By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Kevin VanDam won two regular-season Bassmaster Elite Series tournaments in 2016, along with the short-field Bassmaster Classic Bracket event. Through the first two-thirds of the current season, he hasn't won anything.
Nonetheless, he's having a better year.
The seven-time Angler of the Year (AOY) and four-time Classic champion has put himself in position to win on several occasions this season, but hasn't closed the deal. On the other side of the ledger, however, he's entirely avoided the bombs that pushed him all the way down to 30th on last year's final points list despite his pair of victories.
"I've made some good decisions, for sure, in several tournaments this year," he said. "There are times when you don't necessarily have yourself in contention, but you make a good decision and it leads to a decent finish.
"The difference between a bomb and a really good finish is such a fine line these days because the weights in a lot of the tournaments are so tight. It can come down to catching one good fish – or missing a good one."
No Trips to the Cellar
VanDam's worst finish in the first six events of this season was a 62nd in the opener at Cherokee Lake. He's missed one other paycheck (outside the Top 51), and that was at Sam Rayburn, where he came up short by a single ounce.
At this point in 2016, he'd already picked up his first victory (Toledo Bend), but he'd also had a 94th at Bull Shoals/Norfork and a 67th at Wheeler. He notched his second triumph at stop No. 7 (Cayuga Lake), but that was followed by finishes of 99th at the Potomac River and 83rd at the Mississippi River.
He's come close to winning twice this year – he was 2nd at Ross Barnett Reservoir and 3rd in the most event at Dardanelle. He also has two finishes in the 20s.
"It's been a little bit frustrating because even in some of the tournaments I've done okay in, I've felt like I left a lot on the table," he said. "Okeechobee (24th) is definitely one I'd like to have to do over again – one lost fish cost me the chance to make the (Top-12) cut.
"I didn't pre-fish, but after 2 1/2 days (of official practice) I thought I had a good plan. That's a big place, though, and there are so many variables that you have to take into account like wind speed, wind direction, how the wind makes the water levels fluctuate and how it makes the water color change. I started out slow and I was trying to play catch-up and I'm not an expert with the big stick and a big weight, but I had opportunities to have a really good tournament there that I didn't capitalize on nearly as well as I should have. I'd have given anything to fish Sunday there, but I came up short."
Conversely, he felt like he maximized everything he had at Dardanelle. He had a superb day 1 (19-03) to put himself at the top of the leaderboard, but then the ever-changing conditions wiped out his jerkbait program on day 2 and he had to scramble to catch 12 1/2 pounds. He relied on his secondary pattern (laydowns and grass with a wide variety of baits on the muddy main-river channel) the rest of the way and again caught the biggest bag in the field on the final day.
"That could've been a disaster if I hadn't had that to fall back on. I made really good decisions all 4 days there – I didn't catch 20 pounds a day and win, but based on what was in front of me, I made the right adjustments at the right times.
"You always feel good about those when you look back at them."
Seeks Strong Finish
VanDam, a lifelong Michigan resident, goes in to the final three regular season events – all at clear-water Northern fisheries that are home to his beloved smallmouth bass as well as largemouths – in 7th place in the AOY standings. He's 33 points behind leader Ott DeFoe.
"I definitely have a lot of confidence," he said. "It's great when you can go into any event and feel like you're in your comfort zone.
"I really like all three (venues). They're fun because you're not stressing about getting five bites – you know there's going to be a lot of fish caught, and a lot of big fish."
The trifecta opens at the St. Lawrence River July 20-23. The circuit will visit Lake Champlain the following week and then wrap up at Lake St. Clair, where he has vast experience, in late August.
"I'm really looking forward to Champlain because I haven't been there in awhile (the Elite Series last visited a decade ago). And there's no question that I love St. Clair, even though I don't get to fish there a lot anymore and my last couple tournaments there haven't been real good.
"I'm really hoping to change that around."