August 08, 2023
For more than 30 years, Kalamazoo, Mich., bass-fishing legend Kevin VanDam often dominated the headlines. Last weekend, he did it one more time in his competitive-fishing career finale where he nearly won the Bass Pro Tour Stage Seven tournament on Michigan’s Saginaw Bay. This week’s Game & Fish Digest is dedicated to KVD’s brilliant career, his retirement and what his peers think about it all.
Hackney Gives Perspective on KVD Retirement
Greg Hackney has looked up more than once in his stellar career to see the Costa-shaded Kevin VanDam coming up in his angling rear-view mirror during a tournament. After competing against VanDam on the Bassmaster Elite Series, the Bass Pro Tour and made-for-TV Major League Fishing Cup events, the Hack Attack paused during the recent ICAST fishing trade show to provide some perspective on his friend’s career.
“I’ll say the same thing I’ve always said about him," Hackney said. "He’s the greatest tournament angler of all time. It’s one of those deals where there are a lot of great anglers out there right now, but he did it before the technology that we have now, the information, etc., that the guys have now. I think the guys coming up now have an advantage because there are a lot of things that Kevin has done that he just taught himself (how to do).
“He’s the greatest decision maker of all-time, as a tournament fisherman." Hackney then chuckled a bit. "I’d say he’d be missed, but he ain’t going anywhere,” he said with a grin. “He may not be fishing tournaments, but he’ll be around. He’s that type of guy that just has that personality that he’s always going to have to be a part of this. And he always will because he’s a history maker."
World No. 1 Sounds Off on KVD’s Exit
As the current No. 1 angler in BassFan.com’s world ranking system, Jacob Wheeler is often thought of as the heir apparent to VanDam’s bass-fishing throne. With 11 career wins, including a Bass Pro Tour event in May 2023 on Lake Guntersville in Alabama, the 33-year-old Harrison, Tenn., resident is in the prime of his career and has earned more than $3.27 million over the course of his young career. With that success—including two Bass Pro Tour Angler of the Year titles, an MLF world title and the 2012 FLW Tour Forrest Wood Cup—he still has a ways to go to equal VanDam’s Hall-of-Fame resume.
"Kevin is unbelievable," said Wheeler. "I've had the opportunity to spend time with and get to know Kevin VanDam and everything he does and how true he is as an individual, it's been truly a blessing (for me)."
Wheeler remembers a poignant moment last year with the sport’s retiring king. "Kevin called me after I won the AOY title and said 'Hey, where are you staying? I'm coming to your house,'" Wheeler said with a smile. "He comes to my house, takes a picture (with me and the trophy), posts it on social, and he's just a stand-up dude."
Wheeler knows that the path to the summit he is climbing as a bass pro has been paved by VanDam's accomplishments and work ethic. "Everything he does, day in and day out, I just look at him and he's an icon of the sport," said Wheeler. "He's continued to push this sport in the right direction."
Wheeler knows that he and his fellow pros have to keep doing the same. "[You] know that you have to be responsible, so that when Kevin lays down that torch, all of us collectively as a group of the next generation of bass anglers have a job to do," said Wheeler. “And you've got to carry that torch on, to build this sport, and to push it and build it up and get it better. We don't take that job lightly."
Kermit Says Hi-Ho Goodbye
Dean Rojas has one of those records in bass fishing that may never be broken, and one that even KVD never got near. The Lake Havasu, Ariz., angler best known for his "Kermit the Frog" fishing exploits wowed the bass-fishing world back in January 2001 while fishing a Bassmaster Top 150 event on Lake Toho just outside of Kissimmee, Fla. On that day, the then 29-year-old Rojas brought to the scales a five-fish limit that weighed an astounding 45 pounds, 2 ounces, still the five-fish record on the B.A.S.S. circuits.
Now on the Bass Pro Tour circuit, Rojas seemed a bit melancholy at VanDam’s recent retirement party in the Outdoor Sportsman Group / Major League Fishing booth at ICAST 2023.
"He was a guy that I always knew I needed to beat, every tournament," said Rojas. "For 22 years, I battled it out with him in championship rounds and he often beat me like a drum. Couple of times I’d win, but you always knew you had to bring your A game with you because he was bringing his."
Rojas believes that the next phase of KVD’s career will be even better for those who make their living from bass fishing. "I think we’re going to lose somebody [in the tournament world] but I think we’re also going to gain somebody in the actual fishing arena as a whole, as an industry," he said. "He’s going to move on to promote what we do. I think he’ll be one of those elder statesman for the sport and I think he’s ready for it and wants to do that. As long as he’s happy, I’m happy for him and will support him."
