Kevin VanDam decided to go deep Thursday, and the move paid off with a 29-pound-plus bag good enough for the Day 1 lead at the Bassmaster Elite Series top on Toledo Bend.
The Kalamazoo, Mich. pro leads a star-studded Top 5 that includes 69-year-old Missouri legend Rick Clunn (24-10), North Carolina pro Hank Cherry, Jr. (24- 7), 2012 Bassmaster Classic winner Chris Lane (23-14) and reigning Classic champion Edwin Evers (22-11).
The day wasn’t particularly great for home-state anglers: Greg Hackney is in 50th place with 14-11, Dennis Tietje is in 58th with 13-14, Brett Preuett is in 70th place with 12-12, Cliff Crochet is in 74th place with 12-07 and Randy Allen is in 108th with 1-06.
But for VanDam, the move deep paid off big time.
“I started on the shallow pattern and caught a good limit early, and that gave me the confidence to go and fish deep,” said VanDam, who has four Classic titles on his resume. “I didn’t get to fish deep in practice the way I like to because of all the wind. So I fished a lot of places today that I hadn’t fished at all this week.
“You just can’t physically fish out there when it’s blowing 20 — if you want to fish off the bank.”
VanDam, who also had the big bass of the day with an 8-5 largemouth, said he was keying on areas that had big numbers of white bass and yellow bass. Both, he said, are good signs that hungry largemouth will be nearby.
“There are a lot of yellow bass — they call them ‘bar fish’ here — and a lot of the big largemouth eat those,” VanDam said. “Those yellow bass and the white bass are all following shad just like the largemouth.
“I caught a lot of white bass — and when you’re doing that, you know there will always be largemouth in the area.”
Clunn, who also has four Classic wins, already wowed the pro fishing community back in March when he won the season-opening Elite Series event on the St. Johns River in Florida. That win made him the oldest angler to ever win a B.A.S.S. event.
On Thursday, he moved into position to equal that feat with a bag of 24-10 that was bolstered by one magic area.
“I have one spot that’s always been good for me,” Clunn said. “It’s only good for one to three fish a day, but they’re always big fish. You can fish there all day long, and that’s all you’re going to get.”
The spot produced three big fish Thursday — a 7-pounder, a 6-pounder and a 4-pounder. When asked how long the spot has been good for him, Clunn responded, “How old is the lake?”
“I think I’ve been fishing that spot since 1974,” he said. “A lot of people won’t fish it because it’s only good for one or two. They pull up there, and if they don’t get a bite pretty soon, they’re moving on.”
Clunn is just 3 ounces ahead of Cherry, who brought in 24-7 despite some bad luck early.
“I weighed in one 3-pound fish, and I hated to do that,” Cherry said. “I lost a 4 1/2-pounder and a 7-pounder this morning. So I could have weighed in close to 30 pounds.”
Cherry said his unfortunate near misses might have been the result of him being “too wired up” because he knew he was on good fish.
“I knew I was going to get a lot of bites,” he said. “I didn’t know how big they were going to be, but I knew I was around a lot of fish.
“The fish are still there, because I know I left some.”
In all, 99 of the 108 Elite Series anglers weighed in five-bass limits today, validating Toledo Bend’s ranking as the No. 1 bass fishery in the country, according to Bassmaster Magazine’s current 100 Best Bass Lakes list.
The tournament will resume Friday, with take-off scheduled for 6:15 a.m. at Cypress Bend Park. The weigh-in will be held back at the park at 3:15 p.m., with the field being trimmed to the Top 50 for Saturday’s semifinal round.