By Todd Ceisner
Whether it’s going up against a field of more than 100 competitors or racing a clock when every fish counts, Kevin VanDam loves to compete.
Last week, during the Niagara River Bassmaster Elite Series Classic Bracket, B.A.S.S.’s first fully live-streamed event, VanDam was in his glory and his element. Not only was he up against the clock in three separate one-on-one matches, he got to target northern smallmouth in the swift current of the mighty Niagara.
A winner of two Major League Fishing Cup events in the past, VanDam knew strategy was going to be a key component to his success. While he’d never fished the Niagara before, he used the single day of practice to identify as many areas as possible that could hold a small or large concentration of fish. With the quarterfinals split into two three-hour sessions across two days, he figured playing the numbers game would be to his benefit and allow him to figure more out on the fly.
As the event’s top seed, thanks to his win at the Cayuga Lake Elite Series last month, VanDam approached each round with a different methodology. While the Niagara River didn't produce the same quality of smallmouth that's he found in the Detroit River or St. Clair River, fishing in the extreme current was nothing new to him.
In his quarterfinal win over Drew Benton, he put himself in what he thought were high-percentage areas for techniques he thrives at. After building a big lead, he was able to shift back to practice mode to gather more intel for his semifinal match with Koby Kreiger.
Early on against Kreiger, VanDam had to play some defense on an area that received a ton of pressure through the week, then eventually prevailed on a second tiebreaker in a see-saw match that saw VanDam finish the day on an area he’d hoped to save for the finals.
Then came the final against Brett Hite, who’d camped for the entire event on concrete bridge pilings near the tournament’s northern boundary line. VanDam employed his typical run-and-gun approach around the river and it resulted in a convincing victory.
He caught the first fish of the event, the biggest fish (3-12), the most fish (33) and broke the 10-pound mark in each session he competed in, including a tournament-best 20-03 during the finals when every legal bass caught counted. Of the 18 hours he spent on the water, he was in the lead for all but 70 minutes.
He’s now won three Elite Series events this season and has clearly put to rest all the talk that his best days are behind him. With a berth in the 2017 Bassmaster Classic clinched, he can now spend the final three tournaments focusing on climbing the Angler of the Year points standings – he sits 12th, 103 points behind leader Gerald Swindle.
“It’s unique to be in a position to know the Classic is a cinch so I’ve got two regular-season events and the AOY event to look at with 100-plus points to make up on AOY,” he said. “I want to finish as high as I can. I’m disappointed in my decision-making in a couple tournaments I didn’t do well in earlier this season that kind of stand out now, but I’m definitely going to give these last events everything I can. I like the venues were going to.”
Here’s a rundown of how he tackled the Niagara River last week.
The eight competitors had from daybreak until 3 p.m. last Monday to get a feel for the roughly 17 miles of water that was in play during the event. They were limited to the eastern channel that meandered around the eastern side of Grand Island from the International Railroad Bridge to the north Grand Island Bridge. All marinas and residential canals were off limits.
“I wanted to see the whole thing,” VanDam said. “I looked for high-percentage places that I thought would hold fish. Any current breaks, whether it was a sea wall or piling or whatever, and also flats. An abrupt current break is what I was looking for.”
The upper Niagara is also home to plenty of grass, but where it mixes with rock and/or sand was also key to VanDam’s search.
“Smallmouth love rock and scattered grass and there was a lot of vegetation up and down the river where it’d be a solid wall,” he said. “That’s not what they like. I looked for clean sand around flats and rocks near those current breaks.”
He spent most of practice with a jerkbait and mixed in a tube and dropshot for efficiency purposes.
“It wasn’t a great day, but I had 12 to 15 keeper bites in several places where I found groups of fish,” he said. “Where I’d catch one, I’d have five or six follow it out.”
> Quarterfinals – VanDam (9, 20-08) def. Drew Benton (3, 5-10)
> Semifinals – VanDam: (5, 11-00) def. Koby Kreiger (5, 11-00) via 2nd tiebreaker
> Finals – VanDam (11, 20-03) def. Brett Hite (7, 13-09)
As the top seed, VanDam was the first angler to leave the launch area on the first morning and he picked what proved to be the most popular stretch of water on the river.
In the first three-hour portion of his matchup against Benton, he chose to target a shallow area along a corrugated metal wall just north of Strawberry Island. As VanDam waited for the start of the competition, Benton idled into the area and realized VanDam was already there and sped off in the other direction.
VanDam caught a limit on a jerkbait within 45 minutes, including three 2-pounders to set the tone.
