Thursday Throwback – Kevin VanDam – Living Legend

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Kevin VanDam Up Close - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Kevin VanDam Up Close – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

Once again, we take a step back in time with our own Throwback Thursday look at one of Advanced Angler’s managing editor, Dan O’Sullivan’s most beloved columns.  His Legends of the Sport features from his days as Field Editor of Bass West USA Magazine remain some of the favorite he’s written throughout his career.  He has said that he wanted “Legends” to be something that people could look back on and see the greatness of not only the subject being written about, but also the sport.

Today, we look back to 2009, and his piece about Kevin VanDam.  2009 was prior to VanDam hitting a stride that would carry him three years, earn him two more Bassmaster Classic Championships (2010 and 2011) and three of his four consecutive Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles (2008, 20o9, 2010 and 2011).  But, to take a look back at VanDam’s career is worthwhile, at any stage.

Please enjoy our Throwback Thursday look at Kevin VanDam – Legend of the Sport

by Dan O’Sullivan

According to online dictionaries, the term ‘Legend’ has several meanings, it can mean; ‘an unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical.’ It might mean; ‘An explanatory table or list of the symbols appearing on a map or chart.’ Or in the case of the bass fishing world, a ‘Legend’ is; ‘one that inspires legends or achieves legendary fame.’

A Legend of the sport is someone who has made significant contributions or achieved uncommon accomplishments en route to leaving an indelible mark on the history of the sport. These are individuals who have set new standards, created new trends and driven the bar to new heights as they have blazed the trails of their careers.

Without these individuals, the sport of bass fishing would have nothing to measure itself against. The industry, minus their involvement, would likely be in a much less advanced state than it is. The

Kevin VanDam Lands Ocho Bass - Photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Kevin VanDam Lands Ocho Bass – Photo by Dan O’Sullivan

drive of dominating competition, on and off the water has left a trail of history that many are witness to, yet few are a component of.

One of those anglers is Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich.

VanDam by the Numbers
To truly appreciate VanDam’s career, one must begin with the statistics that have set the standard by which all other professional bass anglers are measured. In a BASS career that began with an entry into the 1987 New York Invitational on the St. Lawrence River, VanDam has collected 173 paychecks in a total of 212 entries, meaning he has been in the money nearly 82 percent of the time.

In those 173 paycheck finishes, VanDam has racked up 129 top 20 finishes, 79 of them in the top 10, sixteen 3rd place finishes, nine 2nd place finishes and 14 wins. His victories include two Bassmaster Classic Championships in 19 trips to the event, the 2001 Classic in New Orleans, La. at the Louisiana Delta and in 2005 at Three Rivers in Pittsburgh, Penn.

In a career that spans 19 years, VanDam has been the Bassmaster Angler of the Year four times. He claimed the title in 1992, his second season on the Bassmaster Tour. He backed that up with titles in 1996, 1999, and again in 2008, where he was the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year on the Bassmaster Elite Series.

When the topic of multiple Bassmaster Classic championships and Angler of the Year titles comes up, VanDam is in exclusive company. Only nine anglers have won the Angler of the Year title more than once, his name is on a list with Davy Hite (two times), Mark Davis (three times), Guido Hibdon (two times), Gary Klein (two times), Larry Nixon (two times), Jimmy Houston (two times) Bill Dance (three times) and of course Roland Martin who won the title a record nine times.

Kevin VanDam takes Aim - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Kevin VanDam takes Aim – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

To be among repeat winners of the Bassmaster Classic list is an even more exclusive club. VanDam is one of only four anglers to have won the prestigious event more than once. Bobby Murray won the first Bassmaster Classic in 1971, and then won again in 1978. Hank Parker claimed the crown in 1979, then again in 1989. Then of course the name Rick Clunn is in the record books four times, having won the Classic in 1976, 1977, 1984 and again in 1990.

As far as anglers who have claimed both titles, VanDam is again in an exclusive neighborhood. He is one of 11 individuals who have claimed both titles. Along with him, Skeet Reese, Mike Iaconelli, Jay Yelas, Denny Brauer, David Fritts, and the aforementioned Hite, Davis, Clunn and Parker.

While the focus of his professional career has been the Bassmaster Tournament Trail, VanDam has shown his excellence on the FLW Tour as well. In 18 tournaments on the FLW Tour and two trips to the Forrest Wood Cup, he has finished in the top 10 eight times, earning himself the FLW Tour Angler of the Year title in 2001in the process.

His career made of dominating the competition has produced impressive bank statements as well. His career earnings in BASS competition totals $3,264,958, which ranks him first on the career earnings list. Those monies, when coupled with $370,950 in FLW earnings, it brings his total career earnings to more than $3.6 million.

