In memory of John William Vandivier
March 23, 1948 - April 2, 2009
John Vandivier developed and introduced many of the fishing techniques we take for granted today. In this exclusive interview, Bob Izumi's reminisces with his good friend about the early days.
By Bob Izumi
After making my living in the fishing business for almost 30-years I've had the opportunity to meet and fish with a lot of great anglers but I've only met a handful of true innovators. I'm talking about the kinds of people who take fishing to the next level; the ones who are driven to discover new ways to catch fish and who don't stop until they've perfected it. My long-time friend, John Vandivier, is one of those types of anglers.
Ever since I've known him, John has been on the cutting edge of fishing. You might not know his name, but if you fish for steelhead or bass you probably use some of the equipment and techniques that John helped develop or introduce here in Canada. Take steelhead fishing for example. Here in Ontario it's common to see steelheaders using centerpin reels, long float rods and light lines to catch these fish when they enter rivers and streams around the Great Lakes but it wasn't always like that. Back in the late 60s and early 70s, when steelhead were newly introduced to the Great Lakes, most people used regular 6 to 7-foot spinning rods and 8 or 10-pound test line. They would tie a hook directly to the line, crimp on a few splitshot and cast the rig slightly upstream. The current would carry the bait downstream and the angler would rely on his sense of "feel" to tell the difference between the sinkers tapping on the bottom and the tap of a fish picking up the bait. There really was an art to this type of fishing and it could take anglers a season or two to really get the hang of it.
John has always been an avid steelhead angler and he knew that there had to be a better way to present baits to fish in moving water. At that time, in England, anglers were using free-spinning centerpin reels, long rods and floats to present tiny baits to pressured fish in rivers. John saw the potential to apply this system to Ontario's steelhead fishery so he and his pal, Rick Simm, decided to try the new gear here in North America and the rest, as they say, is history. I asked John how the whole centerpin and float rod system got started here and his story really shows the dedication he had to re-inventing steelhead fishing at a time when most anglers were just getting into this new fishery.
BI: Tell me about steelhead fishing with centerpin reels. How did you get that started here in Canada?
JV: Oh wow Bob, that's a long time ago. My pal, Rick Simm, had a deal where he got the reels from England. They were saltwater reels and they were just pressed out of tin and hot metal. They were pieces of junk, really, but they only cost two pounds - I think that was something like four dollars back then. We got a bunch of those and they worked great - they were the right size; 4 1/4-inches, with nice wide spools and no bearings whatsoever. We'd take the pawl off of the reels and go to Canadian Tire and buy washers - the little black, round rubber washers for your sink - and we'd slap them on and they worked fine. That was probably the first look at centerpins in Ontario.
BI: What about the long rods and the floats?
JV: In was around 1970 and nobody, but nobody, was making long rods so we had to experiment. We'd get fly rods and chop them up and try to make ourselves 10 or 11-footers - which worked good. I went to a couple of companies asking them to see if they would be interested in making a good steelhead rod for float fishing but the market was so small back then there wasn't much interest.
BI: Eventually you guys started making long, custom rods?
JV: We made them up to 17 1/2-feet, but that was silly. The first time I took one out I caught a fish about 12-pounds, beside Denny's Dam, and it took me half way down the river before I could beach it. Every time I'd put the rod down and try to get to the fish it would swim back into the water because it was so far away. It was stupid, ridiculous. I sold that rod in a heartbeat when I got home. The really wild part with rods right now is how the rod companies have all gotten into making them.
When we were making them we would tear apart fly rods and scrounge parts. Sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn't. Then all of a sudden Lamiglass and Loomis and Sage all came out with float rods. They were long, two-piece and threepiece, but if you went and bought a blank and all the parts it would cost you three or four hundred dollars. If you bought one already made up you were looking at $400 or $500. Nowadays, with the technology the way it is, you can go out and buy a whole barrel full of float rods for $700. I mean, you see them on the market for 70, 80, 90, 100-bucks - and they're nice rods too. $125 will buy you a nice 13-foot float rod with a guarantee that if it breaks you bring it back and they'll give you a new one.
BI: I don't know how many companies make a float rod today - everybody's got one, or a number of them.
