Kevin VanDam in 1991 after winning the 1991 B.A.S.S. Invitational AOY and qualifying for his first BASS Masters Classic. The South Bend Tribune Sunday August 18 1991.

Today in The Kalamazoo Kid 1991, we’re going to look back at the start of Kevin VanDam’s professional career, the first year he went on tour full time.  Prior to the start of the 1990/91 season, KVD had fished four Bassmaster events, the first being in 1987 when he was just shy of 20-years-old.

At the start of the 1990/91 season, KVD was one month shy of 23-years-old but had a string of impressive performances already in the Michigan Federation.  The six seasons between 1985 and 1990 he won AOY twice and placed second two other years.  His life was fishing and working at his brother Randy’s sports shop, D&R Sports Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

For his age, VanDam not only had the angling skills but the maturity of anglers twice his age.  His confidence was high and he didn’t let the longtime pros get into his head.

His first event of the season, the New York Invitational on the St. Lawrence River, he placed third and won $17,000 with 40-pounds, 2-ounces.  Some might have said it was a northern event and being from Michigan, KVD knew how to fish the waters.

The second event was the Maryland Invitational on the Potomac River.  Here he placed 48th (22-03) and I’m sure the veteran anglers weren’t paying much attention to him.  Still, VanDam made a check for $1,000 and gleaned weight for the Invitational AOY race.

Next, the first of two Florida Invitationals was held at the midway point.  At this event, on famed Lake Okeechobee, VanDam placed 35th (24-04), made another check ($1,550), and gained more weight towards the AOY.

Then came the St. Johns River event.

VanDam pulled off a second-place finish in the second Florida Invitational with a 40-pound, 15-ounce bag of fish over three days.  At this point he had a total of 127-pounds, 8-ounces, more than eight pounds ahead of second place AOY angler Jimmy Houston.

It was the first time in the history of B.A.S.S. that a Yankee was in the lead for AOY.  But KVD wasn’t the youngest angler to lead the AOY race, that was Gary Klein in 1979 where halfway through the season he led at the age of 21 1/2 years old.

At this point, anglers had to notice VanDam.  1980 Classic winner Bo Dowden said, “I hope he doesn’t step on his bubblegum,” while others said “The Cinderella Story is soon to end.

In the final two events of the season, Lake Guntersville and Truman Reservoir, VanDam would finish 14th and 21st respectively and pick up another 72-pounds, 1-ounce for a total of 199-09.  He would win the Invitational AOY title his rookie season by nearly 12 pounds, qualifying him for the 1991 BASS Masters Classic as well as the BP Top-100 in 1991/92, the equivalent of the Elite Series today.

The Classic would be VanDam’s testing ground as to how well he handled pressure.

BASSMaster senior writer and outdoor writer for The South Bend Tribune, Louie Stout, penned several articles about VanDam coming into the Classic and after.  In one article, published in the August 25, 1991 issue of The Tribune, Stout reflected how VanDam handled the initial press conference the Monday before the start of the Classic.

Here’s what he had to say.

“His first test came at Monday’s press conference when asked to sit at the head of the table between Rick Clunn and [Top-100] Angler of the Year Guido Hibdon.  When his turn came to take the microphone, the lanky youngster was unshakable.

“VanDam’s steely eyes scanned the room.  He answered questions quickly and articulately.”

From the same article, Denny Brauer had this to say about the young rookie.

“I’ve watched him closely.  “He handles himself well with the press.  He’s cool under pressure.  And he’s got confidence.  A lot of guys can catch fish but they can’t handle the pressure.”

The big talk these days in competitive fishing is the young guns are taking over.  I argue that is not the case, especially when you bring up Gary Klein, Kevin VanDam, Greg Ward, Timmy Horton, and many other young anglers from the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  Then the people I’m arguing with say something like, “yeah, but that was just one rookie a year.”

My reply to that statement is back then we didn’t have YouTube, Bass University, High School and College fishing teams, and the electronics of today.  All this leads to faster learning, which leads to more top-notch kids coming into the fold quicker and in higher numbers.

Back to VanDam.

The Kalamazoo Kid went on to become the best angler bass fishing has ever seen by the turn of the century.  He would win 25 Bassmaster events, including four Classics, qualify for 28 Classics, and make money a staggering 80% of the time on the Bassmaster Trail.  His total winnings after leaving B.A.S.S. in 2019 wound up at $6,447,476.33.

That youngster from the funny-named town in Michigan didn’t step on his bubblegum.