BUFFALO, N.Y. – There is nothing more frightening in bass fishing than Kevin VanDam on a roll.
Fresh off a Bassmaster Elite Series win at Cayuga Lake, New York — his second victory of the year — the Kalamazoo, Mich., superstar claimed an early lead in a unique, head-to-head bracket tourney on New York's upper Niagara River that is being live-streamed on Bassmaster.com.
Unlike traditional Elite Series events, an official on each boat immediately weighs the fish and releases it. VanDam, who is matched against Bassmaster Elite Series rookie Drew Benton, ended the morning 3-hour session with a 10-pound, 4-ounce limit, the heaviest of the day. The other morning pairing featured Jacob Powroznik against Koby Kreiger. The afternoon matches were Brett Hite vs. Keith Combs and Jordan Lee vs. Dean Rojas. On the line for this four-day derby is a $50,000 purse and an all-important guaranteed berth in the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro.
Today was the first half of a two-day elimination round. Each match lasted three hours and the weights will be added to Wednesday's total to eliminate the first four anglers from the bracket. The pairs of anglers who fished the morning hours today will fish the afternoon session Wednesday, and vice-versa. The semi-final round on Thursday will be a single-day, head-to-head elimination after 5 1/2 hours of fishing. The championship round on Friday, featuring the last two anglers standing, will also be a 5 1/2-hour session to crown the champion.
Benton, of Panama City, Fla., had a tough road to hoe matched against bass fishing's best, and caught just one fish for 1-6. This gives VanDam a seemingly insurmountable lead going into Wednesday's elimination day.
"I'm still not comfortable," VanDam said. "I feel confident, but I still need to catch a couple of fish. The good thing about this format is that we get BASStrakk updates that let us know exactly what our opponent has caught. Hopefully I'll be able to lay off some of my most productive spots and save those fish for the semifinals."
The second morning pairing saw Kreiger, of Bokeelia, Fla., matched against Powroznik, from Port Haywood, Va. Powroznik, who rooms with Kreiger on the Elite Series circuit, already has a Classic spot clinched and vowed not to stand in his friend's way to a potential Classic qualification.
Still, as the morning session came to an end, Powroznik filled out a limit weighing 9-14, while Kreiger landed only 8-14.
"Well, I'm going to make him work for it," Powroznik said with a grin. "But seriously, I knew what he had and I wanted to put on a good show for all the fans watching on Bassmaster.com. Tomorrow, I may just float down the middle of the river. The Classic is huge for our careers, and I hope Koby has a very long career."
Hite of Phoenix, Ariz., led the pack for the afternoon session with a 10-2 limit, the second heaviest of the day. "Going into this thing, I knew we'd only have three hours to fish so I wanted to identify one or two areas close together so I wouldn't waste time," Hite said. So, unlike every other angler, he spent his entire day milking one spot.
"I found the fish in practice and I knew they would be there ... they have no place to go. So, I went all-in and it worked out." Hite said he found the fish in the morning during practice and they bit better, so he is confident his weight tomorrow will increase. Combs, of Huntington, Texas, wasn't able to land a limit. He finished with 7-15, which is still within striking distance of Hite for Wednesday's elimination day.
Lee, hailing from Vinemont, Ala., landed four fish for a total of 7-15, while his adversary, Rojas, from Lake Havasu City, Ariz., struggled to put a pattern together and ended with three fish for 3-11.
"I had a bad practice and bounced around a lot just trying to figure something out," Lee said. "I'm happy with my weight, but I think it will improve tomorrow when I get to fish the morning session. The fish here seem to bite better early. This format puts a premium on strategy, and flip-flopping the times we are on the water could change some decisions I will make. And with only three hours to boat a limit, I have a lot to think about tonight."
The quarterfinals will continue Wednesday with Match Three (Hite vs. Combs) and Match Four (Lee vs. Rojas) taking place from 8:30-11:30 a.m. and Match One (VanDam vs. Benton) and Match Two (Powroznik vs. Kreiger) moving to the afternoon hours of 1:30-4:30 p.m.
The semifinal round on July 21 will pit the Match One winner vs. the Match Two winner and the Match Three winner vs. the Match Four winner. The weights will go back to zero, and all anglers will fish from 8:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
The winner of those two matches will advance to the July 22 championship round. With weights starting from zero again, the anglers will fish head-to-head from 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. for the title.
Bassmaster LIVE will broadcast coverage of the entire tournament, from first cast until the fishing stops, with a camera in every boat. Fans can watch the LIVE show on WatchESPN and the ESPN app on Wednesday. The semifinals and finals will be streamed on Bassmaster.com Thursday and Friday.
The payout for the bracket event will be distributed as follows: $10,000 and a Classic berth for first place, $8,000 for second place, $6,000 for third and fourth place (eliminated from semifinals) and $5,000 each for fifth through eighth place (eliminated from quarterfinals).
There is no entry fee for the tournament. The local host for this event is I Love New York.