Part 1: Win a Bass Tournament Before You Leave the House with Kevin VanDam
Question: Kevin, what are the five keys to giving yourself a chance to win a bass tournament?
VanDam: There are several steps you must take before you even go to the tournament to give yourself the best chance to win. First, you must know the weather conditions before you leave home, and what the conditions will be when you arrive at the tournament. Like a weatherman, I track the weather the week before the tournament. The weather patterns prior to the tournament and the weather forecast for the day or the week of the tournament are critical to know ahead of time, because they will tell you how to practice.
For instance, if I’ll be competing in a Saturday tournament, and the weather forecast is for a huge storm with high winds, I know I’ll have to practice in areas with protected water where I can fish. If in the early spring, the weather has been really cold, but a warm front’s coming through the day before the tournament, and then during the tournament you’ll have 80-degree weather, plenty of sun and clear skies, you need to practice knowing that the bass will move toward the shallow water, which will warm-up first, in preparation to spawn.
Although the weather may change, having a thorough knowledge of the seasonal weather patterns for the time of year when the tournament will be held and the weather forecast days before the tournament drastically can increase your odds for success. I’ve found that by thinking ahead of the tournament, practicing for what the weather will be during the tournament and being able to adjust when a front moves in or out is a key part of my strategy to giving myself the best chance to win a bass tournament.
Part 2: Getting Your Stuff Together and Keeping it Together to Win with Kevin VanDam
Question: Kevin, what’s another important key factor in preparing to win a bass tournament?
VanDam: I have to be organized from my tackle and my clothing to my rods and my boat. At any time during a tournament, you should be able to ask me where any item – a Sexy Shad-colored Red Eye Shad, a Strike King swim jig, a Strike King Ocho, an extra split ring for my crankbait, a spare trolling-motor propeller, sunglasses, ChapStick, sunscreen, a No. 4 Elite Series treble hook in my replacement hook box or anything else I may need during the day of competition – is located. I should be able to tell you exactly where it is in my boat without ever having to look for it. Not only should I be able to tell you where the item is located, I should also be able to reach the item lickety-split.
I have my Strike King crankbaits organized by the depth at which they run. I know where the Strike King Series 1 crankbaits are located for shallow-water fishing, the Series 3 crankbaits for the mid-range of the water and the Series 6XD crankbaits for the extra-deep water. But my organization regimen doesn’t just take place in my boat. I also have the back of my truck well-organized. When I come in from a day of competing, and I’ve lost three or four lures I need to win, I don’t want to spend 1/2-hour digging in my truck to find those lures. I want to go right to my Plano tackle box where those lures are located and know which drawer to open to get replacement lures to add to the tackle boxes in my boat for the next day of fishing.
All the competitors have the same number of hours to fish. So, one way to gain an advantage is to not spend a lot of time looking for your equipment. Too, if you have a breakdown, you need to know exactly where the spare parts and the tools are located. If a rain front moves in, the faster you can find and put on your raincoat, and the quicker you can return to fishing. To be competitive and have a chance to win, I have to maximize my fishing time on the water. The fisherman who has the most time to make his casts and fish his lures will catch the most bass. I want to know if I lose a particular crankbait that if I don’t have another one, it’s the last type of crankbait I had with me. I don’t want to waste time digging through my tackle boxes, hoping and praying I can find another lure like the one I’ve lost.
Question: Okay, let’s take a test. Where are your Rage Craws?
VanDam: They are right behind the driver’s console in a Ziploc plastic bag. I have a 100 bag of Rage Craws in various colors because I use a lot of them in most tournaments I fish. I not only want to know where the Rage Craw is located, I want to know where I can find each color of Rage Craw.
Part 3: You Can Convince Yourself to Lose, Even Though You Practice to Win with Kevin VanDam
Question: Kevin, what do you feel you have to do to win a tournament?
VanDam: I have to practice efficiently to find the bass and prepare to catch them. But I can’t over-practice. On the practice days, I want to establish a pattern that will produce big bass and locate a certain section of the lake where that pattern will cause big bass to bite. But I don’t want to fish every inch of the area I plan to fish on the tournament days. I really want to learn the spot or the particular place where big bass live. Bass fishing can change daily and often hourly. I’ve had a lot of tournaments where I’ve practiced thoroughly and pinpointed a spot where I know I’ll get eight to 10 bites.
