October 2002 - Twelve years ago, two bright-eyed rookie anglers appeared on professional bass fishing's rough-and-tumble seas. One was a tall, skinny rail of an angler from Kalamazoo, Mich., named Kevin VanDam. The other was a Western transplant named Jay Yelas. The former was juiced up on high-octane fishing energy with a tackle box full of power baits, while the latter had big fishing dreams in his head and a spinning rod in his hand.
This year, these two anglers of similar bass-fishing chronologies yet distinct fishing styles squared off in a pirate-like duel for the 2002 FLW Tour Angler-of-the-Year title.
VanDam looked to be the captain of the 2002 FLW Tour ship again, controlling the helm just as he did last year. Few rivals argued with VanDam's seemingly effortless ruling of the high seas with his power-fishing techniques. But when the high seas calmed down to a slick ocean at Lake Champlain, Yelas, who now lives in Tyler, Texas, forced VanDam to walk the plank - with just a spinning rod in his hand.
"I think I might be the first angler to have won a national angler-of-the-year title with a spinning rod," Yelas said. "I had a spinning rod in my hand five of the six tournaments. The worst tournament I had was Old Hickory, I was power fishing with a casting rod."
Yelas' proclivity for a spinning rod is not a recent development. A native of the West, Yelas has always had a passion for light-line finesse fishing. This year he returned to his spinning-rod roots.
"I didn't have much pressure on me at the FLWs this year," said the Yamaha pro team member. "I did not feel like I needed to force power baits on fish to compete. I just went fishing for fun again. I was perfectly comfortable going out there with my spinning rod and posting a daily limit. If somebody beat me with 15 pounds by power fishing, then so be it."
Yelas points to Wheeler and Ouachita as examples of his fishing this year. Both were cold-water tournaments with uncooperative bass.
"I tried power fishing in practice - spinner baits, crankbaits, jigs - and then I asked myself, "Why am I trying to force fish to eat these big baits when I know I can pick up a spinning rod and catch a limit shaking a worm?'"
Yelas fished a finesse worm at Wheeler and a drop-shot at Ouachita to survive the two toughest tournaments of the season with 28th, and 34th place finishes, respectively.
For the record, the spinning rod combo that Yelas used to reel in his AOY title was a Daiwa finesse spinning rod, 6 feet 3 inches in length, teamed with a Team Daiwa TDX 3000 spinning reel.
Yelas relied on Berkley Vanish 8-pound-test line for drop-shotting and finesse fishing and Berkley XT 10-pound-test for sight-fishing.
Fishing in VanDam's Shadow
Yelas and VanDam started their pro careers at nearly the same time. Since then, both have proven their consistency by qualifying for 12 consecutive Bassmaster Classics. But Yelas' solid fishing career has been overshadowed by the phenomenal success of VanDam.
"It is like Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods in pro golf," he said. "Mickelson has had a good career in pro golf; however, he started at the same time Tiger did, so you don't hear much about him. I just happened to start my fishing career at the same time that the best bass angler ever to pick up a rod did."
Despite being in his shadow, Yelas realizes the positive impact VanDam's presence has had on professional bass fishing.
"I thank God for Kevin," Yelas said. "He has shown us all how much potential we have as anglers. He raises the bar and proves what is possible in this sport."
Sight Fishing Played a Key Role
At Lake Okeechobee, Beaver Lake, and Lake Champlain, Yelas caught all of his fish by sight-fishing for spawning bass with a spinning rod. These three tournaments proved to be Yelas' best finishes, with a third, 16th, and ninth, respectively.
"If Kevin has such a thing as a weakness, it would have to be sight-fishing," Yelas said. "And that's not to say that he is not good at it, but rather, he would rather catch fish other ways. Traditionally, sight-fishing is his last option, which really played into my hands. My three best tournaments were his worst three tournaments."
Detoured and Derailed
All season long, Yelas stuck to a "loose-and-relaxed" game plan to fish for fun and post a limit every day. But after Beaver Lake, when Yelas realized he was only a single point from leading the AOY race, he detracted from the "loose-and-relaxed" back road and hit the fast lane with a "win-Angler-of-the-Year" mindset.
The detour resulted in a derailment.
"I went to Old Hickory, charged up, and focused on Angler of the Year," he said. "I was on the water at 5 a.m. in the driving rain. I switched to power fishing. I was pressing hard to turn the corner on the title, and it turned out to be the worst tournament of my entire career."
Though Yelas finished a respectable 38th at Old Hickory, he felt he should have done much better with the quality of fish he had found. VanDam made a quantum leap in Angler-of-the-Year points (28) by finishing third.
Going into Champlain, Yelas returned to his loose-and-relaxed ways and wielded his spinning rod again.
"After Old Hickory, I figured that Angler of the Year was just not in the cards for me, so I went back to the way I had been approaching tournaments," he said. "I figured the only chance I had at catching Kevin was if Champlain got just right, where many of the quality fish are in a spawning mode, and they are hard to catch on power baits."
Amazingly, for the first two days of the tournament, Lake Champlain did exactly what Yelas needed. The sun shone bright, and there was no breath of wind - perfect sight-fishing conditions. In addition, bass were locking on beds. Conditions played right into Yelas' hands as the tournament progressed.
On day one, Yelas posted only 10 ounces better than VanDam and gained 10 points on him. Day two, however, was the break Yelas was waiting for.
On nearly the last day of the 2002 FLW Tour season, VanDam momentarily lost control of the ship he had captained for nearly two years, catching only 13 pounds, 12 ounces and recording his worst finish of the season (44th).
Meanwhile, Yale's weight of 17 pounds, 8 ounces earned him a top-20 berth and another day of fishing to close the now narrow four-point gap between him and VanDam.
In the end, Yelas took advantage of the opportunity and handily defeated VanDam by seven points.
Yelas' bass-fishing career started with a five-year hot streak. He claimed two B.A.S.S. victories in the early '90s and made a run for the B.A.S.S. Angler-of-the-Year title in 1994 and 1995. But since then, Yelas' presence has not been as prevalent on the tournament-fishing scene.
"A lot of that has to do with having babies, raising a family, and other off-the-water obligations," Yelas said. "When you are young and trying to get established in this sport, you can fish every day like you are preparing for an Olympic event, but you can't live that way forever. When you get a little older, you want to have a life outside of fishing and enjoy other things life offers."
Yelas lists flower gardening as one of his hobbies.
"I have two girls, ages 6 and 4, and they love to garden around the house," Yelas said. "It is something that Daddy can do with the girls. We have a great time with it."
Though Yelas has been giving his home life the priority, it deserves for the last several years. He says the old competitive fishing fires are starting to flame again after winning the 2002 FLW Tour Angler-of-the-Year title.
"Over the last year, I have focused more on fishing again and raised my bar," he said. "I will probably use that spinning rod a little more, too."
Content provided by Bass Fishing Magazine, the official publication of FLW Outdoors