DEER WOODS, Kan. – The VanDam Army is a well-oiled machine, at least most of the time.
As every bass angler who has watched Kevin VanDam cast, catch and tame fish over the past two decades for trophy after trophy knows, VanDam doesn’t leave much to chance. His ship is buttoned up and tight.
It doesn’t matter if he’s in a bass boat in the middle of the Bassmaster Classic or in a no-tell motel in the middle of Kansas during deer season, VanDam has everything organized and working according to the plan.
It was easy to see the night before opening day in Kansas. The excitement was palatable. If there were an opening day for bass fishing in Alabama, Kentucky or Tennessee, it would be similar.
Still, VanDam had done his prep work. Boots were lined along the wall for him and his twin sons, Nicholas and Jackson, and his brother-in-law, Russ Campbell.
Guns were lined up like a garrison for an elite tactical team. Sandwiches were made, snacks were handy and everything from socks to underwear and camo clothing was laid out, like a bass angler’s hotel room before the start of a derby.
Everything had a place and everyone knew the plan. They were on a mission. It didn’t seem like anything could derail them. Then at takeoff time, the ATV pulled off the trailer with a flat tire. VanDam handled like it like any angler whose boat goes down early, he improvised: The quartet would walk the 1 mile in four directions in the dark. The negative things, like flat tires, would be handled later.
The four hunters would melt into the darkness and reappear more than 12 hours later after sitting on a stand all day.
THE NEXT PHASE
While the set up played out like the start of a bass tournament, the process had a much deeper meaning, at least for the elder VanDam.
“My boys are seniors in high school and we are at a point where we, Sherry and I, are trying to prepare them for the next phase in life,’’ VanDam said, as his truck bounced down the gravel roads of East Kansas. “This trip is important to me in that regard.”
VanDam would pause a second, then somberly add, “It’s probably the last time for a while before we get to do this again. Next year they will be in college and their schedules will be different.”
VanDam adds there will be other hunts, most likely in Michigan, but the pinnacle for them is a week of deer hunting is in Kansas. It’s a special place for the VanDam clan. They lease 1,800 acres of rolling landscape in the eastern section of the state, where draws filled with Post Oak and Blackjack Oak provide a haven for big deer like few places in the country. To the deer hunter who also fishes, it easily recognized as a great place to deer hunt. To Kevin VanDam, it doubles as a classroom where he and Campbell help guide two youngsters into manhood.
It would be easy for a man of VanDam’s stature to simply book a hunt with an outfitter and let his sons be catered to for a week. But that doesn’t work into the VanDam plan.
“I’ve always loved to hunt,’’ VanDam said. “I started bowhunting at 12 years of age. I learned to do it the right way. And that learning process has proved invaluable to me through the course of time.
“I want that for my sons. We’ve gone to a ranch as guests, but I’ve told the guys who take Nicholas and Jackson, ‘I don’t want them to kill a big 150-inch deer. I want them to shoot the 120-inch class on the top end.
“I want to let them learn along the way, so when they do shoot a big one they will appreciate it. It will be something they worked for and accomplished on their own.”
The history books are littered with sons trying to follow their fathers’ footsteps, some succeeding and others failing. VanDam believes his sons will find their own, individual paths.
“We tell them someday you’re going have to get out in the workforce and get a job, and have a future and do your own thing,” VanDam said. “We're not always going to be there to support you.
“We want them to find their own way. We’ve always told them how important school is, and their education, and college and all those things. But to me as a professional angler, somebody who is living his dream job, I’m doing something I never planned on doing. It’s not like I planned professional angling as a career. It just worked out that way.
“No one expected that. I was just able to make that happen by working hard with everything I learned and was presented with in my youth.”
Nicholas and Jackson understand they get opportunities by working hard. VanDam holds them to that standard. They only get to hunt if their grades are “top notch.” By the time the VanDam twins arrived at this deer camp, they shared “straight A’s.”
Much of their motivation comes with trips to places like Kansas. After last season, they loved it so much they began joking about attending Wichita State or another school in Kansas just to be close.
The youthful attitude is nice, and it extends elsewhere as well.
When asked what he likes most about the yearly trip, Jackson boils it down simply and succinctly. For a half second you think you are getting ready to hear something profound when he answers. Instead you get straightforward and honest.
"I like it because I get to miss school and do something I love to do," he said.
Then he adds without a prompt: “And it’s pretty cool to be here hanging out with my dad and my uncle.”
Hanging out begins with the process of getting everything together for this yearly excursion; something VanDam insists Jackson and Nicholas share in the load. It begins with applications for hunting permits in the spring. They put deer stands together in the driveway of their Michigan home in the summer. They packed their backpacks as a group, making sure everyone had binoculars, a new knife, grunt calls, “everything you might need for a day on a deer stand.”
“They know our schedule here, when they’re showing up, they have to be ready to go in the morning,” VanDam added. “So we’ve gone through and done everything, the boots, the clothes, hunting clothes, so they know they’re going to be warm. It’s all been washed, scent free and hung out, and it’s packed in its own case so it’s set, the whole deal. They know the whole program.”
That program includes slipping into the darkness toward a stand a half mile or more from anyone they know, 10 miles from a cellphone signal. They’ll sit there watching and waiting for a big deer to show until the sun drops, and then walk back out. The simple action of two teenagers excited about sitting for 12 hours on a stand is wondrous, considering nine out of 10 deer hunters in the country never sit on a stand for more than three hours.
“They are serious about it,” VanDam said. “And it’s their choice. That’s what they want to do. I don’t push them to stay there all day. I do tell them that a big deer could show up anytime and they make that choice.”
During the day, they do stay in touch. Each of them has a small walkie-talkie, where they can keep up with current events.
On opening day, Jackson shot an 8-point at about 4 p.m., letting the others know. Two hours later it was dark, and an hour after that Nicholas showed up with VanDam and the truck they would drive to pick up Campbell, Jackson and the deer.
As Nicholas walked to the truck, VanDam said, “Hey, did you hear? Jackson shot one.”
“Yeah, he radioed me,’’ Nicholas said, a smile forming across his lips as if he had been the lucky hunter. Then in a hoarse, theatrical whisper, passed on the exchange from Jackson. “He said, ‘I see a big one. I’m going to shoot it.’”
It would be after 10 p.m., before Jackson’s deer would be retrieved, photos taken, the appropriate field dressing completed (a task where VanDam watched and guided every cut Jackson made) and dinner served.
At 4:30 a.m., the process would start again. VanDam would shoot a 10-point the next morning. Nicholas would sit on his stand for two more days from daylight to dark, and while seeing numerous deer, many bigger than average, he didn’t shoot because the deer he wanted “never showed up.”
“He made his choice,” VanDam said. “It was right for him, that’s all a father can ask.”