BI: So you guys started using the centerpin reels and long rods and nobody else was doing it; everybody was looking at you like...
JV: Like we were from Mars!
BI: So why the centerpin reels and long rods?
JV: Oh, you know yourself Bob. You've seen how naturally you can get that floatfloating down the river. The English had it down to a science. They would call it "putting a float into a swim." The most important thing is figuring out the position on the river where you want to be. When you get positioned in the river just right you can stand in one spot and catch fish all day long. A lot of spots; little runs and riffles and cuts; will replenish themselves.
BI: Obviously big rivers are where you like to fish.
JV: I never really liked fishing small creeks. I would go and fish a small creek for a week or two in the spring or the fall if there was a really run of big fish in and the river was high. I can't fish somewhere where I can see bottom.
BI: When did you get into steelhead fishing - around 1970 or so?
JV: Yeah, a guy in a hotel told me about it. He said, "Man oh man, you want some real fishing you get up to Thornbury on opening day and you'll see something pretty wild". So my bass buddy and me went and bought some caviar from an Italian delicatessen to use as roe. It cost us about $10. Then I went and bought a pair of nurses nylons - which was the rage for tying roe bags back then - and we bagged this goopy caviar up in nylons. We didn't go to Thornbury because I'd heard that was really a zoo so the following morning we took off to the Sturgeon River, or Sturgeon Creek, up by Midland in my old beat up '62 Pontiac. It was pouring down rain and my buddy had to stick his head out the window on the 400 with a flashlight to see, it was raining that hard. So we got up there to this beautiful hole, right at the dam on the river, and there was a guy standing there. He'd cast upstream into the hole and then pick up the slack and hold his rod up high. I was trying to get set up and, out of the corner of my eye, I see this guy set the hook and about an 8-pound, silverchrome steelhead came flying out of the water. It took the guy forever to land and when he did I went over and looked at it. That was it for me. I knew right then that there was no other fish. I never caught a steelhead until about three trips later, in the middle of the night at Thornbury.
John's passion for innovation in fishing isn't just focused on steelhead. His early years were spent fishing inshore saltwater areas around Massachusetts and New Jersey before discovering bass fishing. Even as a youngster John was trying new things. In the mid 1960s John was already experimenting by fishing boat docks, which nobody really did until bass tournaments got rolling in the Unites States in the late 60s - with a rigging system that today we call a wacky rig.
JV: I got into largemouth fishing in Greenwood Lake in New Jersey, where my aunt had a house. I caught my first bass there. Thought I'd died and went to heaven. I took a night crawler, hooked it right in the middle and dropped it right beside the dock. A bass come up, sucked it in and went right back underneath the dock. It freaked me right out.
BI: Then your family came to Ontario, right? What year was that?
JV: 1967. I knew every bass pond and creek within 100 square miles of our house in Guelph.
I met John in the early 1980s when he bought a new 14-foot aluminum boat with a 20-horsepower Mercury engine from my brother, Wayne. As a young bass angler, John was looking for a way to get into tournaments and that boat was it. It definitely wasn't a bass boat, but John had a buddy at a mechanical place in Guelph put a platform on the front of it and he entered his first tournament, at Rice Lake. After that, John went on to win a number of tournaments for a variety of species while fishing with a bunch of different partners.
JV: The first tournament I fished was on Rice Lake, with Dave Kent. That was in the 14-footer with the 20 horsepower that we bought off Wayne. We rigged it all up but we couldn't go far so we just went out of the boat launch and back into the marsh. We did that for two days and wound up in the top 10. We caught one over 5-pounds each day. The Lindners won it and you were third I think. The whole key to that tournament was us getting back into that marsh. Before the tournament they had poisoned a lot of the shallow weeds because they were too thick for the cottagers and other boaters. Lindner figured that out early in the week and he went out to the deeper weedline to catch his fish. We knew that they didn't poison the weeds way back in the marsh so that's where we fished because we couldn't really run very far in that little boat. After doing so well I thought, "There's nothing to this crap but we've got to get one of these bass boats." The next year we had a bass boat and we wound up in 77th place. We ran up and down that lake 5 times I think; a 30-mile lake, 5 times, just because we had a big, fast, flashy bass boat.
