Fishing is a sport of numbers, whether you choose to think of it that way or not. If you’re a tournament angler, it’s all about cumulative weight – pounds and ounces. If you’re a casual angler, I’m sure you know the weight of your biggest bass or the number of fish you caught the last time you went out. And if you fish with a friend but claim not to know who’s caught the most or biggest on any particular day, I’m prepared to call you a liar.
No matter your level of interest or avidity, the numbers in fishing are inescapable.
And some of them are indelible, too. Take 22-4. That’s the weight of George Perry’s world record largemouth in pounds and ounces. Then there’s nine. That’s how many Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles Roland Martin won. 45-2? That’s the weight of Dean Rojas’ five best bass on the Kissimmee Chain one day in 2001 – still a B.A.S.S. tournament record.
And then there’s 20. That’s how many B.A.S.S. events Kevin VanDam has won in his unparalleled career – more than anyone else in history and one more than the legendary Roland Martin.
Can VanDam’s record be broken? Can an angler get to 21 wins? And if so, what needs to happen … apart from that angler being very, very good? And who can do it?
Here are four things you have to do to get to 21 wins.
1. START YOUNG
If you want to get to 21, you’d better start early. KVD won his first B.A.S.S. event at 24, though Roland Martin didn’t get his first trophy until he was 30. Of course, the Great American Fisherman has a terrific excuse. There was no B.A.S.S. until he was 28, and his first win came in just his second tournament. He started about as fast as he possibly could, notching 10 of his 19 wins in his first decade on the trail.
But forget about Martin’s age. It was a different era, and Martin stood head and shoulders above his competition. The playing field is more level now. It’s unthinkable that an angler could start at 30 today and still have a shot at reaching 21 career wins.
VanDam had three wins before 30 and claimed number 10 at 37 years old. He tied Martin (at 19 wins) when he was 42 and passed him at 43.
Looking at it practically, there’s almost no way to get to 21 without winning at least three or four events by the time you’re 30. Pro anglers typically reach their peak between 30 and 45. You have to make hay then, but you lay your foundation for legend earlier.
2. FISH A LOT OF TOURNAMENTS
Like they say about the lottery, you can’t win if you don’t play. The more tournaments you fish, the more opportunities you have to win. Pretty simple.
The problem is that the best anglers in the business are in the Bassmaster Elite Series, and most of them fish the Elite Series exclusively. That gives them just a handful of chances each year to win an event. Most years, it’s not going to happen. Even VanDam has only won events in 11 of his 26 seasons. Had he fished more tournaments, he almost certainly would have won more.
Of course, the reason Elite anglers don’t fish a lot of Opens is they feel they don’t have time. In addition to more chances to win, more tournaments mean less time with family and more expenses. But if you really want to break the record for career wins, those kinds of sacrifices must be made.
3. FISH THE RIGHT TOURNAMENTS
Face it – some tournaments are easier to win than others. If you agree with me that the Elite events and Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens all have plenty of top anglers competing, then the “easiest” tournaments are the ones with the smallest fields. The smaller the field, the easier it is to come out on top. In his 19 wins, Roland Martin’s average field size was more than 200 anglers. In his 20 wins, KVD’s average field size was less than 125, and half the time he faced fewer than 100 opponents.
Martin’s smallest field in a win was 107. VanDam won two events that had fields of just 12 anglers. I’m not trying to take anything away from KVD here – he beat everyone who showed up at each and every one of his wins and four times he beat fields of 329 or more (something Martin never did). I just want to point out that if you can qualify for the reduced field events (the postseason tournaments and even the GEICO Bassmaster Classic), your odds of winning go way up.
4. HANG AROUND
If you truly want to make history and win a record number of events, you can’t retire early and rest on your laurels. You need to hang around and pick up a few victories when others might be shopping for a recliner.
Roland Martin won three tournaments in his 50s. Denny Brauer (17 career wins) had four in his 50s and one in his 60s. VanDam will be 50 in 2017. If he sticks around, he could add to his win total, too.
Some of the best anglers of the past two decades have posted gaudy numbers, but they don’t make my list of the top six if I’m picking guys with a chance to win 21 tournaments.
