February 29, 2016
The last time that the Bassmaster Classic was held on northeastern Oklahoma's Grand Lake of the Cherokees, Kevin VanDam could only watch as his dreams of a record fifth Classic title failed to be realized.
For astute readers who remember the wintry February 2013 event, the significant snowfall earlier in that week and the chilly temperatures later in that week all conspired to keep the water cold and the bass in northeastern Oklahoma a bit on the lethargic side.
That kept KVD's patented brand of power fishing somewhat at bay as the legendary bass pro finished in eighth place with 41 pounds, 11 ounces, a three-day tally that was well behind winner Cliff Pace's benchmark of 54 pounds, 12 ounces.
While the 2013 Grand Lake Classic proved to be another respectable top-10 finish for KVD, that's not what drives the Kalamazoo, Mich., pro, arguably the sport's best angler to ever pick up a rod and reel.
Doubt that claim? Then consider KVD's sterling resume, one that is every bit as impressive as championship pedigrees carved through the years by such notable sporting figures as Jack Nicklaus, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan and Joe Montana.
The accolades for the 48-year-old VanDam include seven B.A.S.S. Angler-of-the-Year titles, including a one-time run of four in a row. Then there's his FLW Tour Angler-of-the-Year crown to also consider.
And, how about those four Bassmaster Classic championships, including back-to-back wins in 2010 and 2011?
Don't forget KVD's Major League Fishing 2014 Summit Cup victory in Alpena, Mich. either. Or his twenty career wins on the B.A.S.S. tournament trail. Or the staggering 111 top-10 tournament finishes he has accomplished. And the more than $6 million dollars – and counting – in career earnings that he has won.
With all of that in mind, here are the five reasons I think KVD is once again the man to beat as the Bassmaster Classic arrives for its second run on Oklahoma's Grand Lake:
1. KVD Has Won There Before: Granted, his previous Bassmaster Elite Series win on Grand Lake was back in 2007 and it took place in the month of June, not early March when this year's Classic is being contested.
But as noted above, KVD finished in 8th place when the Classic visited Grand three years ago, an event contested in much tougher conditions with water temperatures in the upper 30s and lower 40s.
Add in a 22nd place finish in June 2006 and VanDam averages a 10th place finish at Grand Lake, something that I expect him to improve on even more this time around.
2. He's Hungry: Yeah, I know, suggesting that KVD is "hungry" sounds a bit ridiculous for someone who has accomplished more than any other angler has in the sport's history.
But just ask Tiger Woods how hungry he is right now to win his next major title in golf, despite owning 14 of them already.
From where I sit, the Michigan pro is eager to prove that last year's Classic miss, the first time since 1991 that KVD didn't qualify, was nothing more than a rare swing-and-a-miss fluke.
And VanDam would like to put away any marina coffee shop whispers, those quiet early morning conversations that wonder if KVD's best tournament fishing days are behind him as he moves towards the age of 50.
After all, the last time that KVD triumphed on the Bassmaster Elite Series Tour was at the Classic itself thanks to his smashing win in the February 2011 event on the Louisiana Delta where he weighed in 69 pounds, 11 ounces.
For those keeping score at home, that's the heaviest winning Classic total in the 5-fish limit era.
But before you dismiss KVD as a washed-up has-been, consider that since his 2011 Classic win, he has one Major League Fishing Summit Cup victory and several other top finishes on the MLF circuit.
Not to mention three runner-up B.A.S.S. tournament trail finishes including one last year on Kentucky Lake; another in 2014 on Lake Chickamauga; and a final one in 2011 on Alabama's Lake Wheeler.
Add in a fourth place B.A.S.S. finish; a couple of fifth place finishes; a seventh place finish; a pair of eighth place finishes; and a 10th place finish since KVD last won a Classic and that's 10 top-10 Bassmaster Elite Series finishes over the past five years (along with a couple of top-10 near miss finishes in 11th place too).
So clearly, KVD still knows how to put himself in position to win. And truth be known, the competitive fire still blazes white hot in VanDam's eyes when he talks about winning big-time events like the Classic.
So don't be surprised to see VanDam pull a Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at age 46 kind of performance out of his tackle bag in Oklahoma.
3. This Classic is Setting Up Well for KVD: Remember that 2011 Classic win on the Louisiana Delta?
Well, while a number of anglers that year gambled that the event would be won in Venice, VanDam correctly surmised the wintertime water flowing into that area of the Mississippi River was too cold and that the tournament would be won elsewhere.
KVD eventually played his winning hand in the warming waters of the shallow Lake Cataouatche – specifically in the stump-laden "Tank Pond" area – and was rewarded when waves of big female bass began to move up in preparation for the springtime spawn.
While no one could ever mistake the relatively deep and clear Grand Lake for the shallow and vast Louisiana Delta, let's just say that this Classic has a similarity or two to that 2011 event.
Why? Because a winter of mild El Nino weather conditions has left Grand Lake a good bit warmer than it was three years ago with temperatures pushing up into the upper 40s and even towards the lower 50s on sunny days with mild weather.
The guess here is that KVD will find some prespawn fish staging up and preparing to move shallow, fish that should be willing to bite a jerkbait, a squarebill crankbait or a spinnerbait that the power-fishing VanDam likes to sling.
If he can find the mother lode of such big females – and negotiate the crush of spectator traffic that is sure to surround him – in my book, Grand Lake is setting up for VanDam to hit the ball out of the park.
4. Grand Lake is a Superb Jerkbait Fishery: In case you didn't already know this, Kevin VanDam is one of the top pros out there when it comes to fishing a jerkbait.
In fact, watching him whip a jerkbait into a fish-catching frenzy is somewhat akin to watching Tiger Woods in his prime playing the fabled Amen Corner at Augusta National.
Put another way, there are few better at working a jerkbait than KVD is, especially at this time of the year.
And, by the way, VanDam's primary bait company, Strike King, is coming out with a brand new deep water jerkbait this year, giving VanDam yet another weapon in his Nitro bass boat as he powers down Grand Lake.
While Mike McClelland is right there with KVD as one of the best jerkbait anglers in the business (see Mr. McStick's Major League Fishing Championship Round berth at Texas' Lake Amistad in Nov. 2011 as proof), McClelland didn't make this Classic derby.
But KVD did and he'll have a few boxes loaded up with a bait that he can fish like no one else, a lure that should figure prominently into who catches the winning bag at Grand.
5. KVD Thrives on Pressure: If there's one thing I've noticed over the years while watching VanDam carve out his amazing career, it's that the greater the pressure is, the more he seems to enjoy it and the better he seems to fish.
Especially since the pressure that he's feeling is the kind that an angler feels as he tries to win a fifth Classic title and cement his status as the best bass angler who has ever lived.
Put that pressure in stark contrast to the internal heat that the anglers in the "Best to Never Win a Classic" pack are feeling, a group that includes hometown favorites Edwin Evers and Jason Christie, not to mention defending B.A.S.S. Angler-of-the-Year and perpetual Classic bridesmaid Aaron Martens.
While all three have more than enough talent to win next week's Classic, my guess is that KVD is smiling like the Grinch who stole Christmas as he slipped into Whoville.
So what does all of this mumbo-jumbo mean?
Simple, that when the smoke has cleared on the final evening at the BOK Center in downtown Tulsa, expect a familiar face to be hoisting the Classic trophy high up into the air amidst a storm of colorful confetti.
An angler named Kevin VanDam who may very likely be clutching his fifth Classic trophy, banking a $300,000 payday in the process and forever cementing his position as bass fishing's GOAT.
The Greatest of All-Time, the king of professional angling who has notched out a grand career like none other.