2013 Bassmaster Classic Grand Lake O' the Cherokees - Tulsa, OK, Feb 22 - 24, 2013

Front-row seat for Utah youth director

Palaniuk prepared for the run back to the ramp. “This was awesome, man,” said Palaniuk. “I’m loving it!”

So am I, Brandon, so am I. I may be a little jealous even. He is living his dream with no regrets. Sleeping in the “Tundra Suites” at each stop for the most part is just “normal” to him. Thanks for reminding this old guy that life is for living.

Palaniuk’s catch pushed him up to second place after some early leaders stumbled on Day 2. He had a 7-pound deficit, but he simply told the press, “You can’t win if you’re not in contention. At least I’m in contention. Anything can happen out there.”

I bet it will ultimately happen for Palaniuk. He has the spirit of a warrior and the heart of Joe Montana. He will fight until the end and win more than he will lose, always with a smile and a kind word for his fellow competitors and fans alike.


Day 3: Ott DeFoe

Could it get any better than having marshaled for the leader and the second-place angler after two days of the Classic? On the night of Day 2, I was pumped to learn I’d been paired with Ott DeFoe for the final day.

DeFoe had stumbled on Day 2 and wouldn’t be chased by fans or media. He was in great spirits as I stepped onto the docks and he was joking with Bill Lowen about “what could have been.” You could sense the lack of pressure on “this side of the dock,” where boats 13 to 25 were parked. All of the attention was on the other dock where the top contenders were lined up in order of how they finished the first two days. I glanced at Cliff Pace quickly. He looked solid and confident even with all the media on him. Palaniuk was smiling and joking, of course.

DeFoe began stacking rods on the deck. None contained jerkbaits. Four various Rapala #5 and #6 Shad Raps on spinning rods were laid out, followed by three rods with jigs and a flat-sided crankbait of DeFoe’s own making.

The day with DeFoe was relaxing because he knew he wasn’t in contention, starting the day in 18th place. But, he still wanted as big of a payday as he could get. At the first stop, fishing shallow pea gravel around boat docks, DeFoe picked up a crawfish-colored Shad Rap on 8-pound line.

“This has been my deal all week,” he explained. “I don’t know where the big ones are, but I have been catching them on this bait.”

A few casts later, he hooked up with a short fish and threw it back. Then he connected with a nice fish and played it toward the boat. Halfway back to the boat, it came unbuttoned.

“Uuuuuuuhhhhhhhhh,” he moaned. After several groans, he patiently worked a few more boat houses and picked up a black-and-blue Terminator jig and pitched to the corner of the boat dock closest to the main lake point. The rod tip bounced and DeFoe set the hook, only to have the jig fly out of the water.

“Uuuuuuuhhhhhhggggggg,” again boomed DeFoe’s Southern voice. “I thought he had it.”

Moving to his second stop DeFoe picked up the #6 Shad Rap and started working the shoreline halfway back in a cove. He quickly connected with his first keeper and began to settle into a pattern of throwing the Shad Rap and following up with the jig around heavier structure. A flurry of fish followed in the next hour as homeowners came down to the docks and chatted with Defoe. He graciously answered their questions as he boated bass after bass from behind a particular boat dock.

“You didn’t know you had all these bass here, did you?” DeFoe asked a homeowner. “Nope, and I fish here all the time,” the man answered. “I guess I just use the wrong bait.”

By 11 a.m., DeFoe had landed a dozen keepers, culling up ounces instead of pounds in the back of this cove. It was painful but educational for me to watch as he culled up an ounce and continued working the back and middle of the cove. From the vantage point I had on Days 1 and 2, I knew what the difference was in the week. Both Pace and Palaniuk got five in the livewell for about 12 pounds and went pig hunting on main lake and secondary points with jerkbaits. The big fish weren’t in the backs or even the middles of the coves yet, although numerous 2- to 2 1/2-pound bucks had found their way to the pea gravel around the docks already.

DeFoe didn’t want to leave the area with the fish biting. He was upgrading, but was he gaining ground? As I entered his fish into BASSTrakk, fans starting surrounding DeFoe and soon he had five or six boats watching him catch and throw back short fish.

Ultimately, DeFoe did leave the cove where he boated 17 keepers, the best a little more than 3 pounds. He started cranking out closer to the main lake and ran some of the type of stuff that both Pace and Palaniuk had worked to find their bigger bites. DeFoe didn’t leave himself a lot of time to get the bigger bite and stayed, in my opinion, in the back of the cove too long. He needed to upgrade pounds, not ounces.

“Why no jerkbait on your deck today when everyone told the press they were using them?” I asked him as we started to head back in.

“I just couldn’t get bit on it,” answered DeFoe. “I love to throw it and figured it would be the deal, but I couldn’t find those fish in my practice.”

DeFoe is a true gentleman and a great ambassador for the sport. He was always friendly with spectators, homeowners and treated me like family by the end of the day. His day will come; he’s just too good for his dreams not to come true. He shared stories about fate, faith and fishing that were inspiring to hear from such a young man.

“Some of my teammates with Nitro told me if I ever fished a Classic I’d always want to be back,” said DeFoe. “Man, they weren’t kidding. This is contagious — all the fans, all the press. I’m going to work hard to make it back next year. I love Guntersville and that should go right down to the wire.”

I hope you make it back, too, Ott, and fishing fans everywhere will be rooting for the soft-hearted, deep-voiced family man from Tennessee all season long.


After the weigh-in

The tickertape has long been swept off the floor of the BOK Center in Tulsa and Cliff Pace is basking in the glory of his hard earned victory. He fought off the demons on Day 3 to hoist the crown that so few ever have. He deserves it. He stuck to his plan and fished painfully slow, especially in the cold morning hours as he counted those rocks in between bites.

Palaniuk joked that he was on the “two drum, one bass pattern” on Day 2 to help keep his wits about him with the Red Mob screaming at every point for him to “do work.” Even though he came up a few pounds short at the scales, he won the adoration of thousands as he smiled and laughed, signed hundreds if not thousands of autographs and fought until the very end as true warriors do.

As for me, I’m back looking at spreadsheets, checking sales reports and doing all of the things that those of us do to make ends meet. But in my heart, I’m right there in the left seat, freezing, watching, learning and living vicariously through our heroes on the Elite Series tour, wondering if lightning might strike again for me.

I better go buy a lottery ticket. I am about the luckiest fishing fan on the planet!