By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
As a high-schooler in Idaho, Brandon Palaniuk was a two-time state wrestling champion. You don't achieve that level of success in that grueling sport without possessing several specific character traits, including extreme physical and mental toughness, great determination and a willingness to risk everything on a single gutsy move.
He put all of those attributes on display last week en route to winning the St. Lawrence River Bassmaster Elite Series out of Waddington, N.Y. He needed a victory to qualify for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic, so he opted for the dicey strategy of a 214-mile round trip to Lake Ontario.
Many in the 99-angler field considered that play next-to-impossible to pull off for 4 consecutive days, considering how rough the lake and the river become in even moderate winds. Those protecting positions in the Angler of the Year (AOY) standings simply couldn't take the chance.
The 25-year-old Palaniuk, however, was under no such constraints. He was buried on the points list and had seen a more-than-probable win slip through his hands at the previous event, when he inadvertently culled a fish in a place where that action was illegal.
He had a culling miscue at the St. Lawrence, too, but making a cast with six fish in his livewell only cost him 2 pounds. It seemed significant at the time, but proved to be irrelevant as he won by 7 1/2.
He boxed more than 20 pounds each day, including best-in-the-field, 23-pound-plus stringers on the first and final days. It was his second Elite Series triumph, following a win at Bull Shoals last year.
Here's how he did it.
Palaniuk determined that he was going to gamble on Lake Ontario as he pored over half a dozen maps of the system in his hotel room the night before practice began. Two big spawning bays in the lake grabbed his attention and wouldn't let go.
"I was able to look at those and say that somewhere in that area was a giant population of smallmouths, and there would probably be some big ones," he said. "There was so much spawning cover there (a high percentage of Northern bronzebacks had only recently completed the annual reproduction ritual) and all I'd have to do was figure out what they were holding on in that part of the lake."
He trailered down there and launched the next morning and caught a good number of bruisers from shallow water (12 feet or less) – his best five would've combined to weigh 23 pounds or more. He slept in his truck that night and set out to find some deeper fish the following day, and he was successful in that quest as well.
"Those spots I found on the second day were where I spent all my tournament time," he said. "They were all 20 to 40 feet and I had five places in a general area where I could catch 4-pounders.
"I felt that if I was going to have a limited time to fish (on tournament days), I could catch them a lot quicker from a deep school of big ones. I could catch them fairly quick up shallow, too, but I felt that if I went deeper, I could have 20 pounds or more in 30 minutes."
He spent the final practice day figuring out how to navigate from Waddington to his hot spots on the lake.
"I knew that I was going, but I wanted to see just how big of a risk I was taking. I wanted to know where the fuel stops were (he was forced to gas up each way as he burned about 75 gallons on each competition day) and I had to know the exact route I was going to run."
Palaniuk made a round trip of over 200 miles each day to catch the massive smallmouths that reside in Lake Ontario.
He said the conditions that day were the worst he encountered all week as a stiff wind blew out of the southwest.
"There were probably 8-footers (waves). Once I saw that and got through it, I knew I'd be able to handle whatever else I was going to see that week."
> Day 1: 5, 23-09
> Day 2: 5, 21-05
> Day 3: 5, 20-09
> Day 4: 5, 23-05
> Total = 20, 88-12
Palaniuk's goal was to catch at least 23 pounds per day during his condensed fishing days on the lake, and he exceeded that by more than half a pound on day 1. There was about a 2-hour span between his first cast and his last – the shortest amount of time of any of the 4 days – but he needed only about 90 minutes to compile his weight.
He took a 1 1/2-pound lead into day 2 and caught a similar stringer, but it was ligthened a bit due to the penalty. Nonetheless, he added an ounce to his advantage.
His lightest bag came on day 3, but it bumped his edge up to more than 3 1/2 pounds over fellow smallmouth ace Jonathon VanDam. That preceded a stellar final day that saw him more than double the margin between him and the rest of the field.
The ride back was rugged, but he knew he'd done what he needed to do to erase much of the sting of what transpired at the Mississippi River in late June.
"This one was right up there with the Federation (now B.A.S.S. Nation) Championship," he said, referring to the grassroots event he won in 2010. "That one's pretty dear to my heart because that's how I qualified for the Classic and the Elites.
"The situation I was in for this one made it pretty meaningful. It was still a lot of people's game going into the last day, and it was nice to come in with a big bag like that."
> Palaniuk said the fish weren't usually tightly grouped on the rocky areas he fished. "They were kind of scattered out and I'd have to zig-zag around a little bit. There'd be one here and two or three there.
"I had the Lowrance HDS 2D sonar up front and I was using the DownScan off the back, so I could see a lot of fish off the back of the boat, and then catch them. That allowed me to cover 20 feet (of the bottom) and it was a lot better than just having the front graph."
> He said the fish were feeding on both gobies (the staple of Northern smallmouths) and shad. "Sometimes I could see balls of shad suspended in the warter column up high. They had kind of a big smorgasbord going on down there."
A Berkley PowerBait Twitchtail Minnow in green-pumpkin was Palaniuk's primary bait.
> Dropshot gear: 6'10" Fenwick Elite Tech rod, Abu Garcia Revo Premier 20 spinning reel, 8-pound Berkley FireLine Fused Crystal braid (main line), Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon leader (10 feet to start the day), 3/8-ounce unnamed tungsten weight, size 2 Gamakatsu Split Shot/Drop Shot hook, Berkley PowerBait Twitchtail Minnow (green-pumpkin or silver shiner).
> He soaked his baits in the new Berkley Gulp! Alive Marinade. "I threw some in practice both with and without it, and it seemed like they'd take the ones that had it a lot faster," he said.
> He stayed with the green-pumpkin bait under low-light conditions and alternated between the two colors under bright sun. "There'd be times when I'd stop catching big ones on the green-pumpkin, so I'd switch over to the silver shiner and pick off a few more with it."
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "Deciding to practice down there the first 2 days and the willingness to make that run."
> Performance edge – "I'd say the Lowrance electronics with the Navionics chip, but I'd also have to say my Skeeter/Yamaha. I felt like I could make it there and back no matter what happened."
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