Kevin VanDam Topwater Retrieve - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Kevin VanDam Topwater Retrieve – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

With all of the statistics compiled, even more impressive is the fact that VanDam is never easily overlooked when pundits are asked to handicap a tournament. No matter what body of water, or what state the tournament is being held in, the angler, who was known early in his career as ‘ The Kalamazoo Kid’ is always considered amongst the candidates to win. The other measure of VanDam’s reach is that his competitors are always aware of his position, and that even when he looks like he is out of contention, they don’t count him out.

The comparison of VanDam’s influence on the sport of professional bass fishing as to Tiger Woods’ on golf has been made on many occasions, and in perspective there may be no better comparison. More often than not, he is in the neighborhood of winning fish, and his ability to make them strike is almost inhuman, his instincts are finely tuned, and his approach is efficient and

fast. Coupled with his skill is an almost unnatural drive to succeed, despite his truckloads of accomplishments, and it all results in a man with the skills and knowledge to win that possesses a ruthless killer instinct.

All of these attributes combine to make the most feared angler in the sport; and it all started at in his youth..

The Beginnings
The roots of his desire to win can be traced back to his family, “I come from an incredibly competitive family,” said the 41-year-old pro. “My dad, my brothers and sisters are always competing against each other in one way or another, my wife Sherry is always laughing about it.”

While his spouse might find reason to chuckle about his family’s drive to win, his upbringing is responsible for the drive he feels to win; “I have always been serious about winning, from the time I was a kid, I wanted to come out on top,” revealed VanDam. “I played baseball Little League, all the way to my sophomore year in high school, when my coach and I argued about how much time I spent fishing, he told me fishing would never take me anywhere, so I quit baseball.”

Kevin VanDam Lunker Landing - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Kevin VanDam Lunker Landing – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

Leaving the baseball diamond, and the fact that he didn’t play any other team sports because, “they cut into my time for hunting and fishing,” left the young VanDam with plenty of time to enjoy the out of doors in pursuit of fish and game; and he did so, anytime he had the chance.

“Growing up in Michigan allowed me to fish for a bunch of different species in all sorts of waterways,” said VanDam of his youth spent fishing in his home state. “I fished in clear water, dirty water, smooth bottoms rocky bottoms and weedy lakes and rivers too. I targeted Muskie, Pike, Trout, Bass and anything else that swims in the waterways of Michigan; in fact I think it’s the variety of my experience as a youngster that has helped me compete across the country over the years.”

Competing on the water would come sooner for VanDam than most people; he would fish his first tournament at 14 years old with his brother Randy. However, even before he fished competitively,

he would practice with his brother for his tournaments. “Randy [who owns D&R Sports Center in Kalamazoo, Mich. a Tracker Marine and Triton Boats Dealer as well as a fishing and hunting retailer] would come back from the tournaments and I would ask him how it went,” but his questioning was more than a casual inquiry. “I would ask him if he caught fish on the docks or specific pieces of structure; I would basically thoroughly interrogate him. My dad has always done the same thing when he practiced with me.”

His first tournament with his older brother was a testament to his competitive nature. “It’s actually kind of a neat story,” VanDam said of the experience. “We finished the event in 2nd place, Randy

Kevin VanDam with Sexy Shad Bass Vertical - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Kevin VanDam with Sexy Shad Bass Vertical – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

paid for everything, but I caught all of the fish, so I thought that meant I got to keep all of the winnings; it took our friend Don, who I fished team tournaments with for years after that, to explain everything to me; I reluctantly returned Randy’s half of the money to him after Don’s explanation.”

It was within the next two years that VanDam later joined his local bass club; he fished as a non-boater for the first ear, but soon realized that he wanted to be fishing from the front of the boat. “After being in the back of the boat for a year, I grew tired of not being able to make my own decisions, so I became a boater for my second year,” the VanDam domination would become evident in that early season. “I won Angler of the Year that next season, and decided it was the way I wanted to fish from that point on.”

He would take his show on the road not too long after that, turning his attention to the Bassmaster Federation tournaments not soon after that season, and he would qualify for his Divisional, but

decided the team concept wasn’t for him that year. “I found a bunch of flipping fish in Alum Creek that year, and after sharing them with the team, they ended up burning them quickly,” so he made the decision to go on his own. “I decided to go to the next level as soon as I could.”

VanDam would enter his first Bassmaster Invitational when he was 18 years old, and he quickly found out that he was capable of making things work on his own. “I drew Ron Shearer in that first tournament at Lake Ontario, and he talked me out of going to my fish,” VanDam said. “I didn’t do so well that day, I only caught one, but went to my fish the next day and did better.”

