As a lanky 22-year-old angler, Kevin VanDam burst onto the professional fishing scene nine seasons ago with an impact reminiscent of a young Roland Martin by cashing checks in his first 18 tournaments after turning pro. That proved to be just the coming-out party for the Whiz Kid from Michigan who has remained a force on the BASSMASTER Tournament Trail each and every season.
VanDam^s career has always been in the same gear that he fishes - high. He went on to win the 1992 and ^96 B.A.S.S. Angler-of-the-Year titles, capture five BASSMASTER tournaments, qualify for the prestigious BASS Masters Classic world championship each of his nine seasons and pocket more than $800,000 in B.A.S.S. funds.
On May 16, VanDam joined a very exclusive club by winning his third B.A.S.S. Angler-of-the-Year award. His heady company is limited to just Roland Martin and Bill Dance as the owners of three or more Angler-of-the-Year crowns.
It was at the $621,000 Kmart BASSMASTER MegaBucks Tournament on Old Hickory Lake near Nashville that the 32-year-old fishing phenom wrapped-up his third MVP title by qualifying for the MegaBucks finals (finishing eighth). He finished the 1998-99 season with 849 points, followed by Texas^ Zell Rowland (800), Larry Nixon of Arkansas (799) and Texan Alton Jones (791).
"It really took a couple of days for it to sink in that I had won my third Angler of the Year. It^s something that I strive for each year, one of my main goals for the season. Angler of the Year is the ultimate sign of consistency. So it^s real satisfying to win another one. Now, though, my mind is on the Classic."
VanDam enjoyed a solid season, finishing no worse than 24th the entire season. He had three top-10 showings, as well as three top-16 performances. Although the Angler of the Year award is decided on points (based on the pro^s finish in each event), VanDam also caught more overall weight during the season (228 1/2 pounds) than his closest competitor (Rowland with 182.5 pounds).
His consistency is not lost on his fellow pros.
"I think he^s the ultimate student of the sport," four-time Classic champion Rick Clunn said. "He^s had a total commitment from a very early age. I think that^s his strongest point. He^s got youth on his side. He^s intelligent. He^s confident.
"He^s yet to meet his greatest tests. But a lot of people never get to that stage. He will get to that. And that is when you^ve accomplished all of your goals - and I think Kevin has - and there^s nothing else to shoot at, but yourself, can you shoot at yourself? When you first get started, you^re shooting at other things, like the Classic, Angler of the Year, you^re shooting at Roland Martin or Rick Clunn. But once you^ve shot all of those down and you become the target, then it^s a little bit harder."
VanDam acknowledges Clunn^s praise, but points to the upcoming Classic (July 29-31 in New Orleans) as his next target and the most important goal he has yet to accomplish.
"There are still a lot of things I haven^t accomplished at this level," he said. "I really want to win a Classic badly, like every angler does.
"I haven^t won a MegaBucks tournament. I can point out a lot of things I want to win. After I win one Classic, it^s like, well, I want to win two or three or four. It^s like when you^ve got a 20-pound stringer, you want to get a 25. It^s about never being satisfied."