The 13-14 sack that Kevin VanDam caught today at Virginia's Smith Mountain Lake was his smallest of the tournament, but it was more than enough to give him his 15th career tour-level victory and push him to the top of the points list in his quest for a fifth Bassmaster Angler of the Year (AOY) award.
The Michigander, who focused on spawning smallmouths throughout the event while the rest of the field was obsessed with largemouths, finished with a 4-day total of 61-12. It was his third finish of 8th or better in four events this season.
The Top 3 from day 3 remained unchanged. Alabama's Matt Herren bagged 14-14 today to claim the runner-up spot with 59-05, and Kelly Jordon of Texas caught 13-14 today for a 3rd-place total of 58-03.
Louisiana's Greg Hackney gained one spot with a 15-02 stringer that was the best of the day and his best of the tournament – he finished 4th with 57-00. Alabama's Aaron Martens made the day's biggest move, climbing from 12th to 5th with a 15-00 sack that gave him a 55-00 total.
Here's a look at the final weights for the Top 12:
1. Kevin VanDam: 61-13
2. Matt Herren: 59-05
3. Kelly Jordon: 58-03
4. Greg Hackney: 57-00
5. Aaron Martens: 55-00
6. Shaw Grigsby: 54-03
7. James Niggemeyer: 54-03
8. Dean Rojas: 53-11
9. Skeet Reese: 53-05
10. Matt Sphar: 49-03
11. Byron Velvick: 45-10
12. Jeff Connella: 42-12
Many more fish had moved up to the beds today as the spate of warm weather in the Huddleston, Va. area continued, but most of them were uncooperative with the guys in the flashy boats who stalked them. Several anglers recounted frustrating ordeals of trying to get them to bite, and the vast majority of those fish are still sitting right where they were when the pros were looking at them.
The tournament marked the halfway point of the economy-shortened Elite Series campaign, and there was a big shakeup in the points. VanDam and Skeet Reese, the last two AOYs, have moved to the top of the list, while former leader Alton Jones dropped to 3rd after missing the Top 50 cut by one spot. VanDam has a hefty 65-point lead over the field.
VanDam said the thrill of winning is still as great as it ever was for him.
"It never gets old, that's for sure," he said. "This one means a lot, without a doubt.
"I had no expectations of thinking I could win after practice and I didn't know how it would all develop. After the first day I thought I had a pretty good chance if some things went my way, and they did.
He had a limit by about 10:00 today, which was earlier than on any of the previous 3 days. He didn't sight-fish early, but instead focused on smallmouths chasing shad on points. He caught three doing that and found a couple of spawners along the way.
He ended up catching about a dozen keepers. When the day was over, he was fairly confident he'd caught enough to win.
Matt Herren had four quality bed-fish left over from yesterday, but was only able to catch two of them.
"I didn't know for sure because so many fish had moved up, but a lot of them weren't catchable. The timing wasn't right for those other guys to catch those fish and a 3 1/2 pound lead (the advantage he began the day with) was a pretty good cushion."
He caught the majority of his fish throughout the tournament on a 1/8-ounce shakey-head with a Strike King 3X finesse worm. Full details of his winning pattern, as well as those of the other top finishers, will be published in the coming days.
2nd: Mixed Feelings for Herren
Herren was glad to collect a nice paycheck and a big dose of AOY points but was bothered by some events that transpired during his day.
"I would say I'm happy, but I'm not," he said. "I never had a fish beat me this week, but I had two I couldn't catch today.
"I wouldn't say I fished badly, but I was really trying to win the event and I didn't fish as loose as I had been. You know when you're 3 1/2 pounds behind Kevin VanDam, you really have to wreck them.
He estimated that the two fish that wouldn't cooperate weighed about 10 pounds between them. He said he caught the 12-inch male that was sharing the bed with one of the biggest females and took it 200 yards away before releasing it, but it beat him back.
