Explaining KVD – by Mark Zona

On Grand Lake a couple of weeks ago, Kevin VanDam added his 25th Bassmaster trophy to his ever-expanding trophy room. This has happened enough now that I already know what’s next: a lot of questions about what makes KVD so good.

So, for like the 219th time in my broadcasting career, I’m going to try to narrow this down, yet again – and probably to no avail. And when I say to no avail, I mean it’s going to take two parts to even get in the ballpark on this subject.

But let’s give it a try anyway.

I am privileged to have spent a lot of time with Kevin in my career. In many ways he has been a big brother to me both on and off the water. So you would think I could explain his super-human abilities on the water. But even as close as I am with the VanDams, it’s still not exactly explainable. After a while you just run out of words to describe what he has accomplished in this sport. Yet, every time he wins another event I feel compelled to at least try to shed some light on what makes him so good.

First, let’s just go ahead and jump beyond secret lures and secret locations and secret “inside information.” Kevin has proven time and time again that he wins tournaments with the same exact production lures that are available to everybody. He fishes spots that are, in this day in age, not a secret at all. And finally, as far as information goes, he has won in other tournament formats where there is zero information or practice allowed. Dream up any kind of tournament format you want, if it involves fishing, Kevin will win. Period.

In order to better understand what makes Kevin so good, though, you have to look beyond the fierce competitor he is on the water, which is the journey I’m going to try to take you on now.

900 mph

For starters, there is no half throttle or downtime in Kevin’s life. If you think he comes home after a tournament and lays around in a hammock drinking Mai Tais, you’d be dead wrong. He is going at light speed all of the time. In all my years of knowing him, he has never been still; he is always on the go. His pace in life is something like Tasmanian Devil meets Energizer Bunny.

You have to understand: The rate at which he tackles fishing head on is the same fervor at which he tackles life head on. This is not something he just turns on in tournaments. It’s not something he read about in a 10 Steps to a More Productive Life self-help book. It’s just the way he is – it’s a God-given trait. He does in a day what it takes others a week to do.

My family has vacationed with the VanDams on several occasions. Keep in mind: it’s vacation, right? Time to take it easy, right? Not in Kevin’s world. His idea of having fun is getting up, getting out and getting things done. Going on vacation with him is, well, exhausting for a mere mortal like me! Mostly because I’m all about the Mai Tais in the hammock if you know what I mean.

Trust me, I’m not picking at Kevin here, I’m telling you this because it’s awesome to see a human go at that pace and never break a sweat. His ability to get so much done so effortlessly is an admirable trait I’ve rarely seen in anyone else.

When Kevin turned 50 years old last October, I think we all thought: well maybe, just maybe he’ll shift it down a gear. Nope!

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Orchestrated chaos

Okay, we’ve already established he’s moving at like 900 mph, right? Now add to that, most of what is going on at 900 mph is very chaotic looking. There are rods being picked up and thrown down; there are lures flying around everywhere, tangling with each other; the trolling motor is being snatched up and thrown down 70 times a day; running here, graphing there; three casts here, two casts there. It’s an absolute whirlwind. Yes, it looks chaotic. It looks random. But trust me, there is a method to his madness. He is on a mission at all times.

Whether he is fishing for fun or in the Bassmaster Classic, he knows exactly what he is doing next and why. There is never a, “What should I do now?” moment. Or a, “Should I stay here or leave?” moment. In fact, I don’t think he has ever experienced those tortuous decisions – he always knows what he is going to do next. Every cast, every decision, every move is deliberate, calculated and always renders production of the highest value. It’s an impressive form of controlled chaos – or chaos with a purpose – or purposeful chaos – if that even makes sense.

During Bassmaster LIVE at Grand Lake, did you see him hook that big one over the cable and then pass the rod under the cable to fight the fish out to the boat and land it? At first it looked like a total disaster. But in the end you realize he knew exactly what he was doing the whole time. That’s just a tiny example of the way Kevin is all of the time.

So let’s review what I’ve come up with so far: KVD = blistering yet purposeful chaos fueled by a tireless fervor while carrying out a deliberate process very efficiently to produce the best outcome. Does what I said even make sense? Good Lord, I got worn out just saying that.

One of the more serious questions I get about Kevin, especially from other pros, is how he avoids burning out on fishing. Many of the best pros in the sport today have to stay married to the water to stay on top of their game. And in doing so, fishing becomes very monotonous. But to be quite honest, Kevin really does not fish that much in between tournaments. Trust me, his off-the-water promotional schedule is so intense he really doesn’t get that much time to fish.

And in some odd way, I think that is what keeps the fishing fire burning for him. He really relishes going to a tournament so he can actually…wait for it…fish!

Knows what the fish are doing before the fish do

Personally, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced with Kevin is his ability to tell me exactly how a tournament is going to be won – long before the event even begins. And it’s not always himself he sees in the winner’s circle. But whoever it is, he describes in detail how it’s going to go down and so many times he is exactly right.

I can’t tell you how many times he has called me before an event and told me what the fish were going to do and exactly how he was going to catch them. And it’s like the fish read his script – it’s seriously uncanny how often he is dead on accurate about that. In fact, I got that same call a few nights before the Grand Lake Elite Series event started. And everything went just as he said it would.

Being the best

For Kevin good is not good enough; great is not great enough; only being the best will do. No matter what the activity, his approach is to identify the most efficient and effective way to do that activity and reach an outcome that is likely going to be much better than everyone else’s outcome. Please understand, this is not just in his fishing, it’s in everything he does: seminars, photo shoots, making commercials, tackle prep, cooking, grilling, planting flowers. (Yes, KVD does plant flowers and, yes, he is pretty good at that, too.)

Here is a case in point: making s’mores at a bonfire. To me, it’s graham crackers, marshmallows, chocolate and fire. Cram everything together, stick it near flame and bingo, it’s done, right? Not so with Kevin; he knows the best crackers, the best marshmallows, the best chocolate, the best order to put them in and, God’s honest truth, the exact spot in the fire that will produce s’mores that are not just brown, but brown and  crispy.

If it sounds like I’m picking on Kevin, let me be real clear here: Yes, he absolutely wants to be the best at everything, but here’s where he is a bit different. Kevin does not want to be the best purely for personal gain. Trust me, Kevin could easily just fish tournaments and never do another thing except deposit his checks. But he wants to be the best because being the best gives him the credibility to teach others and share knowledge. He has a deep-seated need to teach, and in his mind, to have the credentials to teach, you need to be the best. No matter if it’s fishing or cooking s’mores.

The KVD people see on the water may look like a callous competitor, but off the water Kevin has a huge heart. He is incredibly giving of himself in ways that are far too numerous to count. He goes out of his way to accommodate numerous requests in this industry on a daily basis. He is the absolute epitome of what a professional should be. At the end of the day, Kevin wants to help other people be their best, too, even if it means being the guy we all want to beat on the water.

Head over to Bass Pro Shop to get the top-quality fishing tools I rely on


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