Kevin VanDam’s approach to competitive bass fishing can be described many ways: fast, cerebral, clutch, prepared, confident, unyielding. In a word, relentless.
VanDam, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, has been a professional bass angler for three decades, and in that span he’s basically rewritten the record book. He’s earned eight Angler of the Year awards – seven with B.A.S.S. and one with FLW – and finished in the top 10 in 121 tournaments en route to 28 victories, four of which are Bassmaster Classic titles. His career earnings total of $6.8 million is the most ever, some $2.7 million ahead of the No. 2 angler. And by all accounts, he’s still at the top of his game.
VanDam is certainly among the best bass anglers in history, and arguably the greatest to ever wet a line. Comparisons to basketball’s Michael Jordan and hockey’s Wayne Gretzky have been made, and without hyperbole. Like Jordan, Gretzky or any other generational talent, VanDam owes much of his success to singular focus. He has not only a willingness to put in the work, but a devotion to it.
“It's what I love to do,” he said. “I love the competitive aspects, and I've never once had to fight to get myself out of bed in the morning to get ready and go. You have to love it. You have to have a passion for it, and that's what motivates me.
“Catching the bass is fun, but for me it's figuring out what it takes to put that plan together. And then to be able to go and execute it over a three- or four-day span is what’s gratifying to me. The thrill of figuring out the puzzle and trying to do it better and faster than your competitors; that’s what I love.”
VanDam made his pro debut in 1990 at age 22 with his life savings – $23,000 he’d accumulated while working for his father’s construction company and his brother’s sporting goods store – on the table to finance a year of professional angling. That’s when the legend of the “Kalamazoo Kid” started to take shape. VanDam placed third in that first tournament and won a boat worth $20,000 for his efforts. He then placed in the money in his next 22 B.A.S.S. events to solidify his position on tour.
Now 52, VanDam is certainly no kid anymore, but he’s still known as a prolific power fisherman, regularly making thousands of casts per tournament day and covering vast amounts of water while competing on the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour. And, as most people who perform at a high level for many years do, VanDam has held fast to his commitment to lifelong learning and self-improvement.
“I've been doing it now professionally for 30 years, and every single time, every single tournament, I'm amazed at how much I'm still learning,” VanDam said. “That hunger for knowledge, to figure out the next new thing or the next big breakthrough, is what pushes me. It’s crazy that there's still so much that's new.”
VanDam and his wife, Sherry, are still based in Kalamazoo, and their twin sons, Jackson and Nicholas, are 23. When not competing, Kevin is an ardent deer hunter and enjoys spending time outdoors with his family.
He said one of his keys to tournament success is controlling the things he can control, such as insisting on the finest equipment available and taking meticulous care of it. Whether it’s line, lures, clothing, rods or electronics, VanDam ensures that he never has anything less than the best on the market. He’s been using Mercury outboards practically his entire career, and currently runs a NITRO Z21 with a 4.6L V8 250hp Mercury Pro XS engine.
Another thing that VanDam says separates the elite from the journeyman is how you react to adversity and mistakes.
“One of the big things for me is if something negative happens – like you lose a fish – there's nothing you can do to get it back, so you’ve just got to put it behind you and have a good attitude,” he said. “And then try to use what you learn to get that next bite, to go get another one. Nobody likes it when bad things happen, but when the weather changes or you lose a fish or there's somebody on your best spot when you get there, you’ve got to just put that out of your mind and move on.
“You have to keep believing that the next cast is going to be the one. You just don't quit. You just keep going and throwing, and right at the wire you might catch a big one that’ll be the difference-maker.”
To learn more about Kevin VanDam and to get exclusive tips and techniques, please visit kevinvandam.com.