Just before his 20th birthday, in 1987, Kevin VanDam dipped his toes into the professional bass scene at the New York Invitational on the St. Lawrence River. His 110th-place finish didn’t deter him as he’d already been whooping up on the Michigan Federation all year. He fished three more events that spanned the 87/88, 88/89, and 89/90 seasons finishing 19th, 39th and 59th, respectively. Today in VanDam’s Rookie Seasons, we’re going to look at his first full rookie season on the Bassmaster Invitational Trail in 1990/91 and then his rookie season on the full Bassmaster Trail in 1991/92, which included the Invitationals and the BP Top-100 Trail.
1990/91 Bassmaster Invitationals
After four events staggered over four years, VanDam, now shy of 24 years old, hit the 1990/91 Bassmaster Invitational Trail as a full-time pro. In his first event, again on the St. Lawrence River, he redeemed himself by finishing third and walked away with $17,000 in cash and merchandise. His second and third events were not as noteworthy, 48th at the Maryland Invitational and 35th at the Florida Invitational (Okeechobee), but he cashed checks in both events.
His fourth event of the season, the Florida Invitational on the St. Johns River, he bounced back, finishing second and pocketing $20,000 in cash and merchandise. He then rounded out the remainder of the season with a 14th at Guntersville, and a 21st at Bull Shoals. His total of 199-pounds 9-ounces for the year gave him an 11-pound, 11-ounce leg up on Bassmaster veteran Guy Eaker as he took Angler of the Year Honors for the Invitationals in 1990/91. Pretty impressive for a first-year rookie out of Michigan.
1991/92 Full Bassmaster Tour
VanDam was making noise, but a few anglers didn’t pay much attention, even after he placed 15th in the 1991 Bassmaster Classic. In fact, one pro angler, veteran Bo Dowden, after being asked what he thought of VanDam’s ’91 performance told Michigan angler Kim Stricker (July/August 1992 issue of Bassmaster Magazine), “Let’s see what happens when he steps on his bubblegum.”
Then 1991/92 season rolled around.
By winning the Invitational AOY in 1990/91, VanDam had qualified for the 1991/92 Bassmaster BP Top-100. But the first event of the season was the Illinois Invitational held on the stingy Mississippi River. VanDam salvaged a 32nd-place finish with a weight of 7-11. Woo Daves won that event with 18-13.
The next event was the 1991 BASS MegaBucks event on Lake Chickamauga, TN. This was a stand-alone event but the angler’s who fished it could get a “Wildcard” weight that counted towards the AOY if they fished all the events. VanDam fished the event and placed 10th, and pocketing $6,700. To go with his $1,700 from the Mississippi River, he had a total of $8,400 in winnings on the year.
The next event was the South Carolina Bassmaster BP Top-100 on Lake Murray. VanDam again placed in the top-30 with a 25th place (36-08), netting himself another $1,500. Then it was off to Oklahoma for the Oklahoma Invitational on Grand Lake where he’d stumble and place 50th with a total of 16-00. He still made the last check for $700.
After the Oklahoma Invitational he headed to Georgia to fish the second Top-100 event, this time on Lake Lanier. VanDam would win this event wire-to-wire with a total of 61-13, beating Denny Brauer who had 58-12. VanDam would receive $46,000 in cash and merchandise from that win, bringing his season total to $56,600 and ending the 1991 portion of the tours.
In typical B.A.S.S. form, the next event, slated for January, was the Florida Invitational. Held on the Harris Chain of Lakes, this event turned out to be tougher than the Illinois Invitational held three months earlier. California pro, Mike Folkestad, would win the event with a dismal 14-10 while the last check in 50th place weighed 6-01. A total of 61 anglers blanked out of a field of 319 anglers. VanDam would again catch a couple of key fish and place 39th with 6-09, adding another $1,600 to his checking account. Halfway through the Invitational season, VanDam’s AOY weight was 30-04, more than 27 pounds behind Ron Shuffield. Of note, Shaw Grigsby had a total of 14-00.
Roughly four weeks later, the third Bassmaster BP Top-100 was scheduled for the St. Johns River, Florida. Prior to the tournament, VanDam had a total weight of 98-05 counting towards the Top-100 AOY race. After all the fish were weighed, he ended up placing 10th with 32-10. His total weight for the Top-100 AOY race sat at 130-15 and his winnings increased to $63,950.
