By Todd Ceisner
When Dustin Connell captured the win at the Ross Barnett Reservoir Elite Series earlier this year, the rookie shared the stage with Kevin VanDam, waiting to see if his day-4 weight was enough to hold off the biggest name in bass fishing.
Turned out it was, and VanDam graciously shook Connell’s hand before walking off stage. Inside, though, VanDam simmered with frustration that he’d let a chance to win slip away.
In June, he led after day 1 at Lake Dardanelle and settled for 3rd. While pleased with both outcomes from a big-picture point of view – he crept up into the top 10 in points – it left him with a sense that he had some unfinished business to tend to.
After posting two full-field wins and capturing the eight-man Bassmaster Classic Bracket in 2016, he knew the closing stretch of this year’s schedule was going to fall in his wheelhouse with three clear-water, Northern fisheries where smallmouth tend to dominate. Opportunity was sure to come knocking again, he figured.
Sure enough, he wasted little time in setting the tone for the stretch drive. He topped 90 pounds in winning in wire-to-wire fashion at the enormous St. Lawrence River, varying baits, colors and techniques over the four-day event that saw him pull away on the final day with a 23-12 stringer.
In the process, he thrust himself into contention for what could be his eighth career B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year title – he’s now 3rd behind Brandon Palaniuk and Casey Ashley.
In the Elite Series’ two previous trips to Waddington, N.Y., VanDam recalled having one or two solid days but had one hiccup that cost him spots on the leaderboard. Indeed, in 2013, he followed two straight 21-pound stringers with a 15-04 bag on day 3 and finished 14th. Two years later, his stringers got progressively smaller after he caught 18-02 on day 1 and he wound up 41st.
This year, he made sure history didn't repeat itself.
“I’ve had some good tournaments here, but I’ve always had a day where I struggled or stumbled,” he said. “I knew I needed to have some deep fish because they’re stable and I knew I needed to have some shallow fish. I spent a lot of time looking for multiple patterns.”
He had spots in 5 to 10 feet, 15 to 25 and others that were deeper that allowed him to adjust based on the conditions.
Here are more details on how VanDam averaged 22 1/2 pounds per day to claim his 24th career B.A.S.S. victory.
As good as he is on smallmouth fisheries, VanDam was quick to mention he thought largemouth had an outside shot of keeping somebody in contention last week.
With the water at historically high levels (the river is still roughly 2 feet higher than normal), he knew the largemouth would be up shallow around new cover rather than stationed in the grass flats.
“I actually spent time fishing for them,” he said, noting he finished off his first limit on day 3 of the tournament with largemouth. “With the high water, they were pushed up to the bank and were really easy to catch. I didn’t catch big ones, but 2- to 3-pounders were easy to come by.”
His primary focus, though, was smallmouth, but he wanted to have deep, intermediate and shallow options.
“When we were here the first time, I had deep and shallow fish, but the problem with the deep fish there is with current and wind, they move a lot,” he said. “It’s hard to consistently stay on them. It’s hard to do it day to day four days in row. That’s been my problem in the past.”
He benefitted from three days of stable weather in practice. That allowed him to zero in on specific areas and pinpoint bottom compositions and transitions that were holding quality fish. He used a swimbait as a search bait and also threw a jerkbait and dropshot.
“With the water as clear as it is, there are places where you can see bottom in 30 feet and see well in 20,” he said.
Smallmouth at the St. Lawrence tend not to roam in search of schools of baitfish. They let the river’s current bring the food to them. With that being the case, “bottom composition is the biggest thing there,” VanDam added.
“You have to have a mix of rock, gravel and grass,” he said. “They don’t like just pure shale rock or sand. They like a mix. Things have to be broken to where it deflects the current so there’s a slack spot where they can wait for something to come by. I can see it with my electronics, but can I pick it out easy with my eyes.”
By the end of practice, he was enthused by what he’d found, but had no idea things would play out how they did.
“I knew I was on the right kind of fish,” he said. “I didn’t catch many, but I had two deep spots that were 25 to 35 that had big ones and two mid-range spots that had big ones. I also had two shallow spots that had great big ones that were 5 to 10 feet. There was a handful of other spots that I knew if I could put it all together I’d have a chance.”
> Day 1: 5, 24-05
> Day 2: 5, 19-08
> Day 3: 5, 22-10
> Day 4: 5, 23-12
> Total = 20, 90-03
VanDam piled up close to 20 pounds in the first 30 minutes of day 1, all on a dropshop using a translucent colored Strike King Dream Shot.
“It was on one spot and basically one cast,” he said. “That gave me the comfort level to practice more so I spent most of the first day feeling out what has happening at other places. Everything is a guessing game with those fish and that gave me a lot of time to figure out what was going on.”