"It was just one of those deals – it was a grind. I had four fish located from yesterday, and I knew if I caught those four I had a chance. I only caught two of them, and they were the wrong two.
"But I'm happy about the points and the money. I'd love to make the Top 12 and fish those last two (postseason) events and qualify for another Classic."
3rd: Jordon Laments Missed Chance
Jordon saw the fish he needed to put together a huge bag today, but couldn't entice them to bite.
"I had an opportunity today," he said. "A lot of fish came up and it was a new ball game out there, but I didn't catch any of (the big ones).
"But overall it was a great tournament and I had a blast fishing this lake. I really wish I could fish it the next 2 days because that's when it's really going to shine. We just missed it by a couple of days."
He spent much of today working on two fish, a 6-pounder and one that he said was at least 7 and might've gone as much as 9. The male that was with the bigger of the two was a hindrance and he actually boated that fish – a 3 1/2-pounder – but had to release it because it was hooked outside the mouth.
It went right back to the bed and wouldn't bite again.
Kelly Jordon was foiled by two large fish that might've led him to victory if he could've caught them.
"You can always second-guess yourself on your time management and the calls you make," he said. "And I lost a few and foul-hooked a few this week, but that's fishing.
"I had the opportunity to win and I didn't convert."
4th: Hackney Slightly Bummed
Hackney was satisfied with his best Elite finish since 2006, but said it could've been better.
"I'm a little disappointed," he said. "I had a good tournament and I fished well, but I had a great practice and I thought I was dialed in a little better than I actually was.
"I felt like I went into survival mode after the first day and I never really got them going again. I was never able to trick the big females."
Today's bag was his best of the event, and it was highlighted by a 4 1/2-pounder.
"I hadn't been doing well sight-fishing until I could see good, so I went flipping this morning and caught my two best fish doing that. I chose the dirtiest place and caught three, and missed two more.
"After I started looking I was able to help myself by a couple of pounds. My only mistake was staying with one female too long that I'd stuck twice."
5th: Martens Couldn't Recover
Martens had an excellent day – his sack was only 2 ounces shy of Hackney's and included a 6 1/2-pounder that took big-bass honors. But it wasn't nearly enough to overcome his 9-03 effort on day 3.
"I had a horrible day yesterday – nothing went right except catching my fifth fish on a Scrounger just before I came in. I couldn't find any big ones and I kept passing up keepers. I messed up."
He struggled again this morning, but the action picked up when he got to his best area. He ended up culling just once.
"That area had a lot of fish left and I think VanDam caught some of them, and Matt Sphar fished there too. I never should've left that place."
Additional Weigh-In Notes
Shaw Grigsby (6th)
"There were sight-fish coming up, bunches of them, but it was a matter of getting the big ones. I had one big one eat the bait, and then it turned to me and came right at me, and I didn't get a good hookset. It was the type of fish that can take you from the back of the pack to way up in the front."
James Niggemeyer (6th)
"I was expecting a lot of fish to pull up today, and they did, but not a lot of them really locked on. One male I caught twice. The males were more in my way than anything else. It was a challenging day."
Dean Rojas (8th)
"I had the bites to catch a 17- or 18-pound sack today, but unfortunately things happened and I wasn't able to put that big bag together. I had three big ones that were locked on, and I hooked all three and lost every one. It just didn't pan out for me."
Greg Hackney's finish was his best on the Elite Series since 2006.
Skeet Reese (9th)
"I had nothing to lose today, so I just put the trolling motor down and covered all new water. I found one area were the smallmouth were everywhere on beds – they were like fleas. It'd been a long time since I'd been able to catch smallmouth like that."
Matt Sphar (10th)
"My (finesse) bite kind of died and I had to bed-fish. I had some females that I worked today but I just couldn't get them to commit. I'm not a very good bed-fisherman and I've got a lot to learn."
Byron Velvick (11th)
"I saw a lot of big ones so I can't complain – I looked at the winning fish every day. But these Virginia fish are smart and they're hard to catch."
