(Editor's note: In observance of Labor Day, BassFan's top news story won't change until Tuesday.)
Kevin VanDam's list of accomplishments is vast. From his rookie-season Angler of the Year (AOY) title, to his four other AOY titles, two Classic wins and nearly $4 million in career winnings, he's the most recognizable face in the sport.
He'll launch his boat onto Alabama's Lake Jordan a week from now as the official practice begins for the inaugural 2009 Toyota Trucks BASS Championship Week.
BassFan spoke with VanDam about this year's title – whether his desire to win has wavered at all, plus what he thinks of the field, the venue, the format and more. His answers appear in the Q&A that follows.
BassFan: You already have
five AOY titles – four with BASS, one with FLW. With all that you've accomplished, has your thirst to win another title diminished even somewhat?
VanDam: No – I think it's probably gotten stronger. The longer I do it, the more I appreciate the magnitude of winning a tournament, or a title, or a championship or anything. So I'd say that my desire is just as strong, but the title's more meaningful now. It's harder to win than it's ever been, and it gets harder every year.
Why do you think it's harder? Is the competition more intense across the entire field, or are you saying that the top tier or 20 of so guys has gotten that much better?
I think the whole group is (that much better). That's just a product of the times more than anything. There's so much more information. Technology's better – mapping, GPS, sonar, trolling motors, boats, engines, lures, rods and reels, everything. That doesn't make it any easier (to win a title), but it makes you much more efficient as an angler. It makes everybody more efficient.
And the guys who've really embraced that have really taken off. Take a look at side-imaging sonar. That's a big-time change in fishing. Some places like Erie, if you don't have that, you're at a disadvantage. The Navionics chip's another really good example. So are the rods and reels. With the crankbait rod I developed, I can throw 15 to 20 yards further than I could previously. That translates into your crankbait running 3 feet deeper and being in the strike zone longer.
All those things just make you more efficient.
And it seems that younger pros face less of a learning curve with so much information out there.
Yes. The thing is, the knowledge is there, but you still have to apply it. Without a doubt, though, the field is a whole lot better than they've ever been.
Competition drives competition. The better one guy gets, or if one guy gets better at a certain technique, that drives the other people to be better.
You've managed to grow your accomplishments – "get better," as you say. Is that because you're able to stay at the forefront of equipment development, but also because you're able to find and exploit bites others can't?
I think so. I don't look for the obvious anymore, because very seldom does it pay off. It can occasionally, and it's bit me a few times, but for the most part, those places that are on the Navionics chip – the obvious places like community holes and stuff – it's just really hard to win on any of that.
So what you have to do is look for obscure stuff – ugly banks, and patterns that might not be predominant, but are just developing or just ending – things a lot of other people aren't targeting.
A lot of that has to do with lake conditions and time of year. You can go to Kentucky Lake and know that yeah, it'll be a ledge bite in June and there's plenty of water from the dam to way south. But some of the places we go, that's not quite the case, and you kind of look for a secondary pattern and try to make it primary.
VanDam says he'll reserve judgment on the new AOY format until after all is said and done.
Championship Week will be a little different in that regard, because it's only 12 guys.
The amount of pressure isn't going to be as big a factor, but I can promise you there'll be plenty of guys in that Top 12 fishing the same spots.
It's September. What do you anticipate for the bite in Alabama?
I think overall it'll be tough. I think there's potentially going to be windows of opportunity based on current or weather, where you might be able to have a flurry. But for the most part, it's summer there and it's not an easy time of the year.
How about Lake Jordan? Both Classics there were before your time, but you fished two tour events there earlier this decade. Are you thinking spotted bass? Largemouths?
Jordan's a unique lake in that the upper half is more river-like, and then the lower half is more like a Lake Martin or highland reservoir deal. And it has that shoregrass the Coosa River does, like in Lay, so there's potentially that for largemouths and spotted bass.
Then they're talking about drawing the lake down while we're there – toward winter pool – which could help create some current and improve the bite.
I think for a small lake it's got a lot of diversity to it. I hate to miss out on a certain pattern, but it's going to be one of those places where that's going to happen. One or two patterns are going to develop as the winning pattern for that lake. There's the potential to be quite a few, but one or two will probably dominate the event. It can change from day to day – even hour to hour – but you want to be on the right thing at the right time.
And how about the Alabama River?
It's really pretty big. Overall it's pretty long. But there's not a lot to it. There are some shallow backwaters, but there's not a lot of ledges. There's some scattered stuff along the banks, but it's not easy to just pull up and fish and catch them. You have to move around a lot and fish multiple spots and different patterns. That's not easy.
I can't remember how it fished (in 2004), but (in 2003) it had a flood and there was a ton of current and the fish bit well and I made the finals. In that tournament, largemouths played a big role. So there's the potential to win it either way.
Myself, I like to do so many different things that it makes me a little bit nervous about which way to start. I like fishing for spots, I like throwing a crankbait out there, I like topwater, I like to skip docks, I like to flip a jig. For somebody like Tommy Biffle – he knows what he's going to do. He's going to fish shallow. But those practice days are going to be real critical for me.
The weather might not play a big factor – I don't know, I haven't looked at it yet – but it's typically hard to predict what Alabama Power is going to do. They might not follow the schedule, and most of the time when they generate is when we're off the water anyway. And you never know, we might get a tropical storm that comes in. Typically, though, it's real hot and the fish aren't really active – they're scattered and suspended, which makes for a tough bite.
Fishing has never had a true rivalry, like Magic vs. Bird, Pearson vs. Petty or McEnroe vs. Connors. The closest might be you and Skeet Reese – you've battled it out for AOY 2 of the last 3 years. Do you see any type of rivalry growing there?
I think the media makes it a lot bigger than what it is. Skeet and I are pretty good friends. I think we're both very competitive. I know he wants to beat me on a daily basis, and I'm out there trying to win. The better the field is, the more it motivates me to raise my game too. It's fun, without a doubt.
And with this (AOY) format here, I'll tell you that Skeet and I have a lot more to worry about than each other. The way the points system works, anybody could walk away with the championship, whereas in the old system, it would have probably been between Skeet and I – although I don't know exactly where Alton (Jones) is. It's opened the door for a lot more than just Skeet and I in this deal.
Speaking of that, what are your thoughts on the new AOY format, which now seems permanent? Do you like it?
I think people, as a whole, tend to really like things the way they were. I'm a big NASCAR fan. I really liked NASCAR before the Sprint Cup Chase. But since they implemented it, I can't imagine it any other way.
The big difference between NASCAR or the NHL or NBA (and fishing) is the playoff series. The post-season is longer – there are more games or events. That's one thing that concerns me here. You're basically starting everybody at equal and having a 4-day shootout for AOY.
I think it's a great format, but I just struggle with calling it AOY. I'll have a better feel for it after this one's over – we'll see how it all plays out. It's so new to us that I don't think I've seen one angler make a real positive comment about the format, because we just haven't been through it. I haven't read anything about anybody jumping up and down with how excited they are about it. It's new, and it's one of those things where we'll have to wait and see.
I will say this, though, they (BASS) wanted to create some more intensity and excitement over the AOY, and this has done that. I know for the anglers, especially, from the first event of the season, that's what was talked about. So (BASS) has accomplished what they were trying to do. Just look at the amount of media this week leading up to it, and Parade magazine is going to be there. That's a big deal. It's like nothing that's ever happened in our sport.
We'll have to wait and see when it's over. Maybe we'll say, "Hey, those guys (at BASS) are geniuses." Either way, you have to give them credit for trying something different.