By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
At this time a year ago, Brandon Palaniuk had zero chance of qualifying for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic via the Toyota Tundra B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year (AOY) race. He was 89th on the list of 100 competitors and his only shot at a berth in the field for Lake Guntersville was to win an Elite Series or Northern Open event – there were two of each remaining
He pulled that feat off in the Elite derby at the St. Lawrence River, making long, risky runs each day to Lake Ontario. It was his second victory on the circuit in as many seasons.
Flash forward to the here and now and the 26-year-old Idahoan finds himself in an entirely different position. He's in 33rd place in the AOY race with two Elite tournaments to go. If he maintains that position he'll get to the Classic through the points list for the second time in his 4-year pro career (only the Top 29 are assured slots, but double-qualifiers will push the number well into the 30s). Sliding even a handful of places, however, could have him working the Expo at Lake Hartwell next February.
It's not in his nature to fish in an overly conservative manner and he'll make a conscious effort to avoid doing that next month when the regular season concludes with events at the Delaware River and Cayuga Lake. Assuming he doesn't bomb his way out of the Top 50 at those stops (or win one and render the whole issue moot), he'll have to nail down his position the following month in the AOY Championship at the Bays de Noc in Michigan – a venue that lines up well with his propensity for finding and catching big smallmouths.
"I don't want to look at the tournaments that are left and get into the mindset that I just need to make a Top 50 or whatever," he said. "I have to continue to try to find the largest and the most fish that I possibly can and just let the cards fall from there."
Run of Success
Palaniuk has finished outside the Top 50 in three of the six Elite events this season. A strong run in the middle of the campaign (8th at Table Rock Lake and 21st at Toledo Bend Reservoir) forms the basis for his current position inside the eventual Classic cutoff.
He still goes into every event looking for the fish to win, but said this year he's stopped seeking an untapped mother lode on competition days and has focused on whatever he discovered in practice. That approach has helped him avoid the serious bombs that plagued him in 2013, when he finished 81st or lower on three occasions en route to landing at 72nd on the final points standings.
"I feel like I've been growing as an angler on the mental side," he said. "I'll always have it in my blood to be more of a risk-taker who goes for wins, but the last couple years when I didn't find something that could win in practice, I'd spend the tournaments fishing new water still trying to find ways to do it.
"This year I've spent my 3 days of practice looking for something outside the box, but when I haven't found it, I've pulled together what I have found and tried to make something out of it. I think it kind of gives you the best of both worlds – you have a shot to win, but you have a chance to do well in the points, too. I'm still trying to teach myself how to do both simultaneously."
Fewer Brown-Fish Opportunities
The final stretches of last year's Elite and Northern Open schedules were well-suited for Palaniuk as all four derbies occurring after July 1 were on smallmouth-dominated venues. He can catch big bronzebacks with the best of them, and that confidence was a benefit for his win-or-bust predicament.
The setup for the final two Elite events this year is quite different. The Delaware River has some smallmouths, but tournament-quality specimens are scarce. Cayuga has them, too, but events there are seldom won with them, and Palaniuk anticipates them being difficult to pin down.
He's never been to Cayuga, but what he's gleaned from his map study doesn't appear promising in regard to smallmouths.
"It doesn't look like there's really a slot to hold them," he said. "It looks like there's only two real flats, one in the upper part and one in the southern end. The rest of the lake is fairly steep – it just rolls off the bank and drops straight off to 200 feet or whatever.
"There's nothing to really concentrate them and it looks like they'd be really nomadic – just following the schools of baitfish, and those type are the hardest to catch.
"That doesn't mean I won't look for those slimy brown creatures, though," he concluded. "I feel like it's my only shot to catch them during the Elite season other than if I got to the (AOY) Championship."
> Palaniuk recently spent a week in China representing sponsors Rapala and Storm. "It was kind of shocking how many people there are," he said. "There's like 25 times more people just in Shanghai than in the entire state of Idaho. Fishing-wise, bass fishing is still very new to them and most of it is done in small farm ponds. It's super-expensive to own a pick-up capable of towing a full-size bass boat, and not many people own them. The ponds get a lot of pressure – they have 8- and 9-pounders in them, but they don't get caught very often. A 2-pounder is a big one."