BAY CITY, Mich. – The Knockout Round provided punch after punch, but none landed harder than Kevin VanDam’s 21-pound, 8-ounce haymaker bag of smallmouth on Saginaw Bay at Minn Kota Stage Seven Presented by Suzuki.
Fishing in his last regular-season event ever, the bass fishing G.O.A.T. holds a 2-13 lead over Dakota Ebare heading into Sunday’s Championship Round and aims to retire with an exclamation point and a storybook ending.
There’s intrigue at the very top of SCORETRACKER®, but you don’t have to go far to find more. The Bally Bet Angler of the Year race will come down to the last day of the season, with Jacob Wheeler (third), Ott DeFoe (fourth) and Matt Becker (fifth) still fishing, all having legitimate shots to take the title. Current leader Alton Jones Jr. is still mathematically alive, even though he didn’t advance with a 16th-place finish. Jones entered the tournament just seven points ahead of Wheeler, nine ahead of DeFoe and 10 ahead of Becker.
Tomorrow will be one for the ages, and all our burning questions will be answered at the end of the final period – and it might take until right up until the final bell for everything to be decided.
It didn’t take long for VanDam to rocket to the top of SCORETRACKER®, landing on smallmouth from the jump and putting a huge limit in the boat in a hurry. His initial limit took only 23 minutes to catch and weighed 17-11.
From there, he added a 4-3 and 3-7 in the next 30 minutes to crack the 20-pound mark. His next cull came in the final period and weighed 4-7, increasing his weight by a pound and extending his lead over Ebare and company.
“It was a solid day, for sure,” VanDam recapped. “All you can ask for is to be in this position going into the final day. I gave it everything I had today and caught everything I could, and it’s still going to be a shootout tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, VanDam will try to replicate his smallmouth success and return to his primary spot.
“I’m not sure if it’ll be the same because that area should get pretty windy,” he said. “It seems that the bite slowed the windier it got today, and with smallmouth, you never know what they’ll do. All I can do is fish the smartest that I can.”
After such a solid start to the day, it appeared that he backed off after catching his weight. He did, but there was more to the story.
“I kind of (backed off),” he said. “Randall Tharp had found the area as well and was in a different group (in the Qualifying Round), and when he saw me there this morning, he told me that he would give it to me for the first period since I had a higher boat number and got there first. That’s incredible sportsmanship, and he didn’t have to do that – not many guys would. That meant a lot to me; we go back a long way and have a ton of mutual respect.”
No matter what happens tomorrow, VanDam is very appreciative of the event and career that he’s had.
“This is my last week, and I wanted to fish every day of the tournament, and I’ll get to do that,” he said. “I can’t put into words how much this means. It’s even more special to be in this position with so many friends and family here to support me in my home state. I’m so fortunate, blessed and thankful for all my support over the years, but tomorrow it’s go time.”
VanDam is widely considered the greatest bass angler of all time. Wheeler is seen as the current best in the world. Both will be battling it out one more time tomorrow in what might be considered a passing of the torch.
In between the two is one of the sport’s rising stars in Ebare, who already has three runner-up finishes this year on the Bass Pro Tour – the bridesmaid at Stage Two, Stage Five and at Heavy Hitters.
“It’s been a great event, a great week, but we still have our work cut out for us,” Ebare said. “I caught quite a few fish today, but my area has been getting a lot of pressure. I fished as hard as I could to catch that and will need a few of the right bites tomorrow to have a chance.”
Ebare feels he has a solid chance to repeat his success and said he’ll continue to put pressure on VanDam.
“Trailing the best of all time in his last tournament – how cool is that?” Ebare said. “As cool as it would be to see him win in his last tournament, I’d like to beat him. He wouldn’t want anything less, and I won’t be letting off the gas.”
Wheeler also feels his work isn’t done. The tournament and AOY are both within his grasp.
“I know I’m going to have to catch them tomorrow,” he said. “The conditions are changing, and thankfully I had a good bag to keep myself up there. Tomorrow, it’s anyone’s ballgame.”
The thought of winning a third-straight AOY title is at the forefront of his mind, as is VanDam’s impending retirement.
“To have a shot at winning another AOY is crazy, but I’m going to need another big bag to have a shot,” he said. “As a fan of the sport, I couldn’t ask for a better ending to a season, especially with VanDam having a chance to win his last tournament. I grew up watching him, and it made me a little emotional when he announced that he was retiring. He’s still reeling them in just fine and doesn’t need to retire, but it would be like Peyton Manning winning the Super Bowl in his last game – it’s pretty unbelievable if he can pull it off.”
VanDam leading is a massive story, but the Angler of the Year race is bonkers. Three anglers separated by three points made the final day in three consecutive spots in the standings. Add in the fact that the current leader has yet to be mathematically eliminated and every ounce will be vital tomorrow.
The most straightforward path is for Wheeler – who needs to finish two spots ahead of DeFoe and three above Becker to claim his third-consecutive AOY title – all having enough separation from Jones at 16th. Wheeler holds the tiebreaker over both, as he won an event this season. Jones’ only hope is for Wheeler to drop to 10th. He’ll also need Becker and DeFoe to stumble in a similar fashion.
The last Championship Round of the season will be a good one you won’t want to miss. Fishing starts at 8 a.m. ET, but the action starts earlier with the MLFNOW! live stream kicking off at 7:45 a.m. You can follow the action and get live scoring updates at MajorLeagueFishing.com.