The most prolific angler in BASS-earnings history was disqualified from a Bassmaster Elite Series event earlier this year at Santee-Cooper Reservoir and barely squeaked into the money after finishing 50th at Clark's Hill a few weeks later.
It was certainly unfamiliar territory for the Kalamazoo, Mich., veteran.
But on Thursday during the opening round of the Bluegrass Brawl here on Kentucky Lake, VanDam resumed a familiar position.
He's atop the leaderboard.
VanDam weighed a five-fish sack that totaled 18 pounds, nine ounces. Of the 103 elite anglers competing in the Bluegrass Brawl, VanDam was one of only 62 that managed to boat a limit of fish on this 220,000-acre impoundment in southwest Kentucky.
Blistering temperatures that reached into the mid 90s and a lack of cloud cover slowed the bite for many of the anglers on Kentucky Lake and neighboring Lake Barkley. But VanDam fought through the conditions to put himself into excellent position to make the cut into the weekend.
"It's a four-day event, and I was fortunate today," he said. "I had an opportunity to have a lot better day even yet. You get into a situation where you've got a chance to sack them good and get on a spot they're biting, you better catch them. These fish move a lot here. I pulled up on a place today they were on and caught them on every cast for a few minutes. That really helped me."
Kentucky Lake is setting up to be a deep-water, power-fishing tournament — suiting VanDam's style just fine. Still, he said Thursday's bite was difficult at times.
"It's hard work, you know," he said. "You're fishing deep, throwing a big crank bait, it's hot out there. This is grueling work, but it's a nice lake because you have thousands of places you can fish out there. I had to move around a lot. If they were there, great. If not, move to another place. So it was a run-and-gun deal for me. That's how I'd prefer to fish."
VanDam's closest competitors are Oklahoma's Jeff Kriet, who is in second place with 18-0. Fellow Oklahoma pro Tommy Biffle is third with 17-15 and Alabama's Randy Howell is fourth with 17-13. Rounding out the top eight are Texas' Kelly Jordon (17-12), Arkansas' Mike Wurm (17-9), West Virginia's Jeremy Starks (17-8) and Oklahoma's Jeff Reynolds (17-3).
Kriet experienced motor troubles Thursday, but luckily was able to catch (and even cull) fish in the spot where he broke down. Like almost all the competing anglers, Kriet is fishing deep-water ledges in Kentucky Lake.
"I've got six or seven places that have got them pretty good and I only hit three today," Kriet said. "I caught maybe eight or 10 keepers off each one. And I like to fish out, so I feel pretty good about it."
Several anglers said they struggled during practice rounds and were hoping Thursday's south wind would create current and spark big bites. Kriet said though the south wind blew, he didn't think a change in current played a large role in the spots he fished Thursday.
"I've had a good practice and got bit pretty much every day," he said. "So I don't know (if the current helped.) I think they were probably running a little bit (of current today.) But I think I can do it again tomorrow (regardless of current.)"
Howell, who prefers to fish in more shallow water, found his depth when he made the run east to Lake Barkley. He said he caught approximately 10 keepers fishing offshore structure there.
"I went in about three or four areas and caught fish in all of them," he said. "In practice I caught small fish and small keepers. Today I caught one that was five-something and had a bunch of three-pounders. I just had a real blessed day to get bigger bites. I don't know what changed, or why. It was maybe because I worked the areas longer and was thorough."
Despite Thursday's success, Howell said he may have to change his game plan Friday due to potential fishing pressure on the popular Lake Barkley fishery.
"There's a tournament going on there tomorrow," he said. "A Friday tournament. Then there's a 150-boat Saturday tournament. And I'm fishing some of the areas are kind of community spots with lots of locals around me."
Jordon had a tough practice, but happened on some key bites Thursday using a variety of lures.
"I just stayed closer to the main lake stuff, the drops," he said. "There's just bigger fish that live out there and I was fortunate enough to catch a few of them today."
The tournament will resume tomorrow with launch scheduled for 5:30 a.m. at Kentucky Dam Village State Park.