Kevin VanDam’s longstanding motto is that “It’s all about the attitude,” but a corollary to that rule could be that “It’s not about the bait.” As a result of his incredible angling intuition, his indominable spirit and exceptional work ethic, VanDam likely could’ve been competitive at the highest levels of pro angling with any closeout bin lures he managed to scrape up.
“He can catch ‘em on a cigarette butt in a parking lot mud puddle,” some might say.
Nevertheless, the master technician has benefited from an extreme attention to detail and longstanding partnerships with leading tackle manufacturers that have consistently put him at the front of the technology pack. He has helped to develop some of the most advanced, widely-used and top money-producing lures in the game, and often it was his tournament exploits that introduced them to the broader fishing public.
When he first burst onto the scene, VanDam was already an exceptionally versatile angler, but he made his name with a spinnerbait. Other top pros, like Jimmy Houston, had asserted that “90 percent of the fish live in 10 percent of the water,” and that by making more casts than anyone else with a spinnerbait – often roll-casting with a short, pistol grip rod – they could consistently be competitive. VanDam took that to the next level. He was and is a ball of fast-twitch muscle, able to make more, longer and more accurate casts than anyone else. His spinnerbait retrieve is hardly a chunk and wind endeavor. He’s constantly twitching it, maneuvering it, making this simple contraption of wire, lead and rubber into a living, moving thing. He also demonstrated that it’s not just a regional or seasonal tool. It’s good in more than 10 percent of the water, excelling for roaming clear water smallmouths, current-based spotted bass, and largemouths living in the shallow swamps alike. Through his collaborations with Strike King, it’s possible for weekend anglers to use the same spinnerbaits as KVD, but you’ll have to bring your own energy and imagination to the table.
Because he was a natural power fisherman, VanDam excelled with a range of hard baits. As with a spinnerbait, his hand in the Strike King Red Eye Shad brought lipless crankbaits to their next natural iteration. The lure works well on a straight retrieve, but it shimmies like a soft stickbait on the fall. He could cover water and impart action to trigger strikes from hesitant biters. It was the key to his masterful Classic win at Lay Lake in 2010. He was equally adept with a jerkbait. He won the 2005 Bassmaster Classic on Pittsburgh’s stingy Three Rivers with a discontinued Rogue, but worked with Strike King to build a better mousetrap that worked for prespawn southern largemouths and summertime northern largemouths with equally amazing results – and he has the checks to prove them.
Where he really excelled and made a name for himself, however, was with crankbaits. The fast- moving lures fit his style, and he had the conditioning and the drive to make them work for him before others could fully embrace the style. To that point, in the first six years of Bassmaster Elite Series competition he earned nine top 10 finishes on TVA impoundments in the summertime, eight of them top fours, with three runner-up finishes and two wins – primarily with lures like the Strike King 6XD. He was simply better at finding the schools, getting them fired up, and extracting the largest specimens to take back to weigh-in. Others could have one day of excellence, but could rarely manage their fish like KVD. He found the most schools, the biggest schools and could make them bite. In addition to cementing the role of the 6XD and its brethren in angling history, he even introduced a signature color, “Sexy Shad.”
He brought that same intensity and technical skill to shallow cranking. His signature Strike King KVD 1.5 likely became the best-selling square bill of all time because not only was it affordable, combining the features of the best JDM lures and handmade balsa baits, but also because Kevin consistently put on a clinic with it. Whether it was at a large impoundment like Oklahoma’s Grand Lake or a tough-fishing river, it was always in his hands. At the 2011 Bassmaster Classic on the Louisiana Delta, he switched form a spinnerbait on Day One to the crankbait on Day Two, and that was a large part of what separated him from other top competitors fishing a cast-length away.
While the baits were critical to his wins, and he succeeded because he knew them inside and out, much of this focus on his tools obscures VanDam’s great versatility. Despite not being known as a finesse guru, during a 2005 Bassmaster E50 at Lake Lewisville in Texas, he landed a then lake record 11 pound 13 ounce largemouth on a shakey head. He won the 2001 Classic on the Louisiana Delta pitching a creature bait. In a 2017 Elite Series win on New York’s St. Lawrence River, a spybait played a huge role in his victory. That’s the ultimate lesson from VanDam’s storied career – while it’s critical to have the best tools available and to know them inside and out, ultimately it’s the angler, not the tool, that creates greatness. Tackle design has come a long way as a result of KVD’s focus and insistence, but there will likely never be another angler who matches his sheer impact on tournament competition.