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MASTERS CLASSIC TO BEGIN : BASS WIN WOULD CAP VANDAM'S CAREER.

Byline: Eric Sharp Detroit Free Press

While most Michigan anglers list walleyes, salmon, trout and even bluegills as their primary targets, the most sought-after game fish in the United States is still the black bass, both largemouth and smallmouth.

In the South, the bass approaches the status of a religion. There are songs about good ol' boys hocking their wives' wedding rings to buy outboard motors, and topping a Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS) fishing tournament carries the same status in parts of Alabama that winning a Nobel prize does at Harvard.

Maybe it's because he was born in the southern part of Michigan that Kevin VanDam was motivated to become a bass angler. But it was knowledge, talent and determination that made him the 1996 BASS Angler of the Year, the second time this 28-year-old fishing phenom has captured the sport's MVP award in only six years on the pro tour.

At 6-foot-2 and 155 pounds, VanDam is an articulate, handsome Kalamazoo native whose rise has quietly delighted the powers-that-be at the Montgomery, Ala., headquarters of BASS, a national fishing group dedicated to education and catch-and-release conservation of bass environs. His is the image they want the sport to project, and they hope VanDam or someone like him takes over when the equally suave and talented Texan, Rick Clunn, decides to step down from his role as the thinking man's bass pro.

The icing on the cake would be if VanDam could win the sport's most prestigious tournament, the annual BASS Masters Classic scheduled today through Saturday on Lay Lake near Birmingham, Ala. Winning that high-profile event is estimated to be worth $500,000 to $1 million in endorsements during the next year.

In his six years on the BASS circuit, VanDam has won an impressive $429,100 ($111,700 this season). The circuit's million-dollar winners, Clunn and Larry Nixon of Bee Branch, Ark., have been pros for more than 20 years.

VanDam, who has written a book on bass-fishing techniques, had planned to visit Lay Lake for six days of practice fishing. These waters are largely inhabited by a largemouth sub-species called the spotted bass, but VanDam said the key to winning is the same - locate fish, then either figure out a lure that will turn them on or continue to work them until they get in a feeding mood on their own.

``It only takes five casts (for a five-fish limit) when it does happen. Once on Lake Eufala (Ala.), I fished one spot all day and got four keepers that weighed a total of maybe 10 pounds,'' VanDam said. ``Then in a half-hour something finally triggered them, and I got 13 bass in 13 casts. I ended up with a five-fish limit that went about 25 pounds.''

Sponsored primarily by Nitro boats and Toyota Trucks, VanDam spends about 200 days a year on the road doing appearances and fishing about a dozen major tournaments (the Angler of the Year tour runs from August to May).

VanDam and his wife, Sherry, make their home in Kalamazoo, where he got his early angling education hanging out at brother Randy's D&R Sports Shop (for Dad and Randy). D&R is the bragging hangout for local bass and walleye hotshots, and Kevin VanDam was able to earn the equivalent of a master's degree in angling before he graduated from high school.

By all accounts, Randy is as talented an angler as Kevin. Two years ago, Randy caught a 9-pound, 8-ounce smallmouth bass that is the Ohio state record, and it was Randy who started taking Kevin to local bass tournaments, where the brothers amassed an amazing string of victories.

Randy said, ``Kevin was working for me in the store, and he was living at home and didn't have many expenses, so when he said he'd like to try the pro tour, we decided to back him. We've kind of both lived our dreams through him.''
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 8, 1996
Words:656
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