What I Learned by Bass Fishing with Kevin VanDam, World’s Top Pro Angler
Jon Stokes 08.20.18
“I once fell out of VanDam’s boat, remind me to tell you about it tomorrow,” one of the fishermen on the trip told me as we got ready to go into the water with the Toyota Fishing Team’s most famous and successful member.
Not being much of a fisherman, or someone who even remotely follows the sport, I immediately wondered, “why was this guy fishing with Jean-Claude VanDamme. Is that A Thing? Does Van Damme bass fish in his spare time?”
I soon learned that the VanDam in question would be Kevin VanDam, and some quick Googling on my phone turned up the fact that I was about to get into a bass boat and fish Table Rock Lake with the Wayne Gretzky of pro bass fishing, the Greatest Of All Time, the guy who’s twice as good as the next couple guys put together. Woah.
I knew this trip would be wasted on a fishing newbie like me, but at the very least I could keep my mouth shut and listen and learn. So here is a little bit of what I was able to piece together from a morning of bass fishing with the best in the business at Bass Pro’s Big Cedar Lodge.
ABC: Always Be Casting
The main thing that really struck me hard about fishing with VanDam is how much work it is. He’s always running and gunning. He’s not just leisurely flicking his line out and pulling it back in. No, the man’s lure is always in the water and constantly in just the right amount of motion.
If a fish surfaces in the vicinity, he has a lure on top of it inside of a few seconds, even if he has to real in and rush to the other side of the boat to cast.
The next thing that hit me is just how in charge of the situation VanDam is.
I typically think of fishing as something you try to do, and you’re either lucky or unlucky. If you’re lucky, then you get into some bass and there’s some excitement and a bit of adrenaline. And if you’re unlucky, then a least you spent some relaxing time out on the water.
But VanDam doesn’t depend on luck, because he’s in control of the odds. He’s picking lures and working them, changing it up, changing positions on the lake, strategizing, reading the water. He’s constantly looking for an edge every moment he’s on the water. It’s a race and a workout, and there’s nothing really relaxing about it.
The minute he figures out what he’s doing isn’t working, he changes it up. And I’m not just talking about lures, although he does swap lures when the moment seems to call for it. I’m also talking about location. VanDam gets his money’s worth out of his boat motor, as he’s always speeding full-out from one spot on the lake to another.
He can tell when the fish are active just beneath the surface of a patch of water and when it’s dead under there. Some patch of lake will just look like water to me, but to him it’s “blowing up.” He’ll spot this activity from fairly far away, and then it’s time to reel in quickly and rush over there.
There’s also a fair amount of in-depth knowledge of the lake’s ecosystem involved. He knows what’s feeding on what, and where and when. I got a number of detailed lectures on fish ecology and psychology in the course of the few hours I spent with him, none of which I retained but all of which I found fascinating.
He also takes advantage of every bit of technology at his disposal. He uses his depth finder and lake maps heavily, and he spends considerable time developing his own lures from plastic and molds. He also modifies existing lures, drawing stripe on one, or swapping out the hooks on another.
Leave it to the Pros
Probably all of you who bass fish know this stuff already, but I certainly didn’t. Sure, I’ve been bass fishing plenty of times in my life — I spent the first few years of my life around Toledo Bend, and our family has land up there. But comparing what I’ve done, even with guys who were fairly serious about it, to what VanDam does is like comparing a three-legged-race at an office team-building event to an Olympic sprint. The only similarity is that you’re trying to get fish out of the water with a rod and a lure, other than that it’s a totally different thing.
What’s funny is that when it comes to hunting, I’m well aware of the difficulty and the work that goes into it. No amount of effort surprises me on a hunt, because I know what it is to fret over game movements in run-up to the season, and then douse myself in fake deer pee and stalk around in the woods for hours on end. It ain’t no game; hunting is real work. So it shouldn’t have surprised me at all that fishing, when it’s done for real, is just as much work as hunting is.
All told, though, I have to admit that as thrilled as I was to get the opportunity to watch a GOAT close-up doing the thing that he’s best in the world at, I’m ready to go back to low-stakes, no-pressure bass fishing. Just give me a bobber and a spot in the shade, and let me doze off waiting for it to go under. Now that I’ve seen how serious it gets, I’m happy to leave the competitive fishing to the pros.