October 26, 2021
It's hard to slow professional bass angler Kevin VanDam down, even when autumn temperatures slow nature's rhythms. VanDam's ability to work large expanses of water quickly, find bass and dial in the pattern for the day has framed his legacy, and the whole concept of "power fishing" is exemplified in his aggressive, find-em-fast approach.
Fall is the Michigan native's favorite time to fish waters in his home state. Wherever he fishes, though, finding bass is always the first order of business. After assessing seasonal patterns and the current weather and water conditions, he identifies high-percentage target areas—contours, irregularities and other key structural elements—on high-definition Humminbird LakeMaster maps.
Then he hunts for the missing link. In the fall, this predominantly means bait. On reservoirs in the South, he keys on shad or whatever the main baitfish species is. On some of his favorite northern Michigan lakes, on the other hand, it might be perch, emerald shiners or gobies—not to mention crawfish, which fat smallmouths love. In general, he says, once you find the bait, you’ll find the bass.
KVD fine-tunes both his senses and his electronics for forage cues. On the electronics side, he uses the Mega 360 Imaging on his Humminbird to find structure and deep vegetation that he couldn’t otherwise see. With his eyes, meanwhile, he searches for weed clumps, sand edges or drop-offs that he can see without electronics.
Once he's narrowed down where to fish, VanDam decides which power-fishing tactic he'll employ. In particular, he has adapted three popular techniques to best fit his trademark approach.
Most anglers are at least somewhat familiar with the drop-shot rig. It's a potent finesse tactic, particularly for fish in clear, deep water (though it works well in many scenarios). However, KVD has his own twist on this presentation, one that turns this prototypical finesse rig into a deadly power-fishing tool.
"A drop-shot is something I have tied on all the time wherever I go, because it is so efficient," VanDam says. "But I've adapted it to my style. 'Power-shotting' is what I call it, and it fits very nicely into the way I fish. It’s faster than fishing a tube or a Ned rig."
He calls it "a presentation for all scenarios" and lauds its versatility and inherent advantages. With its heavy weight, it gets the bait to the bottom quickly whether he is fishing two feet of water or 40. It also puts a wide range of soft plastics in play, imparts outstanding action with the weight positioned below and is difficult for a hooked fish to throw.
"You can cover water shallow to deep—and fast," VanDam says. "But you still can make a very subtle 'finesse' presentation with it, too."
Favored power-shot baits include the Strike King Z-Too and Baby Z-Too and the Strike King Dream Shot and Fat Baby Finesse Worm. He opts for a Mustad Grip-Pin Edge Hook for Texas-rigged baits. Regarding bait selection, VanDam says he's always trying to determine the mood of the fish and then offer up something natural, but with a really enticing action that can also generate reaction strikes.
With this tactic, long casts to a grass edge or a drop-off are the norm. VanDam allows the bait to fall vertically but then tightens his line to add tension the last stretch of the fall.
"When it gets to the bottom, I'll work it a little bit, shake it three or four times, then reel it in. Work it a little bit, pick it up, do it again," he explains. "I am trying to cover water. Every 40 feet or so along this drop, my bait is hitting bottom. If I know fish are there, I’ll be more thorough, work the bait a little more, try to get finicky fish to bite."
His drop-shot weights vary from 1/8 to 1/2 ounce depending on conditions. His advice is to use a weight just heavy enough to maintain good bottom contact.
At the heart of most jerkbait discussions is the retrieve, and VanDam's propensity for erratically working a jerkbait is pretty much common knowledge among bass fans. The pro angler likes to start with hard, almost violent downward snaps of the rod.
"Fishing cold water in the spring for pre-spawn largemouths, I deliver a subtle jerk. But fall smallmouths want a real aggressive presentation," he says. "The bait needs to jump around and be real erratic."
He varies his cadence, mixing single thrusts with pairs and triples, until fish demonstrate a preference. He starts and finishes each jerk with slack in the line, a practice he underscores emphatically.
"Point the rod at the bait with some slack, snap it and point the rod right back at the bait," he says. "That makes the bait jump quickly, but not too far."
Jerkbaits shine in the upper Midwest's deep, clear smallmouth waters. VanDam says the way the lure angles off and darts erratically does a great job of attracting fish from a distance in these water bodies.
The pro has designed three sizes of lures for Strike King's KVD Jerkbait line. The two-trebled 200 Series works to 3- or 4-foot depths. The three-hooked 300 Series dives to 6-foot depths and works well over deeper submerged vegetation. The latest addition, the KVD Deep Jerkbait, extends reach to 12-foot depths.
