By Todd Ceisner
Kevin VanDam’s winning weight of 71-13 at the Cayuga Lake Elite Series ultimately fell well short of many competitors’ predictions that it would take nearly a 20-pound daily average to be victorious. That’s how good the fishing was in practice – there was quality and quantity at both ends and on both sides of the lake.
After day 1 brought exceptional results for many competitors, the rest of the event was mostly a grind and VanDam, who was tied for 11th after Thursday, managed to climb a few spots on the leaderboard despite catching smaller limits each day.
VanDam stuck with three different patterns throughout the event and had a mix of smallmouth and largemouth in his bags on the first three days before weighing in all largemouth on Sunday, when he rallied from 3rd place and erased a 1-pound, 12-ounce deficit.
While finishing his drive home to Michigan on Monday morning, he said his 22nd career B.A.S.S. win felt much different than his triumph at Toledo Bend last month.
“I had no expectation going in that I had a chance to win at Toledo,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was on. Here, I knew at the end of day 1 of practice that if I could manage my areas and execute I’d be in contention. It’s rare to fish an event anymore where you have that feeling. Most of the time, when I feel that, things have gone awry. I thought that at Wheeler Lake (earlier this season). I felt like I had a chance to win and had a great day 1, but just missed it on day 2.”
This was VanDam’s third career win in New York – he’s won twice at the St. Lawrence River – and he thinks his familiarity with natural lakes up north gives him a leg up.
“There’s a comfort level,” he said. “Knowing these fisheries and the forage base in them – alewives were spawning (at Cayuga) and that’s an important thing to know. Most of the guys might not even know there were alewives in the lake. I think that’s why those fish were relating to the inside grass line in the morning, because that’s where the alewives were.”
Here’s how he did it.
As he stated above, it didn’t take VanDam long to realize he had an opportunity to do really well at Cayuga. Smallmouth and largemouth were spawning all around the lake, but there were groups of fish in pre-spawn mode and another group that had already moved out of those areas. It was a matter of dialing in which areas had the better quality.
Locating as many fish on beds as he could was his first priority. He found a mix of both species.
“I marked a lot of fish,” he said. “I had like 30 miles of ‘em, but there were a lot of stretches where you’d go a long way and it’d be one here and there. Over the course of the event, I checked them all.
“In doing that, I found areas with groups of largemouths staging on the inside grass line. I’m not sure if those were pre- or post-spawn, but I fished for those with a 4- or 5-inch Strike King Ocho wacky-rigged.”
He also identified a couple of key docks that were holding fish, which proved valuable because not every dock was productive.
“There was one where I could see 12 fish under there,” he said. “You could then go a couple miles and not find another one holding fish. It reminded me of Clear Lake in that sense.”
> Day 1: 5, 20-00
> Day 2: 5, 18-15
> Day 3: 5, 17-07
> Day 4: 5, 15-07
> Total = 20, 71-13
VanDam caught mostly sight-fish Thursday, tallying 18 pounds of smallmouth in the first two hours. He later culled two in favor of largemouth and wound up with 20-00, one of 12 20-pound stringers caught on day 1.
“I must’ve caught four 18-pound bags to catch 20, but I knew I needed to do that,” he said. “I just had that sense that I needed to get to 20.”
In the back of his mind, he figured he was burning through fish that might’ve helped him later on in the event.
“I had some areas where there were schools of fish on previous days,” he said. “I caught a lot of fish the first and second day that I didn’t use that I sure would’ve loved on Sunday.”
When it came to the areas where he was looking at fish, he didn’t go back through that water later on. He did, however, revisit areas where fish were holding on grass lines and hanging out around holes and hard-bottom areas in the grass on the northern end.
“On Friday, I caught a bunch of 3 1/2-pounders that I couldn’t use,” he said. “That’s the way it goes. The fish were grouped up and when you’d pull in, there’d be a bunch of 4-pounders following the 2-pounder on my line. I think that surprised a lot of people from when we were here last time.”
His 18-15 bag on Friday included three largemouth and two smallmouth and moved him into 6th place entering the weekend.
Conditions were calm and hot on Saturday and he managed 17-07 to move into 3rd place, behind Brett Hite and Jordan Lee, but well within striking distance of the lead.
He continued to work over stretches of grass with a finesse flipping approach that included a Texas-rigged soft plastic stickbait along with a wacky-rigged stickbait that he threw along grass lines.
VanDam was focused but relaxed at the dock prior to Sunday's final round at Cayuga.
He fully expected the breezier conditions for Sunday to activate the bigger fish that had seemingly turned off their feeding switch. He caught his two best fish in the first hour and rode that momentum to an early limit to put the pressure on Lee and the rest of the Top 12.
“On Sunday, the wind didn’t blow as hard as I thought it would,” he said. “I actually started out in the grass because I felt like early on some of those schools would be biting. I was spot-on.”
He worked the inside grass line with a wacky worm, but also broke out a jerkbait, something he hadn’t done since the first day of practice. He caught three on the Strike King KVD jerkbait and weighed in two of them.
“It was just a hunch,” he said. “There were fish up there cruising in the wind and I got them to react to it.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Finesse flipping gear: 7’6” medium-heavy Quantum Tour KVD PT casting rod, Quantum Tour MG PT casting reel (7.0:1 ratio), 14-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line, 1/8-oz. Strike King Tour Grade tungsten worm weight, 3/0 Mustad KVD Grip Pin EWG worm hook, 4” and 5” Strike King KVD Perfect Plastic Ocho (blue craw, honey candy, green-pumpkin).
> He felt the lighter line and smaller weight allowed the bait to glide a little slower through the water column compared to others who were using 20-pound line and a heavier weight. “It made a difference in the number of bites I got,” he said. “I tried the heavier set-up, but went back to this one. It’s a great set-up for finesse flipping.”
> Wacky-rig gear: 7’4” medium-action Quantum Tour KVD spinning rod, Quantum Tour KVD spinning reel (size 40), same line (8-pound), #1 Mustad Double Wide Gap KVD dropshot hook, same baits (honey candy).
> VanDam said he cycled through several colors of the Ocho and caught multiple species on the wacky-rigged version. “The critical thing with that pattern was I had to make a really long cast,” he said. “If they saw you, they didn’t bite.”
> When sight-fishing, he used a mix of Strike King Dream Shots and a Half Shell, a new soft plastic that will be unveiled at ICAST (“It’s a neat little bait that’s designed to stay horizontal in the water,” VanDam said) as well as a tube.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “One thing that experience brings you is that it helps you understand how to manage a 4-day event. The reason I won this one was managing the patterns I had – and I almost messed it up. I wish I’d saved a few more sight-fish, but at the time, you’re wanting to make sure you’re there because if you’re not fishing Sunday, you have no shot to win.”
> Performance edge – “My (Humminbird) electronics. On the north end, it was critical to find those clean spots. It all seems the same, but as I fished through there when you found a spot that was clean and hard, it was key. Once I saw that in practice, that’s what I spent my time looking for – areas with a lot of grass that had really good, clean spots. It wasn’t everywhere.”
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