For instance, I may say, “Okay, the bass are really biting on these five docks in this creek on the outside corner poles of each dock. That’s where and how I have to fish to catch them.” However, the following day, those bass may have moved-up to the most-shallow corners of that dock. So, when I go out to fish, if I’m totally convinced that those outside corners are where I need to concentrate all my fishing efforts, I’ll miss the bass because they won’t be there.
During practice, I want to know on what type of structure the bass are holding and their activity level on tournament day. One of my biggest problems with my own practice is I’ll go out and learn where and on what they’re holding and the one lure that will catch the most bass. On tournament day, as soon as I get on the water and see that the lake has risen, fallen or become a little more dirty or more clear than the day before, I may have to fish a lure I haven’t practiced with to be able to catch bass because I’ve made the adjustment to the weather and the water conditions on the day of the tournament.
Regardless of what you learn in practice, you need an open mind. Read the water and the weather conditions for the day you’ll be fishing. Be willing to change, even though you may have found and caught bass the previous day on a particular lure or pattern. You have to be willing to make those types of changes, even when your subconscious is telling you, “The bass were in this location and biting this particular lure yesterday. They still should be in that same location and biting the same lure today, even though the weather and the water conditions have changed.” Instead, you have to tell yourself, “Today’s a new day. I have to fish the conditions I see today and not the conditions I fished yesterday.”
One of the biggest problems most of us have is trying to compete with yesterday’s water conditions and lures, instead of evaluating today’s water and weather conditions and making the appropriate change, even if it means leaving the place where we’ve caught fish and abandoning the lure that has put you at the top of the leader board. These types of decision aren’t easy. They’re hard to make and even harder to make consistently. However, to win a bass tournament, you have to fish to win every day and every hour with the conditions in front of you right then.
A bass-fishing tournament isn’t won at the end of the competition. It’s won each day, hour and second you’re on the water. Your ability to fish in the moment will win more tournaments than your depending on how you caught bass yesterday, earlier that morning or 2-hours ago. A marathon runner doesn’t win the race at the finish line. He wins the race by the decisions he makes throughout the day of the competition. A bass fisherman rarely wins a tournament in the final hour of competition. He wins the tournament before he ever reaches the lake – during the practice and the preparation for the tournament, while the tournament’s going on and with the knowledge he collects every moment he’s on the water. Yesterday’s gone, and 1 hour from now the conditions may change. So, to win a bass tournament, fish to win every moment and make those hard decisions that will give you the chance to win.
Part 4: How Kevin VanDam Makes the Mental Decision to Go for the Win – The Man He Learned From
Question: Kevin, what’s another critical step in your tournament preparation?
VanDam: This is probably the most-tough ingredient in tournament preparation. I can’t really tell you to do this, but you have to know deep within your heart and soul that you can win this tournament. A classic example was the 2009 Angler-of-the-Year tournament. I competed against 11 of the best bass fishermen in the world. To win, I’d have to fish flawless, because the other competitors would also be trying to fish flawless. But on the first day of this 4-day tournament, I had a terrible day. I was behind and realized that during the second half of the tournament, when we went to the Alabama River, to have a chance to win the title of BASS 2009 Angler of the Year, I had to win this half of the tournament. Even if I won the event, I knew that Skeet Reese, who won the 2009 Bassmaster Classic, would have to stumble because he was in the lead.
In my mind, I decided to practice to catch the biggest limits of bass I possibly could to win the second half of this two-tournament series. To win the tournament on the Alabama River, the title of Angler of the Year would be up to Skeet Reese to win or lose, because I would have done everything I could to win; not to place, look good or earn a check. I knew I had to win. I’d never been in this position before in my entire fishing career. Knowing what I had to do to win drastically changed the way I practiced before the tournament.
Several times during practice, I found little sandbars that homed 12- to 14-inch bass that would allow me to catch a five-fish limit. I knew a five-fish limit wouldn’t win this tournament, so I left those sandbars and never even considered fishing them again. I knew I had to find quality bass to have a chance to win. So, I wasn’t fishing a drop-shot worm or a shaky-head worm. I was fishing Strike King baits that would catch big bass. To make that type of decision requires a big commitment on the part of the angler. You have to decide if you want to make sure you have a five-fish limit, or if you want to risk the possibility of coming in with no fish or winning the tournament.