He culled his way up to 24-05, including a 6-01, and seized the lead after day 1, which featured a south/southwest wind that put a little more pace in the current. The conditions were similar on day 2, but the spot that produced early on day 1 didn’t pan out Friday.
He caught one smallmouth there, then went shallow with a wacky-rigged worm to catch his three biggest smallmouth and eventually culled his way up to 19-08, which kept him in the lead.
VanDam had fish located on shallow, intermediate and deeper spots, but current around islands and bottom composition were the most important factors to where he fished.
“I don’t know if the current changed or my timing was off,” he said. “I know the fish were there, but I couldn’t catch the big ones.”
He started Saturday with a 4-pounder caught off the shallow spot that produced for him on Friday. He moved to another shallow area, but it was vacant. He finished his limit with largemouth before going back to his smallmouth rotation.
“I ran to some deep spots and caught a big one on a dropshot and a couple on a jerkbait, then it slicked off,” he said.
It was then that he considered tying on a spybait, which he’d thrown for the first time at Lake St. Clair a couple years ago under calm conditions.
“I caught another small one, but they were biting weird on the dropshot,” he said. “I decided to throw the spybait out there and caught an upgrade and wound up catching two that I weighed in. I figured it was just another tool for me.”
His 22-10 stringer pushed him 2 1/2 pounds clear of the rest of the top 12 entering the final day and he’d yet to have that day where he stumbled.
He made sure Sunday wouldn’t be that day as he caught a 6-05 (the tournament’s big bass) within the first hour of fishing and it laid the foundation for a final-day runaway as he tallied 23-12 to win by 8 pounds.
The wind had turned around and was blowing against the current and it made finesse presentations difficult, especially on the bottom.
“I started with a dropshot and lost one because I couldn’t tell it was on,” he said. “Then I caught a 4 and that gave me the confidence the fish were still there.”
For the rest of the day, he relied a lot on treble-hook baits like the spybait, which produced his 6-05, and a jerkbait.
“The spot I caught the 6-05 on was a place that had produced in the past,” he said. “It had the right bottom composition and with the wind blowing like it was, it was right.
“That wind made it hard to fish bottom baits and that spybait was subtle enough, but it drew them up.”
Winning Pattern Notes
> VanDam fished around several islands so there were plenty of current breaks and some slack areas. “It’s all about the current there,” he said. “If you can find funnels, that’s what they’re looking for. Humps and shoals do the same thing.”
> VanDam said he ran 150-plus miles each day and sometimes cycled through areas multiple times. “You’d have to run stuff until you ran into them,” he said.
> To illustrate how much the fish move at the St. Lawrence, VanDam said his two best spots in practice didn’t produce any fish that he weighed in during the tournament.
Winning Gear Notes
> Dropshot gear: 7’4” medium-action Quantum Tour KVD spinning rod, Quantum Smoke Speed Freak 40 spinning reel, 6- and 8-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line, size 4 Mustad Titan X wacky rig/neko rig hook, Strike King KVD Dream Shot (chartreuse/blue glimmer back), Strike King Half Shell (edge and pro blue neon).
> The Titan X hook was introduced at ICAST earlier this month. VanDam said he didn’t lose a fish with it all week. “The finish on it makes it super strong and it penetrates quick,” he said.
> Many of his bites on the dropshot came as soon as his weight touched bottom.
> Jerkbait gear: 6’10” medium-heavy Quantum Tour KVD casting rod, Quantum Smoke HD 200 casting reel, same line (12-pound), Strike King KVD jerkbait 200 and 300 (ayu and sexy ghost minnow).
> He used the 200 size when throwing up into 5 feet or water and the 300 for a little deeper scenarios.
> He threw the 2.75” and 3.75” Strike King Rage Swimmer (chartreuse sexy shad) rigged on 1/8- and 1/4-oz. Strike King Tour Grade shaky-head jigs (unpainted) as a search bait during practice and in the tournament.
> Spybait gear: Same rod, reel as dropshot, same line (6-pound), unnamed spybait.
> He also caught several keepers on a wacky-rigged Strike King KVD Perfect Plastics Ocho (honey candy) using a size 6 Mustad Titan X hook.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Once I found where the fish were, mixing up colors and presentations was a big key.”
> Performance edge – “Those Oakley Prizm Tungsten Iridium and Shallow Water Prizm glasses helped me find the right bottom and see the fish. Also with the runs I was making every day, I had the utmost confidence in my Mercury and my (Nitro) Z-21 along with my electronics and my mounts. You can’t be without anything. I have so much confidence in my total package there. The service crews were busy every day and I never went once.”
> Provided VanDam makes the cut at Lake Champlain this week he'll be competing on Saturday, which is when the final round of the Major League Fishing World Championship will air from 2 to 3 p.m. EST on CBS. VanDam reached the finals along with Mark Davis, Bobby Lane and Jeff Kriet.
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