Jeff Connella (12th)
"I was fishing a foot to a foot and a half of muddy water and I was just stroking them, but it got clearer and clearer (as the tournament went on) and today I couldn't get it done."
> Day 4 stats – 12 anglers, 10 limits, 1 two, 1 one.
> VanDam weighed three largemouths and two smallmouths each day.
> Jordon was impressed by all of the big fish he saw during practice and competition. "This lake has got 'em," he said. "There aren't a lot of 9- and 10-pounders, but there's a million 5s and 6s."
Day 4 (Final) Standings
1. Kevin VanDam -- Kalamazoo, MI -- 20, 61-13 -- 315 -- $101,000
Day 1: 5, 15-07 -- Day 2: 5, 17-02 -- Day 3: 5, 15-06 -- Day 4: 5, 13-14
2. Matt Herren -- Trussville, AL -- 20, 59-05 -- 295 -- $25,000
Day 1: 5, 17-11 -- Day 2: 5, 11-12 -- Day 3: 5, 15-00 -- Day 4: 5, 14-14
3. Kelly Jordon -- Mineola, TX -- 20, 58-03 -- 295 -- $20,000
Day 1: 5, 20-09 -- Day 2: 5, 11-01 -- Day 3: 5, 12-11 -- Day 4: 5, 13-14
4. Greg Hackney -- Gonzales, LA -- 20, 57-00 -- 285 -- $15,000
Day 1: 5, 13-13 -- Day 2: 5, 14-00 -- Day 3: 5, 14-01 -- Day 4: 5, 15-02
5. Aaron Martens -- Leeds, AL -- 20, 55-00 -- 280 -- $14,000
Day 1: 5, 14-02 -- Day 2: 5, 16-11 -- Day 3: 5, 09-03 -- Day 4: 5, 15-00
6. Shaw E Grigsby -- Gainesville, FL -- 20, 54-03 -- 276 -- $13,500
Day 1: 5, 15-02 -- Day 2: 5, 13-15 -- Day 3: 5, 12-07 -- Day 4: 5, 12-11
7. James Niggemeyer -- Van, TX -- 20, 54-03 -- 272 -- $14,000
Day 1: 5, 12-08 -- Day 2: 5, 12-04 -- Day 3: 5, 16-05 -- Day 4: 5, 13-02
8. Dean Rojas -- Lake Havasu City, AZ -- 20, 53-11 -- 268 -- $12,500
Day 1: 5, 18-07 -- Day 2: 5, 11-09 -- Day 3: 5, 13-07 -- Day 4: 5, 10-04
9. Skeet Reese -- Auburn, CA -- 20, 53-05 -- 264 -- $12,000
Day 1: 5, 13-03 -- Day 2: 5, 11-04 -- Day 3: 5, 15-13 -- Day 4: 5, 13-01
10. Matthew Sphar -- Pavilion, NY -- 20, 49-03 -- 260 -- $11,500
Day 1: 5, 17-13 -- Day 2: 5, 12-13 -- Day 3: 5, 10-15 -- Day 4: 5, 07-10
11. Byron Velvick -- Del Rio, TX -- 17, 45-10 -- 257 -- $11,000
Day 1: 5, 13-05 -- Day 2: 5, 14-14 -- Day 3: 5, 13-05 -- Day 4: 2, 04-02
12. Jeff Connella -- Bentley, LA -- 16, 42-12 -- 254 -- $10,500
Day 1: 5, 11-09 -- Day 2: 5, 14-03 -- Day 3: 5, 15-04 -- Day 4: 1, 01-12
Day 4: Aaron Martens -- Leeds, AL -- 6-07
Day 3: James Niggemeyer -- Van, TX -- 7-02
Day 2: Kenyon Hill -- Norman, OK -- 6-07
Day 1: Wade Grooms -- Bonneau, SC -- 06-08