Kevin VanDam is the greatest professional bass fisherman who’s ever lived.
To some this statement may seem obvious. But remember, there was a time in this sport when the subject was debated, and it still may be today. However, that’s simply foolish.
Once, I myself questioned. Rick Clunn has always been a favorite and he’s possibly the best ever high-stakes player, able to somehow elevate his performance when it counts the most. Remember, it was only Clunn who won the Redman All-American, the U.S. Open and the Bassmaster Classic all at a time when they were the richest events in the sport.
But nobody touches VanDam when it comes to pure performance. Nobody ever will.
We got a taste of it all again recently after a long absence. Since the creation of the BPT, everyone was thinking it: Where in the world is KVD? What happened? What went wrong to take a player at what seemed the height of his career, and suddenly push him to the back of the check line?
Sure, we’ve seen streaks in professional bass fishing and top players fade out, but this was no streak. For nearly my entire adult life, Kevin VanDam has been a noticeably superior player in our game.
Better. Than everyone else.
When Classic records were within reach, VanDam answered. In the early days of the cash-heavy FLW Tour, VanDam again answered. And with the formation of Major League Fishing, VanDam was there, answering, and beating his competition into oblivion.
But something shifted. With the beginning of the Bass Pro Tour, VanDam stumbled. Absent from the final day, rarely in contention, he turned into the Tiger Woods of our sport. Noticeably better, then gone.
For a while now, I've wondered. We all did. Was there something we were missing? Was the guy overwhelmed with business or family? Did the wheels just fall off?
Please, give me something to go on because, for a while, I was worried that everything I thought I knew about this sport, and VanDam’s role as the closest thing we had to an athlete performing at the next level – the Michael Jordan or Gretzky or Ali, and everything I hoped professional bass fishing could become – I thought, maybe, I was mistaken.
But then the Bass Pro Tour decided to have a June tournament on the Tennessee River.
What we saw at Chickamauga was more than a dominant performance. It was a return of the King. It was all there, just like it had been before. The militant execution, the rapid-fire casting, the relentless grinding of the reel and the trolling motor. Train wreckin ‘em, he said.
Remember, it was VanDam who started that.
The strategic use of lures he designed and perfected, accenting a system of equipment made to perform at a higher level. Everything was better. VanDam’s fish were hooked better. He fought them more aggressively and strategically; he’d mastered all the details. The way VanDam kept the bass moving and directed on a short line, and reached out and grabbed them across the back. He started that, too.
VanDam is a statistician; nothing is left to chance. He doesn’t swing fish in or boat-flip them and cause a penalty. VanDam doesn’t make mistakes because he’s not surprised by what’s happening. He doesn’t credit luck for his success because luck has nothing to do with it.
Every detail that we watched – all of those things that just seemed to go VanDam’s way – those were all examples of a calculated superior performance. Train wreckin’ right before our eyes. I know; I’ve watched it before.
Most anglers, competitive or not, will never understand the sheer physical demands of the VanDam performance at Chickamauga. Four days of intense, cast-and-retrieve fishing, combined with the environmental challenges of a summertime tournament, can be brutal by themselves. But the BPT format takes it to another level.
Here, every sizable bass counts. The instant a competitor boats a keeper, he needs to get his bait back in the water and try for another, relentlessly, over and over. There’s no culling fish, or changing to a big-fish tactic, or taking a boat ride to another area, or resting because you’ve got five. There’s just another, and another and another. Because you’re chasing guys like Jacob Wheeler and Edwin Evers, and they’re sure not going to take a lunch break.
And what we watched, what we all waited for and hoped would happen, we got. We got VanDam in position, dialing it in, pushing everyone else out of his way. He took their spinning rods and fancy worms and Pan-O-Scopes and sat them all down.
In the course of 20 minutes, VanDam went from 3 pounds out to 25 ahead. The announcers didn’t try to explain what was happening or try to talk over him. They just watched, in awe, like the rest of us. It was VanDam’s turn to speak again with his rod and reel, and demonstrate what we thought we knew all along.
Returning a champion. Ali over Spinks. Tiger at the Masters.
VanDam’s victory is burned in my memory along with others of the same caliber. And while he’d likely never tell which is his greatest, I’d imagine the Classics top his list.
But Chickamauga ’21 will always top mine. Even if KVD goes on to win another, or a dozen more, regardless of place or time or payday, nothing can top this one. Because it wasn’t just VanDam who won. We all did.
All the junkies that hoped; who knew a competitor – an athlete – could take hold of this game and bring it to another level. We all returned triumphant.
Long live the King.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)