While most pro anglers will never approach the lifetime earnings of NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball stars, there is nevertheless one potential advantage of chasing bass for cash: Career longevity. Relatively early competitors on the Bassmaster trail like Rick Clunn and Larry Nixon continue to compete, while others like Roland Martin and Jimmy Houston keep a hand in the game in other ways. The career of Kevin VanDam, who fished his first Bassmaster event in 1987, before many of today’s top pros were born, and announced his “retirement” from competitive fishing this year, was long enough that it can be divided into five distinct phases:
The Young Gun
VanDam burst onto the scene as a brash young man, ready to take on the world. There’s an apocryphal story that he introduced himself to Larry Nixon and told the 1983 Bassmaster Classic winner that he was going to kick his butt. Whether that’s true or not, that’s more or less how he came across, and he had the receipts to back it up. He won the first of his seven Bassmaster Angler of the Year awards in 1992 and his first win – at Georgia’s Lake Lanier – in 1991. In 1995, he published “Kevin VanDam’s Bass Strategies” and by the end of the 1990s he’d won six B.A.S.S. tournaments two more AOYs.
The Hall of Fame Campaign
While VanDam established himself as a star in the 1990s, with three AOY awards and nine Bassmaster Classic appearances, he’d yet to win the big one. He’d come close, finishing in the top 10 on five occasions, but each time had fallen a little bit short. In some respects, he was a victim of his own success – in the pre-internet age he attracted hordes of followers on competition days, which may have impacted his ability to move or to trigger fish to bite. At the start of the next century, though, he left no doubt as to his credentials, or his ability to close out a major victory. He won the 2001 Classic on the Louisiana Delta pitching a creature bait, and then won the 2005 Classic on Pittsburgh’s tough Three Rivers with a discontinued jerkbait. The two Classic wins brought him up into rare company. When ESPN tallied up the votes in their 2005 “Greatest Angler Debate,” Rick Clunn was voted the top angler of all time, and the 38 year-old VanDam slid into the five spot, behind Roland Martin, Bill Dance and Denny Brauer. Notably, all of the top 10, including KVD, are in the Hall today.
Perhaps the “Greatest Angler” snub angered him. More likely it was just his exceptional skill set and hyper competitiveness – but as he entered his forties KVD exerted a sheer level of dominance unlike any the sport had ever seen. The icing on the cake was four consecutive AOY titles from 2008 through 2011, and back-to-back Classic wins in 2010 and 2011, but the real measure was the fear that he struck into other anglers and the admiration he got from adoring fans. There was simply never a tournament where he could be counted out. He occupied the highest ownership percentages of Fantasy Fishing rosters for good reason – he was always a threat to win. After the win in Pittsburgh through his second Louisiana Delta Classic victory (February of 2011), he won 10 Bassmaster tournaments. They came as far south as Florida, and as far west as Oklahoma. Oddly enough, despite continually being in the hunt up north during that period, he didn’t manage a signature northern victory. He fixed that decisively in 2016 and 2017 when he won three Bassmaster tournaments in New York. He also found time to win an ESPN ESPY in 2002.
As KVD entered his late forties and early fifties, once again to some extent he was a victim of his own success. The techniques and gear that he had honed and popularized over the course of his unparalleled career became available to anglers across the country and across the world. Just as a young Michigan angler had come to the tour barely out of his high school days to take on and generally dominate a southern-based sport, now young anglers from all over could come at VanDam with his own lessons in their arsenal. He continued to excel on and off the water – after all, even if they had his lesson plans, no one can purchase or just mainline his intensity and instincts. He also became one of bass fishing’s greatest ambassadors. He worked with friend and mentor Johnny Morris on a range of conservation projects and shortly after being inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame he joined the organization’s Board of Directors.
The only question is what comes next. Despite Fitzgerald’s admonition that there are no second acts in American lives, VanDam has the distinct pedestal and currency to add to his legacy. There’s no question that he has too much intensity to sit on the couch and rest on his laurels, and not being required to haul a boat around the country will give him more time than he’s had in decades. The rest of the story remains to be written.