The Brawl returns

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2008’s Angler of the Year looking forward to Elite tour's return trip to SML next week

By Tom Wilmoth

Four-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam enters this coming week’s Elite series stop at Smith Mountain Lake in good shape to seek a fifth title.

    VanDam, the 2008 Toyota Tundra AOY champion, sits in fifth place in this year’s standings and he’s looking for the Advance Auto Blue Ridge Brawl at SML to add to his quest for another title. In short, fishing at SML fits his style just fine.

    “It has a lot of good habitat for fish,” VanDam said this week about SML. “I like fishing clear water.”

    That’s the kind of fishing he’s used to from his home state of Michigan. “I thought it was fantastic the first time,” he said of the Elite’s first stop at SML in 2007. “The people around the Lake were really glad to see us there.”

    And they’re ready to have them back.

    The Elite anglers will begin arriving at SML this weekend with the tournament running April 23-26. Launch times will be at 7:15 a.m. each day with weigh-ins at 4 p.m. daily at Parkway Marina in Huddleston. The field will be cut from 100 to 50 for Saturday’s launch and only the top 12 anglers weighing-in on Saturday will fish on Sunday.

    The story of the first three events this year has been the weather. Two of the first three tournaments have lost a day of fishing to bad weather and that was only one of the problems VanDam had while trying to fish at the April 2-5 Dixie Duel at Wheeler Lake in Decatur, Ala.

    “I got food poisoning at the last event and that made it challenging to even be out there,” he said. “There are no sick days. You have to tough it out.”

    In fact, VanDam’s two roommates —Scott Rook and Davy Hite —  also got sick and they traced it back to a local restaurant they ate at while there.

    But, after a week vacationing in Mexico with his family, VanDam is rested and ready for a return to SML.

    “I’m in good shape right now,” he said of the Angler of the Year standings. But this year’s championship trophy takes on a new twist. Taking a cue from NASCAR, the top angler will be decided in a Chase-type format at the end of the year.

    This year, following the eight regular season Elite events, the top 12 anglers in the standings will square off in a two-event showdown to determine who the 2009 AOY will be. The points will be reset and the lakes where they’ll fish the two playoff events have yet to be released. There won’t be a chance to get information on the lakes prior to the events.

    VanDam, who favors the history of bass angling, said that the new format will be exciting both for the fans and the television audience. And, he said, it provides a new level of competition for the title.

    “It makes it harder to win,” VanDam said of the title. “It makes it exciting for us.”

    In the past, VanDam said the AOY standings could be decided before the final tournament was even held. Now that won’t be the case. In essence, the tour has entered the realm of playoffs.

    “It’s good from that standpoint (that we’re) able to showcase what we do,” VanDam said of the new points and playoff system. “They (the fans) understand playoffs; it’s something they get more excited about. We probably need that.”

    And to take a golfing analogy, it means “you better bring your ‘A’ game,” he said of the playoff format.

    The Brawl at SML serves as the midway point for this year’s Elite regular season. Alton Jones stands atop the AOY standings, followed by Stephen Browning, Mark Menendez, Gary Klein and VanDam. Mark Tucker, Skeet Reese, Brent Chapman, Cliff Pace and Todd Faircloth round out the top 10. Tommy Biffle used a victory in the Dixie Duel to propel himself into 11th place in the standings and Casey Ashley, who, as a rookie on the tour, won the first Elite event at SML in 2007, rounds out the top 12.

    VanDam said the first stop at SML served as a learning experience for him. “All the boat docks make it nice,” he said of the fishing. He added that the bass tended to roam around a lot, making it harder to fish from day-to-day.

    While the tournament’s first stop at SML was in June, this year’s April stop should mean the fish will be in more shallow water, making for better fishing and larger bass. “What really surprised me was the number of quality fish that are there,” he said of the Lake. “It’s a really good Lake. We’ll showcase that even more this time.”

    While co-anglers joined the Elite anglers in their boats in 2007, this year the tour has adopted a Marshal Program. This program allows fans the opportunity to observe and learn from the anglers while they’re fishing. The Marshals help ensure the integrity of the anglers, watching to make sure the anglers follow the tournament rules and they also have the chance to watch the anglers — and learn.

    “It think it’s been fantastic,” VanDam said of the program. “I’ve been an advocate of it for a while. ...I know that the (Marshals) I’ve had have just been thrilled with the experience.”

    And he’s looking forward to a return trip to SML.

    “I thought it was really fantastic the first time,” VanDam said, noting the Southern hospitality the anglers were shown. “It’s nice to go to places like that.”