DECATUR, Ala. – With the odds stacked against him, Jeremy Starks of Charleston, W.Va., outlasted perennial favorite and three-time Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam to take his first BASS victory Sunday with a four-day total of 78 pounds, 10 ounces, at the Southern Challenge presented by Advance Auto Parts.
Starks played the role of David to VanDam's Goliath at the seventh Elite tournament of the season. VanDam's considerable credentials include two Bassmaster Classic titles, 13 BASS wins and the title of all-time BASS career earnings leader. With the victory, Starks earned $100,000 and moved to 70th place in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings.
"You couldn't script it any better than this," said Starks, 35. "If you're going to beat somebody, it can't get any better than beating the best in the world."
Fans can catch all of the action from Wheeler Lake on The Bassmasters, which airs Saturday, June 14, on ESPN2 at 9 a.m. ET. Additionally, live, streaming video of the remaining 2008 Elite Series weigh-ins, photo galleries and analysis can be accessed at http://www.Bassmaster.com.
After Starks, the top five shook out with VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., (78-2) in second; Terry Scroggins of Palatka, Fla., (67-1) third; John Murray of Phoenix (66-0) in fourth and Matthew Sphar of Pavilion, N.Y. (65-2) fifth. Only the top-12 anglers qualified for Sunday.
Despite narrowly missing out on his fourth Elite Series title, VanDam moved to second in the 2008 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year rankings. Todd Faircloth, who finished sixth at Wheeler, reclaimed the top spot and leads VanDam by just 18 points. Skeet Reese, the reigning AOY, is third and previous leader Mike McClelland of Bella Vista, Ark., slipped to fourth. The full standings can be found below.
In the "Trail to the Trophy" the Elite field is competing for a $250,000 top prize and the majority of qualifying berths into the 2009 Bassmaster Classic. The race will culminate with the final Elite Series event of the 2008 season, the Aug. 7-10 Champion's Choice on Oneida Lake out of Syracuse, N.Y.
Most anglers in the field were skeptical of Starks' strategy. He found a "magic spot" in practice and didn't fully attack until the final day, opting to manage his fish. In fact, before the final day, he only threw 25 casts to his best spot.
The strategy almost backfired, however; when Starks pulled to his spot Sunday morning he found a local angler there. Starks fumed for 30 minutes, not throwing a cast. Eventually the local pulled off, leaving Starks alone.
In the end, his patience paid off and he boated 21 pounds, 15 ounces, Sunday, the biggest limit of the day. Throughout the tournament, he caught every fish he weighed on a 10-inch Berkley power worm in plum color. He described the winning spot as an "old submerged creek feeding a main channel that had subtle bends in it".
"I was thinking about VanDam all day," said Starks, who had a best finish of ninth before Sunday. "I was having a lot of fun out there talking smack. It's just competition. Now I can't wait to win another one."
Like Starks, VanDam, 40, managed his bite throughout the four days and focused on one spot. He felt he made a bad decision Thursday in not maximizing his opportunities. He used a Strike King sexy shad to boat most of his fish but mixed it up with five to six other lures.
He felt the Sunday bite was much tougher than he anticipated, but he still managed to catch 20 pounds, 0 ounces. His BASS career earnings, now more than $2.8 million, are inching closer to the $3 million mark.
"I had the opportunities to win it," said VanDam, who estimated he lost six fish Sunday. "It's tough to get in position to win, so when I let one slip away I'm definitely disappointed."
Japan's Morizo Shimizu finished in seventh while Elite rookie Corey Waldrop of Fort Worth, Texas, finished ninth.
Next, the Elite Series circuit heads to Kentucky Lake and Gilbersville, Ky. The event will be the eighth of the Elite season and will take place next week, June 12-15.
With 1,063 miles of shoreline, Wheeler is the largest of three Alabama lakes that connect with the Tennessee River. It has been the host of nine BASS events, including the 1974 Bassmaster Classic.
Daily weigh-ins and launches at the Southern Challenge took place at Ingalls Harbor, 701 Market St. NW, Decatur, Ala.
Meanwhile, BASS, celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2008, conducted the first BASS tournament June 5-7, 1967, on Arkansas’ Beaver Lake. The first event, called the All-American Bass tournament, was held by BASS founder Ray Scott, who officially created BASS in 1968 following the success of this first tournament.
For more information, contact BASS Communications at (407) 566-2208 or visit Bassmaster.com. Visit ESPNMediaZone.com for ESPN’s latest releases, schedules and other news, plus photos, video, audio clips and more.
The local sponsor of the Southern Challenge is the Decatur-Morgan County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Sponsors of the Bassmaster Elite Series include Toyota Tundra, Advance Auto Parts, Berkley, Lowrance, Mercury, Purolator, Skeeter, Yamaha, Evan Williams Bourbon, Longhorn, OPTIMA Batteries, Triton Boats, Costa Del Mar, MotorGuide and Ramada Worldwide.