August 02, 2023
A generation ago, Kevin VanDam found himself in a bit of an angling conundrum as he prepared to head up the Intracoastal Waterway from Louisiana’s vast Delta country to the Bayou Segnette State Park boat launch near New Orleans.
Already one of the most celebrated anglers in the history of professional bass fishing at the age of 34, VanDam—or KVD as millions know him—had done everything in his sport except win a Bassmaster Classic.
As he prepared for the boat ride back to the Big Easy in July 2001, VanDam was feeling anything but easy that afternoon as he pondered a single bite for a cull fish that never came. As the clock ticked, VanDam nervously headed back for the Superdome weigh-in and the ESPN television cameras. And as he roared down the waterway that hot and humid Saturday afternoon, the fishing superstar tried to convince himself that he had not handed the Classic title away to a competitor once again.
Put simply, it was a boat ride that seemed to have no end. "I tell you what, that was the longest ride of my life, that hour and 20 minutes back to Bayou Segnette thinking about being one fish short," he said just more than two decades ago. "It just worried me and I just knew for sure that I would come up short."
As history reports however, KVD didn’t come up short that day, or on many other days of competitive angling that have followed. In fact, any anxiety that VanDam might have felt that day as Tropical Storm Barry lurked offshore has fueled a ride to the sport’s top rung as the unquestioned GOAT of professional bass fishing.
In his 34-year career, VanDam has been there, done it all, and then come back for more. And now, more than two decades after KVD’s longest boat ride, he steps into his Nitro bass rig this week facing a different kind of journey. Because after announcing his retirement from competitive bass fishing earlier this year, this week in his home state will mark the time for Kevin’s last ride.
The Greatest of All Time
And what a ride it has been as the 55-year-old VanDam paused recently and gave some interview time at the recent ICAST fishing trade show to reflect on a career like none other. As he and his wife Sherry smiled and acknowledged well-wishers coming into the Mossy Oak Fishing booth, there was almost no noticeable crack in VanDam’s confident and smiling exterior.
"Man, this year has just flown by," said VanDam in Orlando for ICAST in mid-July. "It’s been crazy how fast it has gone. But it’s been interesting. To this point, I haven’t really gotten super emotional and haven’t really thought too much about it, but it’s all really kind of sinking in right now."
But then he added, "This last one (tournament) could be challenging."
VanDam, the angler once dubbed the Kalamazoo Kid because of his youthful abilities, roared out of the gate and dominated the sport in the 1990s and beyond. As a self-described power fisherman and someone who seeks to control every variable he can, VanDam understands challenges after spending more than three decades dominating the sport since his first B.A.S.S. tournament in Clayton, N.Y., where he finished in 110th at the New York Invitational, Sept. 23-25, 1987.
KVD didn’t win any money in that event, but that would springboard him into a full-time tournament career beginning in 1990 and an angling journey that has seen him do all that can be done in the sport with four Bassmaster Classic victories (2001, '05, '10, '11), seven B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year titles (1992, '96, '99, 2008, '09, '10, '11), one FLW Tour AOY title (2001); a record 25 B.A.S.S. victories and a Bass Pro Tour victory in 2021; a record 26 tour-level wins, three Major League Fishing made-for-television cup triumphs, and more than $7 million in career earnings.
As dominant as those numbers are, VanDam's resume also includes 16 runner-up finishes on the B.A.S.S. tournament trail along with 18 third-place finishes, 112 top 10 finishes, 177 top 20 finishes, and 220 top 30 finishes. With nearly 12,000 pounds bass catches on the B.A.S.S. circuits alone, KVD finished in the money an amazing 253 times out of 314 B.A.S.S. tournaments.
More than a Bass Champ
While the wins and money have slowed a bit in his 50s, VanDam still managed a BPT tournament victory a couple of years ago. Today, he is without question the sport’s most recognizable face and voice—except perhaps for his pal’s Bill Dance and Jimmy Houston—and remains a spokesman for his friend Johnny Morris’ Bass Pro Shops and Nitro Boats empire, as well as other stalwart brands like Toyota, Mercury, Minn Kota, Humminbird, Strike King, Lew’s, Costa del Mar, TH Marine, YETI Coolers, Plano, Thermacell, Mustad Hooks and Mossy Oak Fishing, among others.
