BAY CITY, Mich. – Regardless of where he finishes in the final standings, Minn Kota Stage Seven Presented by Suzuki was always going to serve as a celebration of Kevin VanDam. VanDam, widely heralded as the greatest tournament angler in bass fishing history, announced that he’ll retire from the Bass Pro Tour after this season finale, fittingly held at Saginaw Bay in his home state of Michigan.

Could it also serve as one last chance for fans to watch KVD hoist a trophy? In typical VanDam fashion, he’s at least making the storybook ending seem not so far-fetched.

VanDam sacked up 15 pounds, 12 ounces on Thursday, the second day of qualifying for Group A. That tied for the second-biggest limit of the day. His two-day total of 33-7 placed second in the group and easily qualified him for the Knockout Round.

VanDam quickly caught a limit of smallmouth, then added a 4-6 kicker, which briefly lifted him to the top spot on SCORETRACKER®. He spent the latter half of the day in practice mode, scoping out new areas for the Knockout Round. He ultimately added one 2-10 largemouth to boost his limit.

While most of the anglers who have attempted to target Saginaw Bay’s nomadic smallmouth population this week have struggled — the only other members of Group A who advanced to the Knockout Round primarily on the strength of smallmouth are leader Greg Vinson along with Dakota Ebare, Jacob Wheeler and Edwin Evers — VanDam has found groups of brown fish both mornings and quickly filled his limit. That’s given him quite a bit of time to explore the vast waters of Saginaw Bay, which could give him a leg up when he returns to the water on Saturday. He’ll aim to finish among the Top 10 to qualify for the Championship Round and put off retirement for one more day.

This won’t be the final time fishing fans see VanDam compete in a tournament. His Knockout Round appearance officially assures he’ll qualify for both REDCREST 2024 and General Tire Heavy Hitters next season, and he’s already announced that he plans to fish both.

But it would be fitting for the angler who redefined what’s possible in a tournament fishing career to end his final full season with one last Top 10 — and maybe more.

VanDam lurking in final regular-season event

Fishing his final regular-season event in his storied career (and in his home state), VanDam has given himself a shot to go out with a win. VanDam cruised on Thursday, catching smallmouth in Period 1 before tallying a mixed bag of 15-12. He’s looking to prolong his retirement as long as possible this week.

“I feel good about the event so far; anytime you can make the Knockout Round is good,” he said. “You can’t get to the Championship Round and give yourself a shot if you don’t make it on the first two days. I’m trying to extend this event as long as possible since it’s my last one.”

With two of the better bags in his group on both days of competition, VanDam is clearly on a solid game plan. He’s also done it by fishing his primary areas for just a period each day before searching for new fish.

“It took a while today, but I started piecing it together,” VanDam said. “I’ve really only fished two periods so far this week, and I feel like a lot of other guys are doing the same thing. There’s no slacking off anymore, and I believe it will take some better weights from here on out to do well and give yourself a shot at the win.”

Wheeler, DeFoe keep AOY hopes alive

Speaking of anglers dialed in on the smallmouth bite at Saginaw Bay, no one found and caught a limit of brown fish faster than Wheeler on Thursday. Less than 30 minutes after lines in, Wheeler pushed his two-day total above 29 pounds, his stated goal weight. He then spent the remainder of the day practicing.

As a result, it’s looking more and more like Wheeler is the man to beat in the Bally Bet Angler of the Year competition. While Wheeler entered the event seven points behind leader Alton Jones Jr., the two-time defending AOY champion has put some more pressure on Jones. Jones will enter his second day of qualifying in 20th place in Group B — right on the Toro Cut Line.

But even if Jones (as well as fellow contender Matt Becker) fails to make the Knockout Round, Wheeler will have to catch ‘em for at least one more day in order to pull off the rare three-peat. That’s because Ott DeFoe, who entered Stage Seven two points behind him in the season-long standings, also finished among the Top 20 in Group A.

It didn’t come quite as easily for DeFoe, who didn’t catch his fifth keeper until the final 15 minutes of Period 2. But thanks in large part to a 3-4 largemouth that he fooled with a frog early in the third period, DeFoe finished 12th with a two-day total of 28-15.