BI: Let's talk about some of the other tournaments you've fished and some of the folks you fished with.
JV: Well, my brother-in-law, Dave Kent, and I fished some great pike tournaments up north. We won three in the West Arm of Lake Nipissing and we won the Fall Bass Challenge on Lake Couchiching. I also won the Fall Challenge once with my son, James, and once with you. Roy Hudson and I won a spring tournament in Keswick.
BI: What about Steve Clapper?
JV: I've won tournaments with him. We won the Sandusky Spring Open on Lake Erie where you were allowed to weigh in ten bass apiece and we won one together at Long Point. I learned a lot from him. He knew who to talk to down there and how to pick brains.
BI: How about Gord Pyzer? You won a tournament on Falcon Lake in north-western Ontario with Gord.
JV: Falcon Lake, yeah.
BI: And back in 1990, you and I won the SWOBA (South Western Ontario Bass Association) Classic. That was probably one of my highlights of my tournament fishing career.
JV: Really! It was great wasn't it?
BI: Yeah, when those people on shore clapped when you jerked on that last fish under that dock and we got in with about two-minutes to spare and we won. And how about the first day, when we got a limit before the other boats were finished blasting off?
JV: That was unbelievable. Guys were just blasting off and looking at us catching fish already.
One thing that separates the really great anglers like John from the rest of the crowd is their drive to always improve and excel at the sport. When they hear of a new bait or technique they don't wait until the secret gets out - they go to the source and test it themselves. They fish with other great anglers and learn from them. They learn new methods of fishing and adapt them to their own fishing style. That's what being a cutting edge angler is all about. You might be surprised to learn that many of today's "new" fishing techniques are not really new at all - guys like John have been using them for years.
BI: Tell me about when you were introduced to swimbaits in California.
JV: My Sister-in-law, Lynn, lived down there, just outside of LA, and I got wind that she was dating this bass pro down there, Dana Rosen. He wasn't really a really a bass pro, more of a local bass junkie. He said to Lynn, that he'd take me fishing and it was totally different. We went out to lower Castaic Lake, below the dam. It's probably 60 or 70-feet deep at its deepest, there's a few humps that come up to 30-feet and there's weeds and a few reeds in the shallow spots. Anyway, we got to this place and Dana gave me something that looked like a Sassy Shad, but it was between 10 and 12-inches long with a great big hook on the front of it.
He said, "We're going to go up on this hump here and I want you to throw this bait way out and just let it sink. I want you to pick it up off the bottom just a little bit and slowly swim it back to the boat. If you feel anything, set the hook hard."
Well, I did exactly what he said. This was my first cast and I was reeling it in real slow, right off the bottom, when I felt a "thunk." I set the hook but was so hyper that I almost threw myself out of the side of the boat. Somehow I missed the fish.
Dana said, "You missed it, you don't get many chances like that."
Anyway, about an hour and a half later this other bass pro came over and fished the same hump, the same side of the hump, and caught one over 12-pounds.
I said, "Dana, I've got to go over and see that fish". It was huge and the pro had caught it on the same big swimbait I was using.
BI: You caught a big one yourself didn't you?
JV: Yeah, a 10 1/4-pounder on Lake Casitas.
BI: What about using finesse baits for bass?
JV: I called Don Ivino in Los Angeles, and told him I was going back home to fish a smallmouth tournament and asked if he had anything really good for smallmouth.
He said, "Sure Canadian, come on around - I've got something but I don't know if I can sell them to you."
That was the Yamamoto grub. He finally brought out a big bag of them and said, "Okay, a hundred bucks."
I went, "What?!"
He said, "Don't even blink an eye, just give me a hundred bucks and trust me."
It was the best $100 I've ever spent. Those grubs helped me to cash in numerous tournaments.
BI: What kind of advice would you give to people that want to catch more fish? I mean, you obviously took it to the next level; you would never give up until you perfected it, whether it was smallmouth or steelhead or largemouth or whatever, so what would you say to somebody who really wants to excel at fishing?