The next year, he would fish his first full year on the Invitationals, finish as the points leader which qualified him to fish the Bassmaster Tour and qualify for the Classic for the first time, on the Chesapeake Bay in New York. The next year, he would secure his first Angler of the Year title on the Bassmaster Tour; the ‘Kalamazoo Kid’ was born, and the legend of the world’s best bass angler,

KVD was about to grab the fishing world by storm.

Kevin VanDam Lunker in Livewell - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Kevin VanDam Lunker in Livewell – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

KVD Style
When it comes to fishing techniques, every bass pro has a signature technique; one with which they become defined. For VanDam, the thing most anglers and fans notice is how fast he fishes. From his perspective, his style is not because of anyone else’s influence on him, but merely just an extension of who he is, and his experiences as an angler.

“I’m not one to sit around,” VanDam revealed. “My fishing style is one that fits me, I move quickly and efficiently, trying to cover as much water as possible, as efficiently as I can, so I’ve developed

a style that works for me.”

He also said it is a result of fishing over his head as much as possible. “I’ve always felt that the best way to improve was to fish with and against people who had the capabilities to beat me,” he revealed. “In order to stay ahead of them, I needed to strike faster and more often, so I did what I could to stay one step ahead of them.”

VanDam has also had a reputation for being a quick study, as proved by an experience at New York’s Thousand Islands during his first year on the tour. “I drew Dave Fenton, an angler from Texas, he was in 3rd place and I was in 12th place, so I chose to go with him to his largemouth in the backwaters instead of my smallmouth in the lake,” said VanDam. “He was throwing a Sluggo, so I picked that up, and finished 3rd in that tournament, and used that bait a lot over the next few years.”

One of the other elements of his style is that, like so many of the other successful anglers out there, he spent most of his early years fishing head to head in the boat. “My personal opinion is that the


A Legacy in Merchandise
The three letters KVD have become associated with winning and speed. When he burst onto the scene in the early nineties, VanDam was known for his penchant with a spinnerbait. His aggressive attack on bass with the bladed baits has been the subject of many articles and videos. VanDam worked with Strike King to develop spinnerbaits that would fit in with his philosophy of throwing them.
However, in the past few years, VanDam has built a reputation for throwing crankbaits; Strike King Series 5 and Red Eye Shad lipless crankbaits in particular. In the past two seasons on the Bassmaster Elite Series, VanDam has won four events, and each of them had crankbaits at the forefront of the wins.
At Lake Guntersville in Alabama and Grand Lake in Oklahoma in 2007, VanDam used a Series 5 and Series 6 crankbait to probe offshore ledges and structure to best the field. At Florida’s Kissimmee Chain he turned to a Strike King Red Eye Shad and at Kentucky Lake in 2008, the Series 5 once again proved to be the dominant lure.
In those four wins, the Kalamazoo pro used a new color that he developed with the designers at Strike King. The color, which longtime friend, Mark Zona would call Sexy Shad when he saw the prototypes, would become a phenomenon in the lure business. Strike King has said that they have difficulty keeping the color in stock, no matter what lure they paint it on.
He is one of the sport’s anglers who can drive consumer response with one tournament. From Quantum to Strike King to Bass Pro Shops, VanDam’s sponsors are often the recipients of a surge of post tournament sales. His signature products are among the most popular on the market today.

newer, Pro Am style of tournaments doesn’t have the same effect of teaching anglers to fish as hard, nor are they as competitive as they used to be,” VanDam opined. “I’ve fished against many of our top anglers head to head in the boat, and it helped me learn to make more casts, be more accurate, and cover water faster than my competitors. I’m glad we don’t fish that way anymore, but it certainly helped make me the angler I am today.”

While he has been a fixture on the Bassmaster Tour for 19 years, his family has been in the fishing industry for much longer than his professional angling career. The family’s proximity to the

business allowed him to rub shoulders with some of the sport’s greats for many years.

“We started selling Tracker Boats in 1987, and when Johnny Morris bought Nitro boats we got to interact with some of the anglers that I had grown up watching,” VanDam said. “When I went on tour, I was running a Nitro so I kind of got lumped into their group, because I was fishing with those same guys.”

VanDam said that the Nitro team was an amazing group, and being around anglers like Tommy Martin, Larry Nixon, Rick Clunn, Lendell Martin, Penny Berryman and Woo Daves left an indelible impression on the young pro. “Tommy [Martin] and Larry [Nixon] were always there to assist me,” VanDam said of his early mentors. “They helped me to understand the business side of the game,

I learned a lot from all of them, but those two were always there.”

