BULL SHOALS, Ark. — Brandon Card is 26. Brandon Palaniuk is 25. Other than the obvious — their close ages and first names — these two young guns of the Bassmaster Elite Series have at least one more thing in common: Their next stop on the Elite Series schedule, Bull Shoals Lake, reminds them of home waters.
That’s a good thing. Such connections provide a built-in confidence as they approach the April 18-21 Ramada Quest, the third of eight stops of the regular Elite season.
For Card, who is from Caryville, Tenn., the home connection is Norris Lake in northeastern Tennessee.
“I have a lot of confidence on Bull Shoals,” he said. “It looks like my home lake; it fishes the same way for me.”
For Palaniuk, Bull Shoals brings to mind of a number of lakes at home in Idaho and in Washington state.
“There are certain lakes where you feel comfortable, where you just understand how the lake works. I’ve only fished Bull Shoals once, so it’s hard to say I understand how it works, but I feel there are a lot of similarities between that lake and lakes I grew up fishing at home,” said Palaniuk, whose home base is Rathdrum, Idaho.
Neither Brandon had ever seen Bull Shoals before the Elite Series first went there a year ago, but both found success. Palaniuk won; Card finished 18th.
It was Palaniuk’s first Elite victory, and he pulled it off by a margin of close to 12 pounds. Now he’s poised to capitalize on a unique opportunity to double-up on Quest trophies, to pull off a rare repeat of an Elite win on the same body of water in consecutive years.
Card also has a Ramada Quest goal no one else can claim: To build on his early but slim lead of two points in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. If Card can hold on, he’d be able to start dreaming of a back-to-back pairing of an AOY title with the Bassmaster Rookie of the Year title he won last year.
He knows such dreams would be premature after only two events of the eight that will determine the 2013 AOY.
“I’m approaching each tournament one by one,” Card said. “It’s still way too early to put pressure on yourself about Angler of the Year. But, sure, I want to stay up there.”
On the line at Bull Shoals for all Elite pros is a first prize of $100,000 and an instant-in for the Bassmaster Classic of 2014. The entire field is out to earn points so they’ll have enough by the end of the season to qualify for the 2014 Classic.
According to both Brandons, current Bull Shoals conditions almost guarantee a different tournament than the 2012 event, although the Ramada Quest will happen almost exactly one year later. The lake’s been off limits to the pros since March 18, so the two anglers’ evaluations stem only from research of publicly available knowledge.
Card pointed to a crucial change in the fishery: The algal bloom that stained the water last year is gone.
“Last time, we had dingy water all over the lake, and everybody slammed them fishing shallow and throwing reaction baits,” he said. “I don’t expect that to be the case this year given that the water is a lot clearer.”
Finesse techniques just might be the key for the Ramada Quest, Card said.
Palaniuk won by locating deeper fish and taking them with a deep-diving crankbait. He said he’d try that again — there’s no denying it was successful. But he’s keeping an open mind and is ready to try different tactics and techniques until he hits on the right one for present conditions.
“The water hasn’t gotten high this year. Last year it was high, and then fell, and there was more [stained] water. I can see the crankbait bite not being as good. Last year you could throw a crankbait at the bank and catch a fish. I don’t think it will be like that again. I can honestly see it taking 16 pounds a day to win.”
That’s less than what Palaniuk had to pull from Bull Shoals for his trophy: 78 pounds, 6 ounces over four days, or an average of more than 19 1/2 pounds a day.
The weather over the next week could morph the game into a full-blown sight fishing event, said both Brandons. Right now the majority of the bass are in prespawn mode. A warming trend could draw the fish up onto spawning beds.
“Things could line up for that. It’s in limbo right now,” Palaniuk said. “We’re so close to the verge of the spawn there, and depending on the weather, the spawn could go in either direction.”
Proceed as the water warms, he meant, or stop dead if the weather puts a chill on the shallows and signals the fish to flee to deeper waters.
Fishing fans can track how the bass, the two Brandons and the other 98 Elite pros fare at the Ramada Quest. Bassmaster.com will provide extensive daily coverage, Thursday through Sunday, including blogs and videos from the water, the Lowrance War Room, live streaming video of the weigh-ins and real-time leaderboards. Fans are invited to Bull Shoals to watch in person. All Bassmaster events, including the Bassmaster Elite Series Expo, are free and open to the public.
The pros will begin each day of competition at 6:15 a.m. from Bull Shoals Lake Boat Dock (GPS help: 140 Boat Dock Cove or 719 Shorecrest Drive, Bull Shoals AR 72619). The weigh-ins will begin each day at 3:15 p.m. at a different location: Bull Shoals White River State Park Pavilion No. 2 (GPS help: 153 Dam Overlook Lake, Bull Shoals, AR 72619).
The event’s local host organization is the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. The title sponsor is Ramada Worldwide, an official Supporting Sponsor of the Bassmaster Elite Series.