Humbling moments at AOY

We just finished up a very intriguing season in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of Year Championship at Sturgeon Bay, Wis.

The fishing was really challenging for me. The wind blew from a different direction and at a different speed each day. The big smallmouth I targeted moved often because of it.

I went into the tournament totally committed to win. I had secured a Bassmaster Classic spot, so I could gamble and go for broke. I fished specifically for the schools of 4- to 6-pound smallmouth that Sturgeon Bay is famous for, but I had problems finding them. I caught a few in practice but they were never bunched up and were constantly moving.

The smaller bass were easier to find but there weren’t any big ones around them, so I didn’t fish those areas.

I’m still perplexed about what those Sturgeon Bay fish do this time of year. I’ve fished for Great Lakes smallmouth most of my life, but those Sturgeon Bay fish just weren’t doing what I thought they would. A lot of the other contestants were equally dumbfounded.

Of course, the purpose of this event was to crown the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of Year, but Aaron Martens wrapped that up before we even got to Sturgeon Bay.

What an incredible season he had! It not only looked good on paper, but for those of us who competed against him and saw how tough these events played out, his level of consistency was remarkable.

I left several tournaments trying to understand where I went wrong, but Aaron was right there in contention at nearly every event.

I’ve been in that situation where you get in a zone and everything seems to work and you wish you could keep yourself there forever. It’s really hard to do, especially when fishing such a diverse schedule and with the level of competition we have in the Elites today.

Aaron is a great person and a dear friend, but I’m not sure he fully realizes what a tremendous accomplishment this was for him. Even so, he’s a great angler who will be a top performer in years to come.

A huge highlight for me at the Championship was getting voted “Fan Favorite” in a sweepstakes contest sponsored by Toyota. It’s extremely humbling and flattering, and I take the fans’ opinion of me very seriously. It’s not something I will ever take for granted.

I wasn’t the only winner. The Fan Favorite voting was part of a Toyota Sweepstakes Contest in which Jason Rawlings of Riverside, Calif., won a Toyota Tundra truck. Congrats Jason! I’m sure you will enjoy your new Tundra as much as I do mine.

For being voted Fan Favorite, I won $5,000 that Toyota will donate to my favorite charity. My wife Sherry and I decided to add $5,000 of our personal money and give it to the St. Jude’s Cancer Research Hospital in Memphis.

Two years ago, we set up the Kevin VanDam Foundation to support kids’ fishing efforts, camps and scholarships with the intent of getting more youths involved in fishing and conservation. We didn’t feel it was right to put the Fan Favorite money in our own charity, so we chose St. Jude’s since September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

But there are other reasons. I’ve taken Make-A-Wish cancer-inflicted kids fishing and we have friends who have been inflicted with the disease. My good friend Mike Auten, former Bassmaster pro, has a son Ryan getting treatment at St. Jude’s. I’ve visited him there along with other children and seen the amazing things that the hospital does for families and the progress they’ve made in cancer research.

There have been major improvements, but until there is a cure, we all need to do our part.

Remember, it’s all about the attitude!