JV: Okay, are you the type of person that goes to bed early to take out maps of different places you'd like to fish in the spring or the summer when it's 20 below zero outside and there's two-feet of snow on the ground? Are you the kind of person who will take different highlighting pens to highlight little spots on spots? Do you have the desire to work at improving your skills even when the seasons are closed or you can't get out on the water?
There's a breed of fisherman out there like that and they are the really, really good ones. Below them are the wannabees. To get really good you've got to have dedication and you've got to be willing to learn new things. Good fishermen attract each other and you want to get to know these people. I would always key in on anybody who was catching fish to see what they were doing. Talk to them, develop friendships and share ideas. Most of all don't be afraid to try new things. Eventually you'll key in on something that nobody else is doing and you'll end up being a leader instead of a follower.
John certainly was a leader when it came to trying new things. He experimented with crickets and other unusual baits for steelhead while most other anglers were just learning how to catch these fish. John was one of the first to use cutbait for salmon in the Great Lakes and he was the first angler to bring the Sluggo into Ontario for bass fishing. The list goes on and on.
There's no question that John was, and is, ahead of his time (and ahead of most other anglers) when it comes to being on the cutting edge of fishing. He's fished with some of the best anglers in North America, he's introduced entirely new ways of fishing to the sport and his long record of tournament success is proof that innovation and knowledge are the keys to successful fishing. In John's view there's really no secret to becoming a great angler. Like anything else in life, the more you put into it, the more you'll get out of it.
John has been recently diagnosed with an inoperable and incurable cancer. Even with his current condition he is constantly watching the World Fishing Network. His true love of fishing is still there as he lives life to the fullest. Every time I talk to him he wants to know all of the details of my fishing adventures. When visiting John his only other passion that outweighs fishing is his enormous love for his family. There's no question that my friend, John Vandivier, has made me a much better angler and person.
THE 1990 SWOBA CLASSIC
One of my favourite fishing memories of John and I was fishing the SWOBA (South Western Ontario Bass Association) tournament series in 1990. John had found the mother lode of smallmouth bass on Lake St.Clair while pre-fishing for the first qualifier of the year but the wind came up the night before the event started and muddied up the area we had planned to fish. One thing is that we learned was that smallmouth bass, being sight feeders, do not like dirty water.We ended up 48th place!
We won the next tournament at Long Point with largemouth bass, including big fish, and then won the following tournament on Lake St. Clair.This time the area we caught our smallmouth bass in was clear.After it was all said and done we were the point leaders heading into the grand finale, the yearend SWOBA Classic on Rondeau Bay.
On the first day of the Classic,we started out fishing a rockpile within site of the blastoff and before the 40th boat had started, we had caught a limit of bass. Then we went around the bay and plucked a fish here and there. Some came from areas where I used to fish as a kid, some of them we found by just scouting around looking for spots that might hold a big fish.We ended up doing really well and I believe we were leading the tournament after the first day.
On day 2 we were the 40th boat out of the gate and by time we took off there were 16 boats on the little rockpile that John and I fished the first day! After half an hour of fishing in the pack I had caught the only bass we were aware of - a 2 3/4-pound largemouth. Obviously the fish were either spooked or had left the area.
"It isn't going to happen today, let's get out of here," I said to John.
So we bee-lined it out of the group and ended up doing a milk run around the bay.We caught a number of the fish by fishing bassy looking spots; things like weed patches, logs or just something different in the water.
Near the end of the day we were fishing some boat docks that I'd never fished in my life. I had never thought of fishing those docks because there was only about a foot of water under most of them with a clear sand bottom and clear banks,but,it was sunny day, it was flat calm and there was shade under them.
As we worked along we caught a couple little ones, but I'll never forget the last dock in the group. There were a bunch of people partying on shore,having a good old time.They were all yelling,"Hey Bob,how ya doing,"and watching us fish.I pitched under the dock and missed a fish, then John pitched a jig and chunk under there and bang, he nailed one about 3-pounds.As we put the fish in the livewell, the folks on shore were clapping and cheering at us. I looked at my watch and saw that we had about 11 minutes to get 9-miles down the bay to the weigh-in. We culled a small fish, put the boat on plane and made it back with about a minute to spare. In the end,we won the tournament, which included a bass boat.