BAY CITY, Mich. – Regardless of where he finishes in the final standings, Minn Kota Stage Seven Presented by Suzuki was always going to serve as a celebration of Kevin VanDam. VanDam, widely heralded as the greatest tournament angler in bass fishing history, announced that he’ll retire from the Bass Pro Tour after this season finale, fittingly held at Saginaw Bay in his home state of Michigan.
Could it also serve as one last chance for fans to watch KVD hoist a trophy? In typical VanDam fashion, he’s at least making the storybook ending seem not so far-fetched.
VanDam sacked up 15 pounds, 12 ounces on Thursday, the second day of qualifying for Group A. That tied for the second-biggest limit of the day. His two-day total of 33-7 placed second in the group and easily qualified him for the Knockout Round.
VanDam quickly caught a limit of smallmouth, then added a 4-6 kicker, which briefly lifted him to the top spot on SCORETRACKER®. He spent the latter half of the day in practice mode, scoping out new areas for the Knockout Round. He ultimately added one 2-10 largemouth to boost his limit.
While most of the anglers who have attempted to target Saginaw Bay’s nomadic smallmouth population this week have struggled — the only other members of Group A who advanced to the Knockout Round primarily on the strength of smallmouth are leader Greg Vinson along with Dakota Ebare, Jacob Wheeler and Edwin Evers — VanDam has found groups of brown fish both mornings and quickly filled his limit. That’s given him quite a bit of time to explore the vast waters of Saginaw Bay, which could give him a leg up when he returns to the water on Saturday. He’ll aim to finish among the Top 10 to qualify for the Championship Round and put off retirement for one more day.
This won’t be the final time fishing fans see VanDam compete in a tournament. His Knockout Round appearance officially assures he’ll qualify for both REDCREST 2024 and General Tire Heavy Hitters next season, and he’s already announced that he plans to fish both.
But it would be fitting for the angler who redefined what’s possible in a tournament fishing career to end his final full season with one last Top 10 — and maybe more.
Speaking of anglers dialed in on the smallmouth bite at Saginaw Bay, no one found and caught a limit of brown fish faster than Wheeler on Thursday. Less than 30 minutes after lines in, Wheeler pushed his two-day total above 29 pounds, his stated goal weight. He then spent the remainder of the day practicing.
As a result, it’s looking more and more like Wheeler is the man to beat in the Bally Bet Angler of the Year competition. While Wheeler entered the event seven points behind leader Alton Jones Jr., the two-time defending AOY champion has put some more pressure on Jones. Jones will enter his second day of qualifying in 20th place in Group B — right on the Toro Cut Line.
But even if Jones (as well as fellow contender Matt Becker) fails to make the Knockout Round, Wheeler will have to catch ‘em for at least one more day in order to pull off the rare three-peat. That’s because Ott DeFoe, who entered Stage Seven two points behind him in the season-long standings, also finished among the Top 20 in Group A.
It didn’t come quite as easily for DeFoe, who didn’t catch his fifth keeper until the final 15 minutes of Period 2. But thanks in large part to a 3-4 largemouth that he fooled with a frog early in the third period, DeFoe finished 12th with a two-day total of 28-15.
The Angler of the Year competition isn’t the only points race coming down to the wire at Stage Seven. Several anglers came to Saginaw Bay looking to punch their tickets to REDCREST 2024 with a strong final event, including rookie Spencer Shuffield.
Shuffield cemented his spot in the championship event in style. The Arkansas pro sacked up the biggest bag of the day Thursday with 16-8. That was anchored by a 5-11 largemouth, which easily took home Berkley Big Bass honors. The “unicorn,” in Shuffield’s words, is the first fish over 5 pounds landed by any angler so far this week, regardless of species, and is more than a pound bigger than the second-heaviest fish caught through three days (4-10).
Shuffield’s decision not to fish for smallmouth – his specialty – during the Qualifying Round surprised some. Instead, he targeted shallow largemouth with a swim jig. Clearly, the decision paid off.
After being disqualified from Stage Five due to a rules violation, Shuffield slipped to 38th in the AOY standings. The top 40 are guaranteed a spot at REDCREST. Making the Knockout Round should ensure him a trip to Lay Lake next spring — and perhaps free him up to chase smallmouth on Saturday.
A handful of other anglers in Group A made significant moves that will impact both the races for REDCREST and requalification for the Bass Pro Tour.
Like Shuffield, Cole Floyd looks to have secured his spot in REDCREST. The Ohio pro entered the week 35th in the season-long standings and made the Knockout Round. Same goes for Ryan Salzman. After flirting with the Toro Cut Line all day, Salzman boated a 2-12 largemouth in the final minutes of competition to move into 19th place. He entered Stage Seven 39th place in the AOY standings.
Vinson appears to be close to punching his ticket, as well. After starting this week in 42nd place, Vinson will need to make up a few points on those around him. But that seems likely after he beat the rest of Group A by nearly 4 pounds.
Meanwhile, two Group A anglers who needed strong events in order to re-qualify for the BPT rose to the occasion.
Russ Lane topped 15 pounds of all largemouth for the second day in a row to finish third in the group. He entered the week 70th in the AOY standings, 12 points back of 67th — a spot currently held by Dave Lefebre, who caught just one keeper across two days and finished last in Group A. The top 67 anglers will earn automatic invitations to next year’s tour (read a full breakdown of the re-qualification situation here).
Roy Hawk made his first Knockout Round of the season by catching a 15-2 limit on Thursday. Hawk is well back of 67th place on the year, but he’s barely ahead of Kelly Jordon and narrowly trails Jeff Kriet in average career AOY finish, the criteria used to fill the remaining spots on the BPT after the top 67 AOY finishers and top eight anglers from the Tackle Warehouse Invitationals receive their invitations. Every spot he can move up in the AOY standings will help.