None of us like to show-up at the weigh-in with an empty bag. A five-fish limit shows that you can catch bass, even if you can’t catch bass big enough to win. That’s the choice most-often taken by most tournament fishermen. The second choice most people make in any tournament is to catch bass big enough to get a paycheck and/or move-up in the points standings for the end-of-the-year championship. However, if you fish a number of tournaments, you know that you only have a few opportunities to win, so the next question you have to ask is if you’re willing to gamble it all for the win. Maybe you’ve come-in with an empty bag before and been embarrassed and decided you didn’t want to go through it again. But anytime I have a chance to win or fail miserably, I choose to go for the win.
The mental side of our sport is the hardest part of the sport of bass fishing to understand. At least, it is for me. The mental aspect of bass fishing is probably the most-misunderstood element in a tournament fisherman’s preparation and execution before and during a tournament. Every one who goes to a bass tournament wants to win. However, few actually will go out on tournament day and take the chances required to win. Early in my career, I didn’t do a good job of making these types of decisions. I learned how to make these choices from one of the best bass fishermen in the nation – Denny Brauer of Camdenton, Missouri.
The first 10 or 15 years of my career, I saw that there wasn’t a better closer in the sport of tournament fishing than Denny. I watched Denny and learned that after the first day of competition, he’d come in and assess where he was in the standings, as compared to the rest of the fishermen in the tournament. If Denny only had 14 pounds at the end of the first day and knew he needed 22 pounds to take the lead on the next day, he’d swing for the fence. Many times he’d fail and come-up short, but I’ve seen Denny knock the ball out of the park and win tournament events because he took chances. He’d do whatever was required to give himself the opportunity to win. He abandoned the idea of just making a check or getting points that would put him in the Bassmaster Classic.
This lesson is a hard one to learn in the sport of bass fishing. However, when you have multiple-day events, you have the ability to identify the adjustments you need to make to give yourself an opportunity to catch-up and possibly win. To win, make the mental decision to go for the win. In your mind, decide that there is no second place. You either will win or lose. And, this is a tough call to make.
Part 5: How to Make Sure You Can Win by Capitalizing On Opportunities with Kevin VanDam
Question: Kevin, what’s another important ingredient, if a fisherman intends to win a bass-fishing tournament?
VanDam: Capitalize on the opportunities you have to win. This goes back to Part 2 – preparing your equipment and having it organized, so that when you have the opportunity to win, and the bass are biting, every piece of equipment from the third hook on your treble hook to the end of your line is tuned-up and ready to help you win. I’m a fanatic about my hooks and my line. I change my line every night after a competition day. If I fish with a rod for more than a few minutes, I’ll change the line on that rod and reel that night. Line is a variable I can control. I want to have fresh, strong line without nicks and line that I know when I set the hook, it won’t break, and it will perform at its maximum potential to help me land the bass.
I’m constantly changing crankbait hooks. If you’re fishing ledges, wood or any other type of cover where your hook will come in contact with anything besides the water and the fish’s mouth, check your hooks every time you take your crankbait out of the water. If you have the crankbait digging the bottom, those hook points can get dull or become less sharp than a new hook, especially when you’re fishing areas with really-rough bottoms. When I’m fishing this type of area, I may change my hooks eight or 10 times in one day. Every night, I’ll change my hooks.
A couple of years ago, I was fishing a tournament at Grand Lake and catching the bass on a Strike King Sexy Shad Series 5 crankbait. Most of the bass I caught came from shallow rocks. The Series 5 crankbait runs 10-feet deep, and I was fishing in 4 to 8 feet of water, grinding the rocks with that crankbait and reeling it really fast with a high-speed retrieve. Those rocks were causing damage to the hooks on my crankbaits. So, I changed hooks at least 12 to 15 times a day. The tournament was so close that at the end of the tournament, if I’d lost one of those big bass, I probably wouldn’t have won the tournament. If I hadn’t changed the hooks and checked the sharpness of those hooks, I would have lost one of those bass.
During a day of bass fishing, you only will get a certain number of bites and even fewer big-bass bites, which probably will determine whether you win or lose the event. Now, by knowing that your hooks will get dull, and your line will get nicked in many of the rough spots you have to fish to catch big bass to win, you’ll need fresh line and sharp hooks every time a lure goes into the water. Yes, you have to give up a few seconds to change hooks and re-tie lures. That’s the reason learning to change hooks and re-tie lures on your lines quickly is important. When that big bass bites, I want to know I have the sharpest hooks I possibly can have on my lures and the strongest line, so I can take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself to me to win.Over 75 tips and tactics and 200 videos
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