Reese Has Mixed Feelings
Not everyone was waxing philosophically at Kevin VanDam’s retirement reception at ICAST. For friend, fellow competitor and longtime Major League Fishing brother Skeet Reese, he was smiling big.
"It’s about freaking time," he laughed. "Get rid of him. Are you kidding me? I had enough battles with him and he wore me down mentally over about 20 years and I didn’t have a chance."
Then he smiled and changed course.
"No, [I’ll miss him]," noted Reese, the 2009 Bassmaster Classic champion who now competes on the BPT. "He’s been the pinnacle of our sport since I’ve been in this. He’s been at the top of the mountain that we’ve all been trying to climb. He’s made it hard for us, but he’s also been our MJ [Michael Jordan] of bass fishing."
Reese lauded VanDam’s competitive intensity that never seemed to run out of fuel, but even more his love for the sport and desire to give back. "He’s second to none. He’s not done with the sport and I’m not done with him. I guess I’ll be stuck with him as long as I’m in the fishing industry. He ain’t going anywhere, he’s just not going to be a competitor anymore."
KVD Departure Marks Two Eras in Fishing
Ott DeFoe, who won the 2019 Classic on his home water near Knoxville, said he hates to see VanDam go, especially from the Bass Pro Tour where they have competed against one another since 2019. "I’m excited for him but I hate to see him go," he said. "My whole career, from the time I started wanting to be a professional angler, he was somebody I looked up to."
DeFoe remembered that his first year on the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2011, when he won the Rookie of the Year title, KVD captured the last of his eight career Angler of the Year titles.
"I was glad that I got to be there and be a part of that era, to be a part of some of KVD’s career," DeFoe said. "It’s sad to see him go."
DeFoe, who has plenty of trophies in his own trophy case, acknowledged that there is a KVD era and a post-KVD era in the sport now. "Anything that gets accomplished after this, it’s almost like Covid," he said. "It’ll be, 'well, that was during KVD’s time' or 'that was when he wasn’t fishing anymore,' so it isn’t quite as legitimate because you didn’t beat him."
Is KVD Done? Evers Says Maybe
Edwin Evers, the Oklahoma resident who won the 2016 Classic on Grand Lake isn’t sure he’s going to like the new era of bass fishing without his friend and fellow competitor. "That felt super weird, I don’t like it at all," said Evers after VanDam’s retirement reception speech. "He’s the one guy you look at in the standings every time you compete, for my whole career. I don’t know what to say. I hate it, I don’t like it, but I’m happy for him. But it’s not going to be the same without him around."
Evers said that during the course of his own career, KVD has meant a lot to the bass fishing tournament trails and the fishing industry.
"Everything," he said. "He taught us all the way to do it at a very high level, on all aspects. Everybody sees the fishing accolades, but what he’s done handling the media side and the sponsors side, there’s been no better person doing it. And there won’t be, he just truly is the best. It’s sad and he’s truly done a great job at it."
When I asked Evers if KVD was ready to become one of the sport’s elder statesman, he laughed.
“I think it’s going to take him a while to get there,” said Evers. “I don’t think Kevin’s competitive juices have quite left that body yet, so it’s probably going to take him a while to get there. He’ll probably have to find something to do to feed that competitive side of him, because you know he’s a competitor through and through."
Evers remembered beating KVD once on Kentucky Lake—while smiling and noting that VanDam had beaten him more times than that—and he is especially fond of an eight-pound largemouth that helped his bag of 29-plus pounds beat Kevin’s bag of 25-plus pounds.
“I just barely beat him,” grinned Evers. “To me, that was a pretty monumental moment because I actually got beat by him twice [there].”
Evers said that he considers KVD a good friend and has admired the versatility that he’s displayed, winning tournaments power cranking, using a spinning rod, and even finesse fishing. But he admits the sport will look different in more ways than one.
"He’s not done," said Evers. "We’ll see him in and around, we’ll see him on TV, we’ll see him on social media, and we’ll see him at these events. So, the demand for his time is going to be even greater now that he has more time."
As a final question, I asked Evers if Kevin VanDam might have a little Tom Brady in him—as in dominate the sport, retire and then come back. "It depends on Sherry [his wife],” laughed Evers. "If Sherry gets really tired of him, she may kick him out of the house."