By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

They’re the miners and farmers and teachers and plumbers and insurance agents and attorneys and crane operators and engineers and mechanics and metal fabricators that make this world go.

They’re your neighbors, our neighbors. They’re the anglers of the Federation Nation, everyday folks who love to fish and compete. Some have an ambition to make it big with a rod and reel. Others live for the thrill of the opportunity to earn a shot to fish against the best of the best.

Later this week, at Wheeler Lake in northern Alabama along the Tennessee River, more than 50 anglers will compete over 3 days in the Federation Nation Championship, a culmination of more than a year’s worth of club- and state-level qualifying events followed by divisional tournaments. The winner will earn a berth in next year’s Bassmaster Classic as well as an invitation to fish the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2013.

As last year’s Federation Nation champion Jamie Horton put it, “Everything’s on the line in this tournament. It’s not like you get to go fish (Lake) Okeechobee and then leave there and head to Bull Shoals (Lake) and then there’s somewhere else after that. Everything is right here in this tournament. For a lot of people, this is a once-in-a-lifetime deal and when you get there you want to excel.”

BassFan caught up with 2010 champ Brandon Palaniuk and Horton, who has a chance to defend his title this week, to get their thoughts on what the Federation Nation means to them and to offer an insider’s look into the minds of those preparing for this year’s event. While Palaniuk has established himself as one of the young stars on the Elite Series and Horton held his own as a rookie this past season, they’re both incredibly proud of their Fed Nation roots and still identify with the everyman who’ll be fishing this week.

‘A Whole Different Level’

Palaniuk started fishing local club tournaments when he was 8 years old near his home in northwest Idaho. He joined the Federation at age 16 and in 2010, he finished 14th at the Northern Divisional and 1st on his Idaho team, paving his way to the championship. A month prior, he had finished 7th at the TBF National Championship.

He and pal Bill Golightly, who won the Northern Divisional in 2010 as a member of the Wyoming team, worked together on game planning for the national championship at the Red River and fished the same water during the tournament. Ultimately, Palaniuk won and Golightly finished 3rd.

“I was a little bit nervous, but I knew from what we’d found and putting the time in and reading the reports on how much it was going to take, I knew I had a solid game plan,” he said. “You can’t help but be nervous. For a lot of guys, it’s a 2-year process to get to the championship and when you have a shot at the Classic, it’s hard not to be nervous. There’s so much riding on 3 days of fishing.”

He’ll be pulling hard for Golightly this week.

“I know how badly he wants to make it to the Classic,” Palaniuk said. “He wants to make it to the Classic just one time in his life so this is another opportunity for him.”

Palaniuk became the first Federation Nation champion to make the immediate leap to the Elite Series. So far, he hasn’t looked out of place, earning a check in 10 of his first 18 tournaments, including a victory this season at Bull Shoals and a runner-up later on at Lake Michigan. He still sleeps in his truck at tournaments and still considers himself a Federation guy even though he makes his living on the water now.

“I still pay my Federation dues and I’ll continue to pay them,” he said. “I’ll always be a Federation guy. Coming through that organization, I can understand what those guys are going through now. You spend so much time – I spent 7 years in it – trying to make it to the championship. All the tournaments you fish to try to qualify and qualify and all of the years you’ve spent come down to 3 days of fishing. You have one opportunity or one shot to make all of your dreams come true. It’s a pretty cool deal when you’re at the Federation Championship. It’s on a whole different level from the Classic. The Classic is the big, glamorous thing. For the Federation guys, the Federation Championship is just as important as the Classic. For a guy who fishes the Federation, that’s your only way into the Classic.”

“The whole experience was awesome,” he continued. “I’m glad to say I came through the Federation. It’s something not a lot of guys can say. For me, the Elite Series berth meant more. I knew the Classic berth was a good stepping stone to kick off a career, but nobody makes a career just fishing the Classic. You have to fish the Elites and I wanted to fish for a living and having that allowed me for the last 2 years to do what I always wanted to do.”

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Brandon Palaniuk used his Federation Nation title in 2010 as a springboard to an Elite Series career.

Classic The Ultimate Goal

Horton will be fishing his seventh Federation championship this week and listening to him talk about the experience, he might as well be preparing for the seventh game of the World Series.

“One of the main reasons why it’s so important to me is everybody wants to be that guy who wins the Federation and then wins the Classic through the Federation,” he said. “I think, most anybody, when they set a goal for themselves, the goal is to win the Classic as a Federation guy. Being on the state team and going to the Divisional and going to the national championship and making the Classic, that’s all just part of the steps to getting there.

“Making the Classic through the Federation is an ultimate goal on its own. To win the Classic as a Federation angler would be one of the most awesome things that could happen again really in all of bass fishing. That would be great for the sport.”

He’s coming off an up-and-down rookie season with the Elite Series. He’d never fished any of the venues on the schedule, yet he managed to cash four checks and make two Top-12 cuts. His best finish was a 4th at the Mississippi River in June. Still, he’s in his comfort zone when he’s around his Federation Nation brethren.

“I still consider myself that type of guy in all respects,” he said. “I know I fished the Elites last year and had a good season, but I feel more at home with the Federation. It’s where I’ve been the longest and it’s what got me to where I’m at.”

He anticipates Wheeler to fish as it normally does – tough – which could set the stage for a great event.

“If you look at Wheeler’s history, it’s a pretty tough lake,” he said. “It’s an 11- or 12-pounds-a-day deal for the most part. It seems like you have to fight and scratch and catch them different ways. A lot of different things come into play with the water falling like it is now. The weather should be stable, but I think it’s going to be a battle. I think I’m going to have to junk-fish and fight hard every day to beat them out. It’s going to be a grind.”