R&D with KVD
A closer look at how a lure earns the Kevin VanDam endorsement
by Rob Newell
Walk into any tackle shop these days and it does not take long to find a lure package with the letters KVD printed on it. There are topwaters, crankbaits, spinnerbaits, jigs, plastics – lures highlighted with Kevin VanDam’s likeness are everywhere.
And rightly so. After all, when you are the best bass angler in the world and have won national tournaments on just about every lure in the box, getting your name on lures is probably pretty easy.
But before you think the King of Catch can just snap his fingers and have his long-time sponsor Strike King put his mug on any lure he wants, guess again.
“Hey, I don’t want my name on something that doesn’t work,” VanDam says emphatically. “If my name is on it, I use it because I know it works, simple as that.”
And for that reason, the R&D process between KVD and Strike King is actually pretty rigorous.
When VanDam isn’t lining his mantle with fishing trophies, he is experimenting with new products and prototypes. He loves to tinker with tackle and is forever intrigued with the actions, colors, flash and vibrations in artificial lures that trigger fish to bite.
“Years ago, in the B.A.S.S. Invitational days, I drew a pro named Dave Fenton,” VanDam recalls. “He pulled out a lure called a Sluggo and when I first saw it on his rod I kind of laughed because it looked worthless. But when I saw how it worked in the water I was floored. That year I went on to smash them in several B.A.S.S. events on a Sluggo; it turned out to be an incredible lure. I learned right then you can’t judge any lure at face value. Something bass have never seen before can really fire them up, no matter how goofy it may look to us. A Chatterbait is another great example – crazy looking, crazy vibration, but bass eat it.
“It can be a new vibration, a different profile, a new color,” he continues. “Anything different can trip their trigger so I love to experiment with new products and prototypes. I’m always tuning, tweaking and tinkering with lures to see how fish react to them.”
And tinker he does. VanDam actually has three places where he runs prototypes up the fishing pole: his pool, a lake in his backyard and a natural spring pond that is deep and gin clear. The pool and the spring pond are for observing lure action only.
“A pool is a great place to observe lure action up close,” VanDam says. “But the problem with a pool is you can’t see what your lure is doing at the end of a long cast. Most jerkbaits look great when you’re snapping them on 15 feet of line, but does it have that same action out there at the end of a 40-yard cast? How deep is your jerkbait really getting? And is it really suspending? That’s what the spring pond is for: observing lures at the end of a cast.”
As for the lake in his back yard, well, let’s just say it has been specifically designed to be a lure testing facility, complete with deliberately placed stumps, rocks, brush piles, pilings and intentionally planted vegetation. And it is loaded with both largemouth and smallmouth bass.
“The visibility in my lake is about six feet so I can see, firsthand, how lures deflect off rock or wood, how ‘hangy’ they are when cranked through brushpiles, and most importantly, I can see the initial reaction fish have to the bait. Do they run from it? Do they ignore it? Do they hunt it down and attack it? These are all the things I’m evaluating when I test prototypes.”
VanDam and Strike King’s top lure designer, Phil Marks, have become a lure designing dream team in recent years. Marks is not only a great fisherman (he won the FLW Tour Open on Rayburn Reservoir in 2012) he also has a degree in Ocean Engineering from Texas A&M, which makes him extremely well versed in the science of hydraulics and fluid dynamics. To put that in bass fishing terms: he knows how to manipulate the way water moves around a lure to achieve a desired action.
“Phil is a tremendous asset to Strike King,” VanDam says. “Not only is he a great fisherman who understands the importance of lure subtleties and how bass response to differing actions, but also his engineering background is a huge bonus because he knows how to change variables like a material’s flexibility or the thickness of a lure’s shell to make it do certain things.”
Marks and VanDam’s first homerun was the Red Eye Shad, which KVD used to win the 2010 Classic on Lay Lake. Since then the lure-design dream team has been given more freedom to perfect lures for Strike King.
“People might think designing lures is as simple as attaching a lip to a lure body, painting it and then putting it on the market,” VanDam said. “It’s far, far from being that easy. For example, with the KVD 1.5 you can’t just enlarge everything proportionally and make a 2.5 – it’s not that easy. Just because a 1.5 runs perfect does not mean an exact replica of that same bait in a bigger size is going to run perfect, too. There are weight and balance issues that must be addressed. So even though it’s a 2.5 and looks like nothing more than an upsized 1.5, it’s a completely different lure that had to go through just as many production stages as the 1.5.”
VanDam further explains that reproducing prototypes to make microscopic changes to lures is very expensive, no matter how small the change is. Each time a tiny change is made the production process goes back to square one and the evolution costs add up.
“Phil’s work has been instrumental in allowing us to make baits perfect instead of just getting close,” VanDam explains. “Now we can redo a prototype eight or nine times to refine the lure to exactly what we want and it makes for a far superior product. I love being hands-on in that process.”
VanDam is pretty fired up about some of the things he and Marks have in the hopper, which will be available later this year.
“A lot of the new products are very specific, very situational,” VanDam details. “Much like a set of golf clubs that has drivers, specific irons, chipping wedges for sand, different putters for the greens, we are now making baits for exact depths, zones and covers. The intensive refinement process has made this possible: to produce a bait that is exactly suited for let’s say, rock as opposed to one exactly suited for brush.”
And once he gets a bait dialed in to the exact form and function he wants, then, and only then, will he put the KVD stamp of approval on it.