Skeet Reese has eight career wins, and Michael Iaconelli has seven. They’ve each won a Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title and a GEICO Bassmaster Classic. The problem is that Reese is 46 and Ike is 43, so they’re coming to the end of their prime, their careers are more than halfway over and they’re nowhere near the 20 mark. For me, that means they’re not candidates.
Todd Faircloth is easily one of the best bass anglers of the past decade, but with “just” five wins at 40 years of age, he has a long, steep hill to climb to get to 21. Aaron Martens is in a similar position. He’s the best on the planet right now, and he has three more wins than Faircloth, but he’s also three years older. I think he has a better chance than Faircloth, but not by a lot. A-Mart’s win total would be considerably higher if he weren’t a contemporary of Kevin VanDam.
To put Martens’ predicament in perspective using another sport for reference, think of it this way: Shoeless Joe Jackson has the third highest batting average in Major League Baseball history, but he never won a batting title because he was always up against Ty Cobb.
That brings me to my Top 6:
6. CHRIS LANE (40 YEARS OLD) – 7 WINS
Face it. The 2012 Bassmaster Classic champ knows how to win. Not only has he earned seven championships in his career, but they’ve all come in the last 10 years (and after his 30th birthday). It’s a real longshot that Lane could get there, but his chances are better than all but a few.
5. OTT DEFOE (30) – 2 WINS
Another longshot, but DeFoe is still young and could hit a hot streak where he wins a bunch of tournaments in just a few years. (Remember that KVD and Roland Martin – atop the career wins list – each won three tournaments in a row at one point in their careers.) If DeFoe can get red hot like that, he could make himself a threat.
4. BRANDON PALANIUK (28) – 2 WINS
Palaniuk is not afraid to take big chances if it will give him a better chance to win. In that way, he’s a lot like another of B.A.S.S.’s all-time winners – Denny Brauer (17 wins in his B.A.S.S. career). Brauer measured his seasons by how many tournaments he won and by how often he put himself in a position to win on the final day. Palaniuk has the same approach. It’s not really conducive to notching a bunch of Classic berths or picking up AOY points, but it’s probably the right tactic if trophies are the goal.
3. CASEY ASHLEY (31) – 4 WINS
The defending Classic champ has shown that he knows how to win and still has time on his side. He needs a little flurry of three wins in two years or something like that for fans to see his potential for setting the mark. Although no one on the list (except the number one candidate, below) has a truly good chance to set the record, Ashley has put himself in the discussion and has a very good chance to become one of a handful of anglers with double-digit wins.
2. EDWIN EVERS (41) – 10 WINS
In 2015, Evers became just the sixth angler in B.A.S.S. history to reach 10 wins, and at 41 he’s still in his prime. At the same age, Martin had 14 wins and KVD had 16, so Evers still has a long way to go and he’s behind the pace. We’ll have a pretty good idea of whether or not he can get there in about four years. During that time, he’ll need at least five wins if he’s going to make it to 21. Can he do it? Absolutely! Evers puts himself in a position to win more than anybody out there, he “knows how to win,” he understands what wins mean to a career and he has the competitive fire to get it done.
Still, the only angler with good odds of reaching 21 is my number one candidate below.
1. KEVIN VANDAM (48) – 20 WINS
Who’s the angler most likely to get to 21? It’s a trick question … sort of. The answer is Kevin VanDam. He’s already notched 20, and he’s not done. I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t set the bar even higher before he puts his tournament jersey in mothballs. How high can the number go? It’s tough to say, but 24 or even 25 isn’t out of the question. Because he holds the record and is still fishing at a high level, the real number to shoot for has yet to be established. He might even post number 21 at the upcoming Bassmaster Classic. He’s won at Grand Lake before, and it would be a big mistake to think he can’t do it again.
The bigger question about VanDam may be this: With so many entries already in the record books and his position as BOAT (Best of All-Time) already firmly established, what will drive KVD to hang around another 10 or 15 years?
Don’t expect him to stay in the game so long that “Kalamazoo Kid” becomes an ironic nickname. If he’s not competitive at the highest levels, he’ll probably walk away. But before that happens, he’ll win again … and maybe again and again.