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Now on to retirement: VanDam led bass fishing into its modern age

by Bryan Hendricks | March 19, 2023 at 2:35 a.m.
Kevin VanDam, who recently announced his retirement from professional fishing, is one of seven anglers to win more than one Bassmaster Classic title. He also won seven Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles and won an FLW Angler of the Year title. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., one of the greatest bass anglers of all time, recently announuced his retirement from professional fishing.

VanDam, known in the bass fishing world as KVD, is one of only seven anglers to win more than one Bassmaster Classic title. Only VanDam and Rick Clunn have won more than two. Both won four.

VanDam also won seven Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles. That's second only to Roland Martin, who won nine. VanDam also won an FLW Angler of the Year title.

VanDam began fishing professionally in 1990 at age 23 and won his first Angler of the Year title in 1992. He competed in 315 tournaments, most recently the Redcrest Bass Fishing Championship at Charlotte, N.C. He won 25 tournaments, an 8% winning percentage. He finished 112 times in the top 10, 177 times in the top 20, and 220 times in the top 30. He won more than $7 million and earned considerable amounts in corporate sponsorships and appearance fees.

VanDam was also one of the founders of Major League Fishing, an innovative tournament organization that redefined tournament bass fishing. It also lured away many of the top names on the Bassmaster Elite Series, causing an unfortunate rift between VanDam and the organization where he earned his fame and fortune.

A radio personality in a top-five market who is close to VanDam told me that the angler spends about 240 days on the road away from home. He has missed a lot of importantly family milestones, which certainly affected his decision to retire. His wife Sherry reportedly warned him not to "pull a Brady" on her and return for another season after announcing his retirement.

VanDam's professional career began the same year I began covering professional fishing in earnest, although my first tournament story was about George Cochran's 1987 Bassmaster Classic victory on the Ohio River at Louisville.

In 1990, VanDam was a fresh face among grizzled legends like Clunn, Cochran, Larry Nixon, Denny Brauer, and Guido Hibdon. Some of the original BASS founders were still fishing then. That was back when professional anglers still wore jumpsuits and ballcaps perched high on their heads.

Nixon, Clunn, Cochran, and the others were still at the tops of their games at that time. Winning a regular Bassmaster event didn't pay a lot of money in the 1980s and 90s except for special events like the old Bassmaster Megabucks tournaments. Nixon dominated the special BASS events and made a fortune.

VanDam was a transitional figure who bridged the generations between the old guard and the new guard of the late Bryan Kerchal, Mike Iaconelli and the late Aaron Martens. As the old guard faded, VanDam became an unstoppable force who combined the most formidable traits of Nixon and Clunn. He was the favorite in almost every tournament after about 2000, as his Top 20 percentage demonstrates.

He also spoke differently than the old guard. He was deliberate and precise. He is tall with chiseled features. The camera liked him, which made him a perfect fit for the newly arriving video age that came to define professional bass fishing.

BASS recognized his potential early and groomed him to be a star. He had the game to make himself a superstar at a time when ESPN set out to make BASS as big as NASCAR. Sponsors from outside the fishing world infused millions into the sport and made it possible for anglers like KVD to become very wealthy entirely within the fishing world.

A few things stand out about KVD. In 1997, when he was still relatively fresh, he helped me with one of my first "Bassmaster" magazine articles. It was a piece about left-handed retrieve baitcasting reels. Only a few manufacturers made them at that time, but that article put them into the mainstream.

At the Bassmaster Elite 50 tournament at Lake Dardanelle in 2005, I saw VanDam fishing a riprap bank along Arkansas 326. I sat down on the riprap and interviewed VanDam while he fished. He was relaxed, open and highly engaging. He told me what he was throwing, why he was throwing it, how he was throwing it, how he was presenting it and why he was fishing that particular location. Those few minutes gave me a lot of insight into VanDam's mystical decision-making processes.

At the 2007 Bassmaster Classic at Birmingham, Ala., VanDam and Skeet Reese flanked the champion Boyd Duckett. Reese was incredulous that a nobody like Duckett came from the Bassmaster Open Series to beat the bluebloods of the Elite Series. Reese thought he had that Classic in the bag, and he couldn't get over the fact that this semi-pro trucking magnate snatched it from him.

VanDam, a two-time Classic champion, shrugged and calmly explained how difficult it is to reach the Classic through the Open Series, let alone win it. VanDam said he had thought about fishing the Open Series himself but decided against it because it was "too darned tough." He said that Duckett earned his place and earned the win and offered him his profound respect.

It was a textbook example of how a champion allows another champion to savor his moment. VanDam won two more Classics after that. Duckett, another founder of Major League Fishing, never won another.

  photo  Kevin VanDam won 25 tournaments in his career with 112 career top-10 finishes, 177 top-20 finishes and 220 top-30 finishes. He earned more then $7 million in prize money to go along with considerable amounts in corporate sponsorships and appearance fees. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

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