“I started there because it was most obvious place with a concentration of fish that I knew somebody else would fish,” he said.
Benton, meanwhile, struggled and didn’t land his first keeper until VanDam had culled up to 10-04.
With nearly a 9-pound lead going into the second three-hour session of their match the following afternoon, VanDam was determined to scope out other areas that could hold quantity and quality as it was becoming apparent the smallmouth in the Niagara were not comparable in size to what’s found in the eastern basin of Lake Erie.
“In this format where you know what’s being caught and what you’re up against and what the leaderboard is, I tried to adjust,” he said. “In the first round, what you want is to try to have more spots and have some left for the next day. It’s hard to save fish for four rounds in a short section of river like we had.”
He wound up catching four keepers for 10-04, including a tournament-best 3-12, to close out Benton in convincing fashion. He also came off the water stoked for the semifinals as he found an area in the afternoon that he felt could supplement what he’d already found and possibly carry him through to the finals.
He took on Kreiger in the semifinals and held a 6-pound lead before Kreiger landed his first keeper at 11:25 a.m. The two started on the same stretch behind Strawberry Island and VanDam was able to catch three keepers there to build an early lead.
Seven minutes after Kreiger caught his first, VanDam finished his limit with a 2-09 that gave him a 6-pound, 3-ounce lead midway through the six-hour match.
Kreiger made a move to the bridge Hite had been fishing and picked up some momentum, catching five keepers between 11:58 and 1:11 p.m. to move ahead of VanDam by 1 1/2 pounds.
VanDam opted to move to an area he’d been hoping to save, but it wound up producing his winning fish as he caught a pair of 2-02s and a 1-15 to pull into a tie with Kreiger at 11 pounds each.
Kreiger had a fish on in the closing minutes, but it came off and left the match knotted. VanDam advanced to the finals on the second tiebreaker as his second-heaviest limit of the tournament was bigger than Kreiger’s.
The finals pitted VanDam against Hite in a matchup of the two anglers who’d been the most consistent over the first three days – Hite patiently dropshotting the current breaks along the large, concrete bridge pilings against VanDam and his run-and-gun jerkbait/tube/dropshot program.
It was an unexpectedly slow morning for both anglers. Hite’s first fish came at 10:16 a.m. with VanDam’s coming six minutes later. Both felt the cloudy skies and a fierce southwest wind that was blowing with the current conspired to slow things down, especially in areas where both had caught fish or felt confident they’d catch them.
Hite’s dropshot bite tailed off enough that he eventually moved later in the day while VanDam hit several stretches multiple times, including a flat on the northeast side of Grand Island that he’d found toward the end of his match with Benton.
“I didn’t hold anything back,” he said.
VanDam said he tried to fish into the current as much as possible to elicit reaction strikes from fish holding behind current breaks.
When the buzzer sounded on his match with Hite, VanDam had tallied 11 keepers for 20-03, a 1.8-pound per-fish average, while Hite totaled 13-09 with seven fish.
“Overall, the size in the river is not the same as the lake,” VanDam said. “It just happens to be the stretches we were on and the season as much as anything.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Jerkbait gear: 6’10” medium-heavy Quantum PT Tour KVD casting rod, Quantum PT Tour KVD casting reel (6.6:1 ratio), 12-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line, Strike King KVD Jerkbait 300 and Deep Diving models (pro blue, crystal shad, clearwater minnow).
> Water depth dictated which jerkbait model he used. He also fished it with a violent slashing technique to trigger reaction bites.
> Dropshot gear: 7’4” medium-action Quantum PT Tour KVD spinning rod, Quantum PT Tour KVD spinning reel, same line (8-pound), #2 Mustad dropshot hook, Strike King Drop Shot Half Shell (edge and KVD magic), 1/4- and 3/8-oz. Strike King Tour Grade Tungsten dropshot weights.
> When he mixed in a tube, it was a Strike King KVD Perfect Plastics Coffee Tube in the KVD kick pattern rigged on a 1/4-oz. Strike King tube jig.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Understanding smallmouth in extreme current from my past experiences.”
> Performance edge – “Definitely my MotorGuide X-5 paired with my Lithium Pros batteries. I was trying to fish into the current as much as possible and those were critical for doing that. When I could get in shallow, I’d put my Power-Poles down to hold there and not burn up my batteries running my trolling motor. Another thing was that Lakemaster mapping. On the river, it’s really good and it shows all of the flats and a lot of stuff out in the middle. That really helped me narrow my search.”
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