Kevin VanDam was DQd from this week's Santee Cooper Bassmaster Elite Series for a violation of BASS Rule 12, which prohibits non-boaters from
operating the boat during practice or competition, except during trailer loading/unloading or emergency situations.
Prior to the 2005 season, the rule did not specifically mention practice. The 2004 BASS Rule 11 (Boat Operation and Expense) stated: "In boater/non-boater events, boaters will fish from the front deck, non-boaters from the rear deck, no exceptions. Non-boaters are only allowed to drive the boat in emergency situations."
For the 2005 season, Rule 11 was tweaked to state: "In pro-am type events, pros will fish from the front deck, non-boaters from the rear deck, no exceptions. Non-boaters are only allowed to drive the boat in emergency situations in both practice and competition with the exception of loading and unloading from trailers."
That same rule became Rule 12 for this year's Elite Series.
BassFan spoke with VanDam, who was driving home from South Carolina. He corroborated a story published by BASS that described the infraction.
VanDam confirmed that on Monday, which was day 1 of official practice, he did ask his non-boater Jim Stawiarski to operate the boat while he looked for beds.
At least one other angler observed the infraction and reported VanDam to BASS officials. Anglers must report infractions, because BASS Rule 3 (Practice and Competition) states, in part: "Each competitor agrees to report to the tournament director any violation or infraction of any tournament rules. Failure to report violations, or suggestions to another competitor that he or she violate these rules, or false verification of weigh-in forms will be cause for disqualification."
Tournament director Trip Weldon was notified of the infraction, then called VanDam to verify it.
"Trip called me and asked me if I was on the front deck and if I allowed my partner to run the boat," VanDam said. "I told him, 'Yeah.'
"He told me it was a violation of Rule 12. I got the rules out, looked at it, and said, 'You're right.'
"I didn't realize I broke a rule. I was shocked. I made a mistake in not thoroughly understanding the rules. I definitely didn't do it on purpose."
BASS reported that Weldon ruled for the full-event DQ – rather than just a day-1 DQ – because the advantage VanDam gained in practice could be exercised throughout the whole event.
BassFan asked VanDam if he agreed with the ruling of a full DQ. He said: "He's the tournament director, and that discretion is up to him. Obviously, I'm going to be biased in that. I understand the job he's got is hard to do, and I don't believe it was a fun time for him either.
"I just have to look forward to Guntersville and doing the best I can there."
The full DQ means VanDam will accrue zero Angler of the Year (AOY) points for this event, which pays $100,000 for 1st place this year. It doesn't immediately prohibit him from winning AOY, since there's eight more events this season, but statistically it would be extremely difficult for him to win, particularly with the smaller field this year.
He's currently ranked No. 2 in the BassFan World Rankings, and the DQ will hurt him there too, though how much remains to be seen. Greg Hackney is above him in the World Rankings, but no one else is really near him. Still, as a general rule, those at the top can't afford major lapses.
Sitting out Santee won't affect his 2006 Bassmaster Majors qualifications, since his position atop the BASS all-time money-earnings list assures him a spot in each of this year's three Majors.
The DQ could hurt him severely next year though. Here's why. He must finish 36th or better in this season's AOY points to fish the 2007 Classic, though he could also make the Classic through the Bassmaster Northern and Southern Tours, the ESPN Outdoors Bassmaster Series or even via the BASS Federation Nation.
And to fish the 2007 Majors, he must average 47th or better in combined 2006/2007 AOY standings prior to each Major, or qualify as a 2006 Major champion.
The good news is it appears he's safe when it comes to requalifying for the 2007 Elite Series. Even if he finished below 70th in the AOY points – which is the cutoff point for Elite Series requalification – he would be able to exercise his Elite Series exemption as 2005 Classic champion.
Weldon noted in a BASS story that the Boat Operation rule was specifically amended to cover the situation of bed-fishing. Anglers who idle with the big motor are at a disadvantage to others who spot fish from the front deck while another person tends the motor.
And another "bed-fishing" rule exists within BASS Rule 7 (Tackle and Equipment), which states, in part: "When visually fishing for bedding bass, to be counted as a legal fish all bass must be hooked inside the mouth and must be verified by your partner before being unhooked."
Some have raised the point that bed-fishing creates an unnecessary gray area within the rules. If an angler is crankbait fishing, for example, the fish need not be hooked within the mouth. In fact, it's common to hook crankbait fish – especially smallmouths – outside the mouth, since they often slap prey to momentarily stun it.
But when throwing to a fish on a bed, the fish must be hooked inside the mouth. That leaves the definition of a bedding fish up to each angler and non-boater.
> BassFan currently has a request in to BASS to speak with Weldon concerning the ruling.
> VanDam said this is his first-ever DQ.
> Non-boaters are sent the rules prior to each event, and Stawiarski was also DQd. VanDam said the two are friends. "I know him – I fished with him some years ago at a Top 100 at Lake Russell. I feel bad for him too. Neither one of us thoroughly knew the rule."
> VanDam is in 2nd place, behind Greg Hackney, in both the World Rankings and Elite Series points.
> BassFan News is brought to you by Rapala.