He said that he didn’t have a lot of interaction with Clunn in his first year, at first he pondered as to why, but as he would find out later it was Clunn’s respect for the integrity of competition. “Rick and I were locked in a battle for the Angler of the Year title in 1992, and he didn’t say much to me,” VanDam said. “But after the season, he explained that it was his way of trying to keep the pressure off of me, and trying to maintain the integrity of the competition. Rick has a real respect for the game; I learned that then, and I’ve learned a lot from him over the years.

Another competitor that VanDam has taken some lessons from is Strike King Lures teammate, Denny Brauer, “He and I have become pretty good friends over the years,” VanDam said of Brauer.

“Denny is still one of the hardest working anglers out there, he puts his time in, practicing from dawn to dark, he fishes to win, and it’s a great example of how it should be done, I only hope I feel the same drive when I’ve been competing as long as he has.”

Defining Moments
For an angler who can be characterized as the definition of a professional angler, VanDam said that winning his first Bassmaster Classic championship is the defining moment of his career.

“Winning the Angler of the Year title is important, and it signifies consistent excellence, but winning the Classic is what really put the icing on the cake in my career,” said the two-time Bassmaster Classic champion. “Winning in 2001 in New Orleans really caught me off guard, but the more in sunk in, the more I realized how much it meant to my career.”

Part of the reason it was a big deal to VanDam, was because it was his 11th trip to the tournament, and early in the week, the late Tim Tucker, Bassmaster Senior Writer asked him what it meant to be the best angler who had not yet won a Classic; the question hit him hard. “Tim wasn’t trying to embarrass me, he was just doing his job, but the question really stung me,” he revealed. “To win it that year really put an exclamation point on my career, and then to win again in 2005, meant the world as well.”

That’s not to say that the definition of his incredible career has been completed, and it was his 3rd place finish at the 2008 Classic at Lake Hartwell in Greenville, S.C. that proves just how much VanDam wants to win. Having left stage moments after his final weight of 43 pounds, 8 ounces had been eclipsed by 2nd place finisher Cliff Pace of Petal, Miss. VanDam walked down the tunnel in the bowels of Greenville’s Bi-Lo Center toward the media center and press room where only moments later eventual Champion Alton Jones would be giving his Champion’s Press Conference.

Instead of striding into the media center to face the dozens of media awaiting the details of the angler’s patterns, VanDam stopped short in the concrete tunnel, stood by the entrance and watched as people scurried for the best position in the press room.

VanDam Family 2001 Bassmaster Classic

Family Business (photo courtesy Bassmaster)
Like most of the successful anglers in the business, VanDam’s schedule is tightly packed with appearances and appointments. With all of the distractions it’s a wonder that he can maintain his competitive drive and focus to continue winning. He gives a lot of the credit for that to his wife Sherry.
“Sherry acts as my business manager,” VanDam said. “Along with taking care of Jackson and Nicholas, (their twin sons) she makes sure my schedule is maintained, and that all of my requirements are met. She really allows me to focus on my fishing and doesn’t let any of the details slip by the wayside.
He also said she looks out for his sanity and the well being of the family. “The demand on my time is such that if I didn’t schedule time off, I wouldn’t get any,” he reported. “Sherry makes sure that we take the time we need as a family to enjoy each other’s company and make sure we have the rest we need; I couldn’t do this without her.”

As he was approached for questions by one reporter, VanDam began to speak, then stopped mid-sentence and turned his eyes to the floor. When his eyes returned to the reporter’s, they were moist with frustration. He changed what he intended to say and instead said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been more disappointed after a Bassmaster Classic,” said a letdown VanDam. “When my practice was over, I knew I was on the fish to win, in fact I’ve never felt so confident about it, and I’m truly disappointed with my performance.”

Having just finished a Bassmaster Classic in 3rd place, a position that most anglers would deem as a career high, VanDam was left with a feeling of regret. He was one of the first anglers to greet and congratulate Jones that day, his respect for the accomplishment creating a need to express it to the winner. However, anyone within reach could sense the feeling of competitive drive building within him.

VanDam would go on to win two tournaments on the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2008, and as the 11 event season wound to a close, he would hold his fourth Bassmaster Angler of the Year trophy aloft in triumph.

“I don’t really stop and think about goals or my legacy,” VanDam said in closing. “I fish hard, I fish to win, and I hope that one day, when my career is over people will see that I did it right. “I don’t have a concern about records, I do this because I love to do it, when I feel like it is a grind to get out of bed in the morning, I’ll quit. I will go out the same way I have for the last 20 years, to try and win; it’s the best way I know to respect the sport.”