By Steve Wright

GILBERTSVILLE, Ky. — When Kevin VanDam stepped to the weigh-in stage with his five-bass limit Sunday, he wasn’t a confident man. For the first time in the four-day tournament, he hadn’t sacked 20-plus pounds.

And Timmy Horton had taken the lead with 24 pounds, 11 ounces in the Bassmaster Elite Series Bluegrass Brawl presented by Diehard Platinum Marine Batteries. Needing at least 15-9 to win, the legend of Kevin VanDam grew larger with his 16-9 day — enough to make him the only four-time Elite Series tournament champion, with 16 ounces to spare.

Kentucky Lake provided a fitting comeback for the 40-year-old three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year, who finished second by 8 ounces last Sunday at Alabama’s Lake Wheeler.

“Man, what a relief,” VanDam said after coming backstage with the championship trophy in hand. “It probably means more to me than any event in awhile because two years ago here, I gave up that event. I ended up finishing third, and I should have won that one.

“I learned from it though. I learned from the pressure we were going to have out there. I planned for it, and I didn’t slow down even on day one (this week).”

It was on Day One — Thursday — when VanDam caught 24-13, which would turn out to be the Berkley Big Bag of the tournament — by 2 ounces over what Horton bagged Sunday.

Even though Horton had the fish hooked to win this event, the 35-year-old Muscle Shoals, Ala., pro seemed as satisfied as any second-place finisher has ever been.

“I’m tickled to death,” said Horton, who started the day in third place, 9-3 behind VanDam. “I had no idea it would be that exciting. I’m thinking out there I’m fishing for second all day.

“I came into a nice surprise. It was actually pretty close. But Kevin deserved it. He put together a great week.”

Horton didn’t express any frustration, but he did acknowledge that he had the fish hooked that would have won the $100,000 first-place check. Horton lost two 7-pound-range bass Saturday, and two more big ones came unbuttoned Sunday from his modified Bomber DT7 Fat Free Shad.

“When you’re crankbait fishing especially, that’s going to happen,” said Horton, who files down the hard-plastic bills on the baits to give them a softer action. “When you’re throwing a big plug like that, a big bass comes up with so much force, it almost creates a bow-and-arrow effect on your line.”

Horton did catch the Purolator Big Bass of the day — a 6-6 — which he guessed might have been one of the big ones he lost Saturday.

VanDam admitted he was so focused on winning this tournament that he didn’t realize it was Father’s Day until his family called him Sunday.

A noted crankbait specialist, VanDam said it wasn’t the only lure that produced his winning weight of 84-13 this week, but it was his primary bass-finding bait.

“A crankbait sure is a great tool,” he said. “Not only does it cover a lot of water, but it tells you what’s on the bottom too. Mussel beds and gravel — those little rough spots — were the key.”

Once VanDam found his key areas with a Strike King Sexy Shad Series 5 or Series 6 crankbait, he’d follow up with various other Strike King lures, particularly a Sexy Shad spoon, which produced three of his biggest bass this week.

Not only did he take the lead in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year point standings Sunday, the Kalamazoo, Mich., native is now less than $50,000 from becoming the first man to top $3 million in BASS earnings. He has made four Elite Series top 12 finals in a row.

“When you get on a roll like that, the momentum just keeps going,” VanDam said.

No one could argue with that.