By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Brandon Palaniuk was thrilled to begin the 2017 Bassmaster Elite Series regular-season with a top-12 finish at Cherokee Lake. He'd never achieved that in six previous seasons on the circuit, and some of his initial placements during that span had been real stinkers.
Then he went and frittered it away with the biggest bomb of his career.
He's not a points-watcher these days, having been burned by a focus on mathematic projections during a previous season. Nonetheless, he couldn't totally fend off the idea that his hopes of winning the Angler of the Year title would have to wait until the calendar made at least one more cycle.
"That crossed my mind – I was really upset about it," he said. "I'd just come off the best start I'd ever had and I was really looking forward to the end of the year and the places we were going. Overall, I really liked the schedule.
"Knowing that I'd canceled out that top-12 with my performance at Okeechobee (105th) was a little bit devastating. I never looked at it like I'd just ruined my Angler of the Year chances, but I knew I'd screwed up my good start. I was thinking that I had to catch them good enough the rest of the way just to make sure I made the Classic.
"It was time to go to work."
His work for the remainder of the campaign was truly exceptional as he finished no lower than 29th in seven ensuing tournaments. Included were a victory at Toyota Texas Fest at Sam Rayburn Reservoir, back-to-back 3rd-place outings on northern venues in late July and a 5th at Toledo Bend.
He took over the lead in the points race after his 3rd at the St. Lawrence River and never relinquished it. He clinched the most revered title in the game this past weekend at the AOY Championship at Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota, becoming the first angler to do so after having logged a triple-digit finish during the season.
A month after the Okeechobee fiasco, Palaniuk turned in another bomb in the Classic at Lake Conroe, where he finished 49th. The regular season resumed just 2 weeks after that, and it was then that he got on the roll that would carry him to the points title.
It started with the 5th at Toledo Bend, and then an 18th at Ross Barnett Reservoir. His victory at Rayburn was next, followed by a 12th at Dardanelle and 3rds at Champlain and the St. Lawrence. He then "cooled off" a bit and posted a 29th in the regular-season finale at St. Clair.
"It was really just a momentum thing," he said. "I was making decisions that worked out. That kept me fishing free and I'd go catch fish in the tournament from places where I didn't catch them in practice. For whatever reason, I'd feel that the conditions were right (in a particular locale) and that's where I'd catch them."
By way of example, he pre-practiced for the Ross Barnett derby, as it was on a venue he'd never seen before, and found one area that he deemed "awesome." Then, throughout 3 days of official practice, he couldn't get a bite there.
Palaniuk's Toyota Texas Fest victory at Sam Rayburn Reservoir was punctuated by two key fish – the first and last he caught in the event.
"In the tournament I went and fished there anyway, and (the fish) were there. It was the area I pretty much caught all my fish in for 3 days.
"When you get that momentum going, confidence comes with it to make those kinds of decisions. I think that's really what allows guys to get on a good roll and then just continue pushing in that direction."
Three Were Key
There were three fish over the course of the 10-event campaign that Palaniuk will long remember. Two were crucial to his victory at Rayburn and he caught the other last Friday on day 2 at Mille Lacs.
"I had two at Rayburn that were really crazy," he said. "One was the very first fish I caught – it was an 8-04 on 10-pound (Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon line) that was stuck in a tree for 3 minutes. I battled it out of there on that 10-pound test and that gave me a lot of confidence for the rest of the week.
"The other was the very last fish. It was a 5-15 that I caught at 3:24 and check-in was at 3:40. That fish won the tournament for me."
The critical fish at Mille Lacs was a 6-pound smallmouth that bit on his final drop of the day. Without it, he'd have weighed a mediocre bag and would've come very close to falling off the pace he needed to maintain in order to wrap up the title.
"That fish added 3 pounds to my weight, but it was worth a lot more than that to me mentally," he said.
Time to Switch Gears
Palaniuk will turn his focus to hunting this week when he gets back home to the Pacific Northwest. He'll pursue elk in 2 weeks with representatives of Nomad Hunting (an apparel firm that he described as the hunting equivalent of Huk) and will try for antelope shortly thereafter with people from renowned firearms manufacturer Wetherby and optics giant Leupold.
"The (Wetherby-Leupold thing) is kind of a new connection for me," he said. "I was approached by what I guess you'd call a middle man who they work with and who I've worked with in the past. They're interested in doing some type of hunting and building some sort of relationship."
He said he won't think much about the 2018 Classic at Lake Hartwell until about December. He'll try to join Kevin VanDam, Mike Iaconelli and Skeet Reese as the only active Elite Series pros with both an AOY and a Classic victory on the résumés.
"I don't know if (making that group a quartet) gives me any more motivation or not," he said. "I already want to win a Classic pretty bad."