Moneta, Va. — As the remaining 50 anglers prepared for the third day of the Advance Auto Parts Blue Ridge Brawl at Smith Mountain Lake this morning, those in second through 50th found themselves in a common position — trailing Kevin VanDam.
It's like Groundhog Day, a broken record and déjà vu all over again rolled up into one.
It wasn't necessarily meant to be this way. VanDam is known as the king of moving baits, a man who constantly keeps his 36-volt trolling motor on high, so with the tournament setting up to be a sight fisherman's bonanza, few expected him in the winner's circle. No one doubted that he'd get a check — after all, he virtually always does — but he wasn't expected to add $100,000 to his already unmatched fortune of BASS winnings. He's doing something slightly different than most of the field, as evidenced by the fact that six of the 10 fish he has weighed in so far has been smallmouths, but he also confirmed that his primary technique is sight fishing.
Aaron Martens, known as one of the best and most innovative sight fishermen in the Elite Series field, tried to call VanDam's bluff. "He says he can't bed fish, but he's just blowing smoke," Martens said.
Despite all the bluster and clichés about "fishing against the fish, not the anglers," for most of the field VanDam's omnipresence at the top of the heap can occasionally start to wear on them.
Todd Faircloth, who ultimately ended up on the short end of a down-to-the-wire Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year race against VanDam last year, admitted that "it gets a little tiring" to always see KVD at the top of the leader board, but admitted that "we've come to expect it."
Skeet Reese, who similarly battled VanDam down to the wire for the AOY crown in 2007, but ended up besting KVD in an epic battle, was also unsurprised by VanDam's position at the top of the leader board. "We all know Kevin's skills," he said. "But sometimes he even surprises himself. I don't think he expected to catch 17 pounds, but he's just that good."
While VanDam is at the top of the standings today with 32-09, there's not much separation among the leaders. He's ahead of Fred Roumbanis by 14 ounces and leads Kelly Jordon by just 15 ounces. The 12th place angler, Byron Velvick, has 28-03, so it won't take much of a stumble for the top twelve to shake up. But when trailing VanDam, every ounce of difference seems to be magnified. It's almost like the concept of "dog years" — what would normally be a small gap deepens into an impassable chasm.
Just as the gap between first and 12th is relatively small, so too is the difference between 12th and 50th. Scott Campbell, the last man inside the cut with 23-04, is less than 5 pounds behind Velvick. If any of the anglers currently outside of the top 12 puts together a 20 pound bag, he could make a huge move up the ladder. With last night's warm temperatures, a new wave of big females may have locked onto their beds. Martens said that he saw a bunch of large bass "floating" on the edge of bedding areas yesterday afternoon, waiting for the opportunity to fully engage in the spawning ritual as soon as possible.
During practice, Campbell saw six fish over four pounds in a single 60-yard stretch of bank. They were nowhere to be found on Thursday or yesterday morning, but by the afternoon he found them cruising the area, getting ready to lock down. He noted that after last night's warm temperatures the water was already "warmer this morning than it has been all week," so he'll swing for the fences today and try to leapfrog up into a Sunday appearance. He said that "19 or 20 pounds is a doable thing. Kelly Jordon showed us that on Thursday."
Reese will also shoot for a 20 pound bag, but while he'll do everything he can to fish tomorrow, his primary motivation has a longer time horizon: "The only thing I have in mind is the Angler of the Year race. Winning (the tournament) would be great, but I want to make sure I don't step on my foot and take myself out of it. In this one I haven't had the opportunity to be in the top 12 so far, so I'm thankful to survive this long and get a chance to rally."
Reese entered this tournament in 7th in the AOY standings. The top three — Alton Jones, Stephen Browning and Mark Menendez — all failed to make the top 50. But the next three — Gary Klein, VanDam and Mark Tucker — did not. Tucker entered today in 14th place in the tournament. Klein is in 21st. And of course VanDam leads the pack.
While the few select anglers like Reese have done what was thought to be impossible and beaten VanDam at his own game seem to take it all in stride, up-and-comers like Campbell continue to be amazed at KVD's consistency under widely varying conditions.
"He earns it every week," Campbell said. "I don't ever take that for granted. It's just awesome. I hope that I can be around long enough to get to that point someday where I can approach that level."