There are those who have compared Kevin VanDam's dominance in the fishing game to that of Tiger Woods in golf, but judging from his Classic practice habits, it might be time to call him The Shark.
Two weeks before the Classic and in need of a good fishing warm-up, VanDam followed World's Greatest Fishing Show host Mark Zona to Key West, Fla., to put together a show sight-fishing for sharks.
VanDam said he didn't fish much over the winter and thought the trip might be a good way to get back into the game.
It might have backfired.
"When we were leaving, I told Mark it's really hard to get fired up thinking about going to Birmingham where it's 40 degrees, looking for a 3-pound spot," VanDam said. "I've been fortunate to do some really great trips. I've gone to South America to fish for peacock bass, Mexico bass, Costa Rica saltwater, Bahamas flats, Florida, caught redfish and things like that.
"Give me sight fishing for shark. This is definitely a top-notch trip."
The party before the party
Bo Johnson was nervous.
Johnson fished the catch and release Madfin shark tournament on ESPN and knew there was no better shark fishing destination in the country than Key West, but the best angler in the world was coming to town and he wanted to be sure.
"There was a cold front that had just blown through," Johnson said. "I knew it was good but things weren't exactly setting up perfectly."
To add to his stress, his friends from Key West, like Madfin partner Bryan Holeman, were telling him the fishing was terrible.
"They were lying," he said. "They wanted to see me sweat."
The day started with barracuda, which would later be used as bait, and by VanDam's estimation, it started well.
"I had almost as much fun fishing for the bait," VanDam said. "I would have been happy if the day ended there."
Holeman, who guides out of Key West, said barracuda is one of the most underrated game fish.
"They attack the bait, they fight, they jump – they do everything you'd expect a game fish to do," he said.
For good measure, in the interim between barracuda fishing and shark fishing, Holeman decided to take a few minutes to see if VanDam could get a permit. It took five.
"Fastest permit catch I've seen in my life," Holeman said. "It took Kevin 20 minutes to get it to the boat. He looked at me smiling and said, 'Well, that was easy.'"
Sight fishing for shark
Shark were attacking the chum line from all directions in 2-foot of gin-clear water.
"It's almost indescribable," Zona said. "I grew up obsessed with sharks. My mom would buy my shark books every year for Christmas. And here I was in the middle of 'Jaws.' You could see the fins on top of the water charging toward the boat."
VanDam was the first to hook up and spent the next 20 minutes wrestling an angry shark. Twenty minutes later he was holding the largest catch of his life.
"The very first one I caught is the biggest fish I've ever caught. The second one was the biggest fish I've ever caught. The third one is the biggest fish I've ever caught," VanDam said. "I don't think I'd ever caught a 100-pound fish before, and the first shark I caught was a 400-pounder."
The action didn't slow down all day, although VanDam was surprised at how smart and skittish the sharks were. Johnson was impressed with how quick VanDam caught on and how precise he was with his casts. To VanDam, fishing – in a lot of ways -- is fishing, which is why he didn't mind shark fishing to warm up for the bass fishing season.
"Sight fishing is about your ability to see in the water, which is easy to do if you have the proper eye wear, reading the fish, and knowing when to speed up the retrieve, when to stop it and when to slow it down," VanDam said. "It didn't take us long to fit in. It's similar in a lot of ways, it just different equipment, different bait and you're fishing for different fish, but it's still sight fishing for predators."
Johnson described it as "a day you never want to end." Every shark caught was released, but large ones were pulled
into the boat first for photos. They lost count of how many they caught, but almost all of them were between 8 and 12 feet long.
"The big thing for Mark and I both, when we get together, we're pretty excitable especially when were catching fish," VanDam said. "We were deathly silent out there. You didn't want to miss anything. That will not be the last time I do that. I want to get my kids down there and experience that so bad. For anybody, it's a great trip, especially with these guys. They really knew what they were doing."
VanDam and Zona were ice fishing a week later for bluegill and the occasional bass, trying to feel the lightest tug from a lethargic, cold fish. It was the other half of VanDam's Classic prep, and a good way to help someone appreciate winter in Alabama.
"I promise you that at some point while Kevin's fishing the Classic, he'll be thinking about shark fishing," Zona said. "It was that good."
To set up your own trip with Bo Johnson, contact him at 239-633-4662 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Bryan Holeman, (727) 452-6917 or