"The critical point is to pick a bait that stays over the top of the fish in the depth zone you are fishing," VanDam says.
Clear water calls for long casts and natural colors that match the hue and patterns of the perch, smelt, shad, emerald shiners or other forage bass may be keying on. In off-color water, he turns to baits with bright colors like chartreuse—say a Sexy Shad or a bait with added flash.
"If my graph shows baitfish off the bottom, the jerkbait is going to be really effective," VanDam adds. "If they are up on the flats, it still will be an efficient bait. The biggest thing I look for is water clear enough at the depth zone where the fish can see it."
New designs and heavier baits have expanded the range of the popular bladed jig's effectiveness. Today, the bladed jig is one of VanDam's favorite fall baits.
"Before, the bladed jig was something I would throw in shallower water, especially around vegetation," he says, reaching for a hefty version of the Strike King Thunder Cricket Vibrating Jig. "But I can throw this 3/4-ounce bait a little deeper. Bass are attracted to the vibration it gives off and the flash. And this heavier size gets down."
The larger 5/8- and 3/4-ounce Thunder Crickets become primary "power" tools in fall when baitfish hover over deeper structure. VanDam especially likes fishing bladed jigs in the center of the water column, as the vibration has a lot of drawing power that attracts and catches quite a few fish. His primary trailer for the Thunder Cricket is a 3 1/4-inch Strike King Rage Swimmer. He selects his jig and trailer components to match favored forage.
"This is one of my favorites," he says, holding up a colorful bluegill pattern by the blade. "It looks like a perch or a bluegill, or even a crawfish. I can cast and let it sink, then crawl it just above bottom—slow-roll it. It just has a great feel."
Just as the vibrating jig performs well in shallow vegetation, so too will it produce results in deeper cover. For deep grass, VanDam recommends getting the bait down into the weeds and ripping it out. Shake it and twitch it. He adds that oftentimes these baits—and particularly the Thunder Cricket—will bring in larger-than-average-sized fish, which is never a bad thing.
Power-fishing techniques enable VanDam to filter water, find fish and home in on productive patterns quickly. If he gets a few bites while covering water with these tactics, he'll often go back with a tube or slow down his drop-shot presentation to get a few more fish.
"When you do get a bite with any of these techniques—and this is pattern fishing 101—you need to analyze everything about what happened," VanDam says. "Consider the area. Think about how the fish bit. Did it bite on the fall or when you stopped your bait? Did it bite on the sunny side or the shady side of the bush? How deep was my bait when it bit? Every clue you get when you come in contact with a bass is going to help you develop a more narrowly focused pattern."
Rig Up Right
KVD's gear recommendations for three power-fishing tactics
It should come as no surprise that Kevin VanDam prefers rods, reels and line that either carry his moniker or are made by one of his sponsors, but any tackle that shares the specs and features of the gear below will do the trick.
- Rod: Lew's KVD Series Dropshot/Ned Rig (LKVDGS2); 7'; medium-light power; extra-fast action ($99.99; lews.com)
- Reel: Lew's KVD Signature 3000-Series Spinning Reel ($79.99)
- Line: Strike King Tour Grade Braid with a 20-foot fluorocarbon leader; 8-pound test for both
- KVD Says: "Tie that leader to the braid with an FG knot, and you are good to go."
- Rod: Lew's KVD Jerkbait Rods (LKVDGC2); 6'8" and 6'10"; medium-heavy power; fast action ($99.99)
- Reel: Lew's KVD LFS Series 7.5:1 Baitcasting Reel ($139.99)
- Line: Bass Pro Shops XPS 100% Fluorocarbon; 10- to 20-pound test depending on conditions
- KVD Says: "I want a rod that maximizes the action and a handle that is not so long that it hits you in the stomach when you are working the bait. The reel just picks up the slack line, so a high-speed reel really helps."
- Rod: Lew's KVD Open Water Bladed Jig/KVD 2.5 (LKVDCC5); 7'1" and 7'4"; heavy power; moderate action ($99.99)
- Reel: Lew's KVD LFS Series 7.5:1 Baitcasting Reel ($139.99)
- Line: Bass Pro Shops XPS 100% Fluorocarbon; 20-pound test
- KVD Says: "A composite rod is important to fish a bladed jig effectively. I use the [7-foot-1-inch] rod for accuracy and the [7-foot-4-inch] rod to make long casts in