Dispatches from Alpena: VanDam Returns to Site of his Smallmouth Domination
By Joel Shangle
July 18, 2017
He may never go so far as to say that he owns an edge on the 26 other Major League Fishing Wiley X Summit Cup anglers competing this week in the lakes around Alpena, Michigan, but Kevin VanDam breathes the northern Michigan air a little deeper as he talks about the lakes, rivers and streams of the Wolverine State.
It’s the second time that VanDam and the MLF Cup road show has landed in northern Michigan, a location that clearly suits the seven-time Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year well, even though he grew up on the opposite end of the state, five hours south of Alpena, in Kalamazoo.
“I fished in this area when I was 16 or 17 in a B.A.S.S. Federation event, so really, it had been 30 years for me before we had that first event here … but, it IS Michigan,” VanDam says. “I have to admit, I feel pretty comfortable just about anywhere I fish in Michigan.”
And he showed it in dominating fashion the first time MLF arrived in Alpena, in 2014. VanDam decimated the Summit Cup field with a total of 85 fish and 109 pounds, 9 ounces of smallmouth in his three rounds, including his then-record 82-7 on Grand Lake in that event’s Championship Round (which VanDam won by nearly 40 pounds).
It was a series of MLF episodes that showed the entire world the true extent of VanDam’s exhaustive understanding of smallmouth.
“If I have any advantage here, it’s that I feel like I’m really good at breaking down smallmouth habitats quickly,” VanDam says. “Knowing with a quick look at the terrain that it’s something you can throw baits that are high in the water column – like a spinnerbait or a jerkbait – as opposed to a tube or a jig on the bottom to imitate a crawfish. That’s a big deal, because it’s so important to get off to a good start in the MLF format.”
Alpena = Smallmouth Country
The lakes of Alpena County offer a staggering array of gamefish species: salmon, German brown trout, Northern pike, walleye, largemouth, several species of panfish and catfish, etc. However, the entire field admits that the “brown beast” is the most important species that swims in local waters.
And that’s just fine with VanDam.
“I caught my first smallmouth when I was 7 years old, and was instantly hooked,” he says. “Michigan smallmouth are a little different than smallmouth in other parts of the country, and a lot of it has to do with the diversity of the lakes. One thing that’s very unique to this region is how in one lake, smallmouth will be shallow, and a lake just 5 miles down the road, they’ll be deep. You might think that you can duplicate patterns or techniques from one lake to the next, but you can’t: it’s different almost every day, which is great for this (MLF) format.”