Invitationals Part Two
The second half of the Bassmaster Invitational Trail kicked off at Sam Rayburn Lake, Texas. This event looked to be a shootout between Shaw Grigsby and the Kalamazoo Kid. VanDam busted the gates wide open on the first day weighing a Bassmaster record for single day catch (5-fish limit) of 31-11. Grigsby weighed 28-11 the first day. Grigsby managed two 15-pound days the rest of the event while VanDam was only able to bring in shy of 17 pounds, dropping him to 3rd place. Still, his 48-06 total increased his Invitational AOY total to 78-10, while he pocketed another $22,000 in cash and merchandise. Grigsby, who only had 14-00 going into the Texas Invitational jumped up to 76-08 while Shuffield weighed 35-02 to increase his lead to 92-07.
The next two events were the Alabama Invitational and the Virginia Invitational held on Guntersville and Kerr, respectively. At this point, the AOY race wasn’t locked, but Shuffield would have to stumble hard to let either VanDam or Grigsby pass him. Guntersville proved to be another good event for both VanDam and Grigsby. VanDam placed 3rd with 48-02 while Grigsby finished right behind him in 4th place with 45-12. Shuffield stubbed his toe and placed 36th with 35-01, bringing his total to 127-08. VanDam and Grigsby were right behind with 126-12 and 122-04. Now we had a race.
The Virginia Invitational was the next tournament on the docket and would decide the Invitational AOY. The Buggs Island event was won by 1975 BASS Masters Classic winner Jack Hains, who weighed in a total of 57-04. Grigsby would come in 3rd place with 55-00 and VanDam weighed 50-07, placing in the 14th spot. Shuffield would end the event in 17th with 48-14.
When all was added up, Grigsby won the Invitational AOY with 177-04, beating VanDam by one ounce. Shuffield came I third with 176-06.
But the year wasn’t over for VanDam. He still had one more BP Top-100 to fish.
North Carolina’s Lake Norman would be the venue for the last Top-100 of the 91/92 season. On the line were BASS Master Classic spots as well as the AOY trophy. VanDam ended the event in 10th place with 32-10, bringing his Bassmaster BP Top-100 weight to 171-05.
The Angler of the Year award for the 1991/92 season was based off the total weight from the Invitationals plus the total weight from the Top-100s plus the Wildcard weight from MegaBucks. From the May 1991 issue of Bassmaster Magazine, pages 69 through 76, the Wildcard weight was defined as the weight for the first three days of competition in MegaBucks. This weight was then used to replace the angler’s lowest weight from the first five Invitationals or the first three Top-100s. Confusing? You got that right.
Kevin VanDam’s lowest weight was 6-09 at the Florida Invitational. Clunn’s lowest weight was 5-10 from the same event. Grigsby’s lowest weight was 3-00 from the Oklahoma Invitational and Guido Hibdon’s lowest weight was 4-01 from the Florida Invitational. Nowhere in my collection Bassmaster Magazines was I able to find the day-3 weights for any of the competitors of MegaBucks. But on page 92 of the July/August 1992 issue of Bassmaster Magazine, I was able to find the year-end totals for the top-4 in the Angler of the year race. They were Kevin VanDam 1st-place (358-12), Rick Clunn 2nd-place (344-08). Shaw Grigsby 3rd-place (333-02), and Guido Hibdon 4th-place (305-03).
VanDam had won the 1991/92 Bassmaster Angler of the Year award in his rookie season on the full tour and qualified for his second Classic in as many years. In the end, he won $109,900 in regular-season events plus another $3,500 for placing 13th at the 1992 BASS Masters Classic.
Let’s go back to the middle of the season and see what veteran angler Tommy Martin had to say about VanDam. Bassmaster posed the question, “Is he REALLY that good?” Martin’s response was:
“Kevin is one of those one-in-million anglers to come along. If he maintains his desire, nothing will keep him from breaking every record in the B.A.S.S. books. He’s that good.
“I helped Larry Nixon get into the sport in 1977. He came on real fast, as did Gary Klein, but I don’t think either came on as fast as Kevin. He’s a rarity.”
B.A.S.S. boss Ray Scott said, “Not since the early days of Bill Dance or Roland Martin has someone stormed onto the scene so quickly. He has incredible moxie and magic in those young, tender hands. He’s poised, cool, and aggressive – one of the most positive men I’ve ever met. He has the right stuff and an enormous future.”
At the end of the 1991/92 season, VanDam made a check in every single event he fished. Since then, we all know what he’s done to the record books. Four Classic wins, seven AOY titles, 25 Bassmaster wins, and 6.5-million dollars in winnings. Who knows what might have happened if he’d stayed the course with B.A.S.S. He could have topped Clunn for Classic wins and/or beat Roland Martin’s Angler of the Year record of nine AOYs.
In the end, I guess VanDam didn’t have any trouble with keeping his bubblegum in his mouth.