jacob Wheeler or Mike Iaconelli, that somehow it was easier to win decades ago.
That’s simply not the case. Again using Martin as an example, while he wasn’t facing the phenoms of today, just like today, he was facing the best fishermen in the country. Top anglers of the time were pushing the limits of their equipment, experimenting with new techniques, practicing harder and dedicating their lives to the pursuit of perfection, just as the world’s best are now, in order to separate themselves and dominate the sport. Their feats, then, must be gauged in the same manner.
A case in point, Rick Clunn’s early dominance of the Bassmaster Classic – racking up four wins in 15 years – was never again remotely challenged until VanDam did it in less time. As a fan, after watching multiple generations take shape and the best players change the course of the sport – as I did watching VanDam shift to Iaconelli, to Jordan Lee, to Wheeler and others – only then do you realize that it’s all the same game, just evolved to different rules.
Regardless, winning 26 times in a little over 30 years is not only unheard of, it may never again be challenged. A few anglers are young enough to make a run. Thrift and Wheeler immediately coming to mind. Others have significant wins to separate themselves; Evers is probably best paced. But 26 is still far, far off from where these anglers are currently.
> 4 Classic victories – This statistic will never be beaten, and it’s only fitting that VanDam shares it with Clunn. However, does sharing take away from the distinction?
The Bassmaster Classic is the most difficult tournament to win in modern-day professional fishing. For more insight, fans can consult Nick Taylor’s masterpiece book, Bass Wars, where Clunn’s relentless quest and final win is more closely outlined.
Classic wins, truly, make a career. At times, they can be compared to a justification of an angler’s entire life: the sacrifice, the discipline, the triumph. The thought of winning a Classic, then doing it again, is likely beyond the vast majority of competitive anglers in the world. Everything about it is different.
To win four times goes beyond reality. Such an accolade enters the realm of surrealism. Domination at a level much higher than what is capable of the vast majority of us normal human beings.
Kevin VanDam and Rick Clunn both took those aspects of the Bassmaster Classic and convinced themselves they were above them. They took out the hype, the fandom, the idea that winning depended on divine luck, and went out and beat everyone else into oblivion. I still vividly recall being present for VanDam’s last victory, and watching in awe as he played out a key plan, one that was hatched years before on prior trips to the Mississippi River Delta. VanDam took advantage of a set of conditions utilizing lures specifically designed for the task – the same way Clunn set up his final win on the James. In terms of Classic domination, no one else has even come close to these two.
> 8 AOY titles – Besides the incredible number, KVD won on two national circuits, sharing that feat with only a couple others. Most competitive anglers agree that winning the AOY title is the most difficult thing to do in fishing (though many of those have never won a Classic), and only Roland Martin tops VanDam in AOY titles. It’s interesting to note that VanDam and Martin are the only two anglers to win three in a row.
Judging the feats of these two must consider how fishing has changed with the advent of multiple circuits. Here, I confess, things today aren’t what they used to be in terms of statistics.
In the early days of competitive fishing, all of the best national anglers competed on one platform. Then, an angler who won the AOY could honestly say he beat all of the top pros in America. Today, not so much.
Recent winners of the Bass Pro Tour AOY didn’t beat the best of B.A.S.S., and vice-versa. That leaves an asterisk in the overall significance of the title. Moving forward, it will be tough to convince statistic junkies like me that any AOY today is as accurate a measure of career dominance as it was in the days of Roland and Kevin.
But, in the end, VanDam fell short of the overall title. Does that take away from the feat?
> The earnings and more – VanDam has nearly doubled every other top player in the sport in terms of earnings. This comes as a result of his performance as both a winner and a ceaseless check-casher. Early in his career, VanDam never missed a check, and often garnered a top finish. In fact, VanDam’s résumé lists 125 t]Top-10s. I’m sure this is a statistic that will never be surpassed, leading to his phenomenal bankroll.
In the end, the money category can’t be taken into consideration as the top feat. I mean, back in the day, guys were fishing tournaments where fifth place was a set of tires. If a new circuit comes out tomorrow offering million-dollar prizes, the whole thing turns upside down.
VanDam’s other “best of”, and one that must be considered, is his work in developing his likeness and name recognition. Perhaps again only Roland and Bill Dance top VanDam as the most recognizable characters in the history of the sport, the early pioneers owing their remarkable popularity to television at a time when no other media was available.
VanDam has built a tremendous following through both tournament performance and appearances. I can remember attending a B.A.S.S. event after VanDm had left for the BPT, and still a majority of the fans I spoke with mentioned how anxious they were to see KVD, oblivious to the fact that he wasn’t competing.
KVD has become an acronym for fast-paced bass fishing, and one that will hold for quite some time after his departure. That fact must be recognized in his contributions to the sport.
So there you have it – a more in-depth look from a guy that’s been around a while. Puts me in a perfect position to vote. Which I will.
Once I decide.
Long live the King.
(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.)