For all of the money that VanDam has made in tournaments, the guess here is that he’s made far more as a spokesman for all of those sponsoring companies. Most of those have remained in his corner for a long time, steady business partners for VanDam and his family as he has built a Hall-of-Fame career.
As fiercely competitive as KVD has been on the water, he’s always smiling, signing autographs and approachable off the water. Because of his likable demeanor, KVD never comes off as some product-hawking showman, but has earned the trust of countless anglers for staying with the same brands, using the gear that he endorses and designing products that work.
VanDam has also won countless fans because he routinely shares the knowledge that has made him so good over the years, through more than 700 seminars, his own Facebook and Instagram social-media pages, video content on YouTube, as well as books and countless stories in outdoor publications like Game & Fish Magazine.
All of that has propelled VanDam to a host of honors, including induction into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame in 2018, induction this year into Garry Mason’s Legends of the Outdoors Hall of Fame, and almost certain induction one day soon into the International Game Fish Association’s Hall of Fame.
Not bad for a one-time boat salesperson who went on to become the sport’s most feared competitor who has amassed a resume unlike any other. And now, as the unquestioned GOAT of professional angling, he steps aside to become the sport’s elder statesman, face and voice in the years ahead.
KVD’s Last Dance
VanDam has one final opportunity to add to his resume this week at the season-ending Bass Pro Tour’s Minn Kota Stage Seven derby on Michigan's Saginaw Bay and Saginaw River. Follow the tournament here.
If VanDam doesn’t pull off a final regular season victory in his home state this week, he’s still got a couple of more shots thanks to his apparent qualifying for the 2024 REDCREST Championship at Alabama's Lay Lake next March (VanDam won his 2005 Classic at Lay Lake) and next year's Heavy Hitter's event too.
But even if there are no more trophies for his home in Kalamazoo, VanDam in his trademark black-and-red tournament gear seems content to walk away from the competitive part of the sport. As he does so, one can’t help but wonder if his steely veneer is suffering any invisible cracks. “Well, I’m not there yet,” KVD said. “It’s not that (yet). But I think (the next few weeks) are going to be different (for me). All season long, I’m in tournament mode and I think during the competition hours, you just focus on that. But before and after (those tournament hours), the finality of it all is sinking in.”
Even so, KVD smiled and noted that he’s not ready to move into the role of a ceremonial angler just yet. "I won’t have to go straight cold turkey," he smiled. "I’ll get a few events next year to fish. And obviously, I’m going to be around."
Even so, he admits this transition is bringing some deep reflection on his career and place in the sport’s history. "The hardest thing for me going forward in the future, what I think I’m going to miss the most, is the people," KVD said.
"The competition, I can do things to be competitive and kind of fill that niche. But the people, you can’t fill that void. Obviously, you might see a few at ICAST and here and there going forward in the future, at some of these other events that we’ve got to go to (as anglers), but that day-to-day camaraderie with my key roommates like Casey Ashley, Marty Robinson, my nephew Jonathon (VanDam) that I stay with, and then a lot of those guys that I’m close to on tour, (that will be tough to replace)."
VanDam says despite the switch to the BPT in 2019, he’s still close to many anglers on the Bassmaster Elite Series, something that was evidenced at a retirement reception in the Outdoor Sportsman Group/Major League Fishing booth at ICAST, when longtime Bassmaster.com editor Steve Bowman stopped by to extend his well-wishes to his longtime friend.
It’s the fellowship within the industry and key business relationships he’s carefully built that will propel him into a new direction. "I don’t want to lose that interaction," he said. "We have a brotherhood and a friendship that’s different, I think. It’s a fraternity or whatever you want to call it."
Even so, VanDam is ready for the next phase of his career. After we bumped into each other at a deer-hunting camp in Nebraska back in November 2019, VanDam said he planned on competing as long as he was healthy and having fun. At ICAST a couple of weeks ago, he added something else to that equation.
"You know, I just really looked at where I’m at in terms of my life, age and career, and I just feel like there’s more to it, or (more) that I can (do)," he said. "I don’t know, but I really love the outdoors, I love the space, I love competitive bass fishing, I love the platforms and I like being a spokesperson for all of that, for conservation and for fishing.
"I just think I can be more effective (for all of that) in this next phase of my career. I’m not retiring—I’m retiring from competition—but I’m going to be out there filming, producing content, doing shows, (and) being a good partner for a lot of the companies that have got a ton invested in me."