By Todd Ceisner
Winning never gets old for Kevin VanDam. Not after 24 Bassmaster victories, including nine Elite Series wins and four Bassmaster Classic titles.
Just a week past his 50th birthday last fall, VanDam collected his third Major League Fishing Cup triumph, this one coming at Larto Lake in rural Louisiana, scene of the championship round for the 2018 Challenge Cup, which aired on Outdoor Channel this past weekend.
The lake was one in a series of cypress-laden oxbow lakes used during the week and wound up in his shallow-cranking wheelhouse. After catching 12 and 13 fish, respectively, in his first two turns on the water, VanDam tallied 25 fish for 39-14 in the final round to win in runaway fashion. Edwin Evers was a distant 2nd with 26-05 (19 fish). Ish Monroe (3rd, 20-02) was the only other finalist (out of eight) to crack the 20-pound mark.
For VanDam, every win is sweet, especially against the high level of competition he faced under MLF’s unique format.
“They’re very different from an Elite or a Classic, for sure,” he said. “It’s a unique format. What I really like about it is it’s a very pure form of competing against other guys on an extremely level playing field.
“What I love about competitive bass fishing is trying to figure it out on any given day what the puzzle is and do it better than the guys I’m competing against. That’s the whole premise.”
> Elimination Round (Oct. 18): 12, 19-07
> Sudden Death Round (Oct. 20): 13, 22-08
> Championship Round (Oct. 21): 25, 39-14
> Total = 50, 81-13
VanDam’s competition didn’t begin until the last day of the Elimination Round when he was among the third group of nine anglers to hit the water.
He was the last of the nine to catch a keeper at the 2,700-acre Black River Lake/Cocodrie Bayou complex, going nearly 90 minutes before his first legal bass. He hit a flurry soon after, recording six keepers in the span of 52 minutes – all with a Strike King 1.5 crankbait that bears his initials.
“There were two different lakes with a connecting canal,” he said. “One was shallow and dirty with isolated cypress trees and docks. The other was deep and clear with brush and some docks.”
He focused mostly on the shallow, dirty section and was able to recycle water and get bites on each pass.
“I fished a couple key stretches three times just because there was a limited amount of water like that,” he said. “There were key stretches you could go back through and catch fish on.”
He landed six more keepers in the afternoon periods, but none were bigger than 1-13. Still, his 12 keepers for 19-07 was good enough for 3rd place in his group, earning him a spot in the Sudden Death Round.
After a day off, VanDam was back on the water as part of the second Sudden Death grouping, a nine-man field that was a veritable Murderer’s Row of bass fishing. Besides VanDam, those making the hour-long ride to Lake Bruin, another oxbow lake, were: Edwin Evers, Greg Hackney, Skeet Reese, Jason Christie, Takahiro Omori, Brent Ehrler, Kelly Jordon and Jacob Wheeler.
Prior to launching, the competitors were told the first four anglers to reach 22 pounds would advance to the championship round. The remaining five would be eliminated.
Bruin is dotted with massive permanent elevated docks with cypress trees sprinkled in between, along with scattered stands off the bank. VanDam said the depth variations made it tough to get dialed in early on.
“There was 15 feet on the ends of the docks and that made it hard to be efficient because the fish could be in any depth,” he said.
He endured another slow start, again being the last angler to record a catch. By the time he landed his first keeper at 8:57 a.m. – a 3 1/2-pounder on a jig – Omori (11-14), Wheeler (11-07) and Evers (9-08) already had five fish on their scoresheets. Five minutes later, VanDam caught a 3-03 cranking a dock to get himself moving on the leaderboard.
He caught 11 more fish that day under a blazing sun and cloudless sky, but only one was bigger than 2 pounds. After Wheeler, Omori and Evers hit the 22-pound benchmark, it was essentially down to VanDam and Christie for the final spot.
VanDam caught three fish in a 7-minute span, all on different baits, to edge Christie for the fourth transfer spot to the championship round.
“It was the most stressful day of MLF fishing,” he said. “It was the most intense of day of competition because of who I was up against. A lot of punches were being thrown in that round, but it worked out for me. I’ve been on the other side, so I know Jason had to be disappointed, for sure.”
VanDam turned 50 a week before capturing his third Major League Fishing Cup title.
He mixed up presentations through the day, but the crankbait was again the best weapon around the cypress trees and docks.
“On those cypress trees where they were more isolated or a single tree, the fish would be on the base,” he said. “Around groups of trees with lots of knees, they’d be in between. They definitely used the overhead shade of trees and docks as much as they used being next to a tree or dock post. To me, that crankbait was way more efficient. On those isolated trees in sunshine and they’re in shade, it makes sense to flip a jig, but here you had to fish it all. A spinnerbait or bladed jig was another good choice, but the crank is more efficient yet.”
When he arrived at Larto Lake the following morning for the eight-man championship round, VanDam saw more cypress trees and knew exactly what he’d be doing.
“I learned in the first two rounds what I needed to know to give me confidence in one bait and one pattern,” he said. “I had never fished that area at all, but I’ve fished water that’s similar – oxbow lakes, cypress trees and shallow stained water.”
He said each lake had unique features that he had to dissect and key in on.
“It’s not like you can cast to a tree and get a bite,” he said. “Each lake taught me what to look for and pay attention to the little things like the subtleties of the depth around and behind the trees and what’s in proximity to them.”
At Larto, the water had a little more stain compared to the other lakes, but that didn’t stop him from getting a fast start and not letting up. He was the fourth angler to record a keeper and took over the lead for keeps with a 1-11 keeper at 8:39 a.m.
“The most important thing in MLF in the sudden-death or championship round is a good start,” he said. “The previous two rounds, I started slow.”
He tallied 25 keepers on the day for 39-14, beating Evers, who caught 19 fish, by more than 13 pounds.
Winning Gear Notes
> Cranking gear: 7’ medium-action Quantum Tour KVD casting rod, Quantum Smoke HD 200 casting reel (5.3:1 ratio), 17- and 20-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line, Strike King KVD 1.5 crankbait (summer sexy shad, river shiner Bass Pro Shops exclusive).
> VanDam swapped out the stock trebles for Mustad #2 KVD hooks.
> He opted to throw a crankbait most of the time to give the fish a different look. “Part of my thinking with the crankbait was everybody down there throws a spinnerbait or pitches jigs or worms. That’s how they grow up fishing there. They use it because it works. A lot of times, I’ll use something I have confidence in and that crankbait is one of those baits.”
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “It was the early fall/late summer and the fish are scattered in that region. There were a lot of possible ways to catch them, but I felt confident I could maximize my efficiency by running as many trees as possible with that 1.5 crankbait. I covered more water with a quality presentation that would trigger a bass that was neutral or negative.”
> Performance edge – “A key on shallow water fisheries is the HydroWave. All week, I used the finesse pattern. We were fishing post-frontal conditions until the final day so we had high, bright skies with no wind. I put it on low volume with a 30-second delay. It’s a go-to (setting). I would adjust it when I saw activity and kept the sound patterns natural for the conditions.”
> VanDam collected his 25th B.A.S.S. victory at the Grand Lake Elite Series in April.
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