Editor's note: Anglers across the U.S. are buying fishing licenses in record numbers. Following is a story in our new series, Fishing America, representing a slice of American angling pursuits.
Back around 1970, a father took his 3-year-old son ice fishing near Mecosta, Mich., on School Section Lake, aptly named as that kid has gone on to school everyone in competitive bass fishing.
It was an inauspicious start.
"Mainly, I think I just ran around and threw ice in the hole. It was a good fishing trip because I wasn't stuck in a boat," said Kevin VanDam, the reigning Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year who goes for his fifth title this week.
In our Fishing America series, we've had anglers fishing to feed themselves, or their church congregation. We've featured anglers who fish for fun and relaxation and those who just simply fell in love with fishing.
VanDam is all that and more. The two-time Bassmaster Classic champion from Kalamazoo, Mich., has career earnings of nearly $3.5 million, providing for wife Sherry and twin sons Jackson and Nicholas well. But for the man regarded as the best competitive bass angler in the world, enjoyment from fishing is foremost.
"Everything in our life revolves around it in one shape or form," he said. "We love to do it as recreation. Some people would say, 'Let's go do something away from fishing,' but this is what we like to do."
Schools can't open in Michigan by state law until after Labor Day, so the VanDams were on one final summer hurrah before he headed to Alabama for the inaugural Toyota Trucks Championship Week, two events over 10 days to decide the AOY title.
"I'm boning up on a few things I'm thinking about down there," VanDam said as he prepared for the Berkley Powerbait Trophy Chase, Sept. 12-13 on Lake Jordan from Wetumpka, Ala., and the Sept. 17-18 finale, the Evan Williams Bourbon Trophy Triumph on the Alabama River out of Montgomery.
Leading Skeet Reese by one point, KVD is favored to win his fifth title and the $200,000 prize. He said he never imagined such heights when he caught his first bass almost 35 years ago.
"I can't remember the first fish I caught; I remember the first smallmouth bass I caught like it was yesterday," he said.
Like his older brother Randy, Kevin had to wait until he was 7 to go with his father on a company fishing trip. It was near Traverse City, Mich., that KVD first connected with a smallmouth bass, starting the fishing legend on his way.
"From a young age, I was pretty ate up with it," he said.
With trout creel loaded with tackle strapped around his neck, VanDam would hold his Zebco 33 on the handlebars as he rode his bike to a lake a mile from his home. He and friends would also visit little ponds and trout streams.
"I'd pack a sandwich and be gone all day," he said. "Growing up, I'd fish for whatever was in season, but bass was always my favorite."
His grandparents had a lake on their property and he said if he was lucky somebody would take him out there.
VanDam can't pinpoint his first largemouth, but he can detail his first big one.
The family was on a trip to Disney World and he found a fishing hole in Zephyrhills, Fla. Behind the hotel was a pond in a cow pasture, and the 8-year-old wandered over and landed an 8-pound largemouth.
Competitive events began at 14 as he and brother Randy fished in a team jackpot tournament, finishing second and earning some change, which he thought was "pretty cool." He then joined a bass club and fished around town.
Virgil Ward's fishing show was among those he digested, and he'd catch the Sunday evening broadcast of the Bassmasters, still not imaging what would become of his life and fishing.
"I never dreamed of it. I was reading Bassmaster Magazine and watching those guys on TV. Roland was on TV, and I followed the tournaments pretty close," he said. "The real deal for me was when the Bassmasters started airing on TV. That was the deal."
His first tournament with BASS was the 1988 Arkansas Invitation out of Bull Shoals, where he earned $1,300 for finishing 19th in a 290-man field that was topped by Rick Clunn. In his 219 BASS events, he has 15 victories and $3,458,476.30 in career earnings.
Yet fishing is more to him than winnings. Way more. Contacted on the family trip to Traverse Bay, the VanDams were out on the water fishing "Back where it all started," he said.
But the trip wasn't all about fishing. It also included "a little bit of everything," bike riding on Mackinac Island, canoeing on the Platte River and searching the shores of Lake Michigan for Petoskey Stones, the state rock.
"It's fun up here. The water's so clear," he said announcing he was in 18 feet of water. "You can see the bottom just like looking through the air."
Deer hunting was on VanDam's mind as bow season opens Oct. 1. He and his 12-year-olds were heading to another cabin to fish some more and shoot their bows.
"I think they like hunting as much as fishing," he said, turning to his sons and asking, "Which do you like better, hunting or fishing? They said both the same.
"I'm not pushing them at anything. I want them to make their own choices. They interested in lots of things."
Fishing is high among them, and Jackson and Nicholas have already visited a variety of venues. The VanDams have fished for Peacock bass on the Amazon and made a trip to Spain for a bass tournament. (They are looking forward to a Thanksgiving trip to the Bahamas.) When school has allowed, the boys have traveled extensively on the Elite Series tour.
"It's hard when they're in school and I'm on tour," VanDam said. "They have a map with pins at cities they've been to, and there's a lot of pins in it."
VanDam said commitments keep him from fishing every day, but that's about the only thing stopping him.
"Fishing ... I love it. I'd love to fish every day, especially up here," he said, again mentioning his appreciation for the scenery it presents. "I love fishing places like this where I can see everything. It's almost like glass out here today. It's doesn't happen like that often."