WADDINGTON, N.Y. — One mistake in the excitement of zeroing in on a school of big smallmouth could have cost Brandon Palaniuk his lead in the Evan Williams Bourbon Showdown.
It didn’t. But the 2-pound penalty the young pro from Rathdrum, Idaho, had to take for a six-fish livewell count on Friday morning could come back to haunt him over the final two days of the Bassmaster Elite Series event on the the St. Lawrence River.
Still, Palaniuk remained the Showdown’s leader for the second consecutive day. His Friday weight was 21 pounds, 5 ounces (after the penalty), for a total of 44 pounds, 14 ounces. That left him 1-10 in front of Cliff Pirch of Payson, Ariz., who had 43-4 for second place.
And Palaniuk kept an advantage of more than 2 pounds over each of his other close challengers: Kevin VanDam by 2-4, Aaron Martens by 2-12, and Jonathon VanDam by 2-13.
Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., crept up one tick into third place with 42-10. Martens of Leeds, Ala., popped up into fourth from eighth place with 42-2. Jonathon VanDam — Kevin’s nephew who is also from Kalamazoo — rose from ninth place into fifth with 42-1.
Those Top 5 lead the 50 anglers who survived Friday’s cut to return to the St. Lawrence River Saturday. Only the Top 12 after three days will compete on Championship Sunday for the Showdown title and prizes: $100,000 and an instant qualification for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic.
Friday morning, Palaniuk reported to tournament officials that he had six bass in his livewell. Bassmaster rules allow a maximum of five bass in an angler’s livewell at the point when an angler picks up his rod again and makes another cast.
It happened this way, said Palaniuk: He returned to his hot spot of Thursday on Lake Ontario, more than 100 miles from the takeoff docks. Drop-shotting, he caught five 3-pounders.
“It was actually starting to get on my nerves because I knew 3-pounders weren’t going to do me any good,” he said.
He moved his boat to try to find the school of big smallmouth that made him the leader of Day One.
“(Then) I caught my big one, the 5-12,” he said. “I knew all the rest of the fish were going to be 4- to 6-pounders, and I was really excited.”
He put the 5-12 in the livewell. At that point, six bass were in the box.
“I hopped back up, dropped (the bait) down — and realized what I had done,” he said.
He immediately reported his rules infringement to tournament officials. The penalty was 2 pounds.
“I was very frustrated,” Palaniuk said. “I didn’t think I had as much weight as I did today (21-5), so I feel lucky I’m still in the lead right now. The problem is I should have 2 pounds more of a lead. We’ve still got two days to go. When you’re taking as big a gamble as I’m taking, you can’t make mental mistakes like that.”
His gamble is his long boat run, leaving a short window for casting. The flat, calm water of Friday helped him somewhat in his risk. His trip one way took about two hours instead of the three it took him Thursday.
Saturday’s forecast for windy conditions could create a hard decision for Palaniuk. Because his speed would be slow, his run down the St. Lawrence and into Lake Ontario and back, which is more than 200 miles, could eat up most of his fishing time.
He plans to try, Palaniuk said.
“If I have 30 minutes to fish, I’m going,” he said. “I have no Plan B.”
But wind could also help him once he gets to his fish, he said.
“The wind creates more current and makes them easier to catch,” he said.
Two other pros — Charlie Hartley of Grove City, Ohio, and Josh Bertrand of Gilbert, Ariz. — also suffered 2-pound penalties for resuming their fishing while six bass were in the livewell. Like Palaniuk, Hartley and Bertrand reported their error themselves.
In second place, Pirch was pleased with his improvement from seventh. He accomplished that by changing areas, he said, and taking a longer run to another smallmouth spot he had in reserve.
“I feel like it’s an area that’s got them,” he said. “Today I had what I weighed by 10:30, so I backed off.”
Palaniuk earned the Livingston Leader Award, a $500 bonus to the leader after the second day of competition.
The Idaho angler’s largest bass of Friday, the 5-12 smallmouth that preceded his penalty, turned out to be the largest of the tournament so far. It beat the 5-pound, 8-ounce smallmouth of Thursday by Brian Snowden of Reeds Spring, Mo.
After four days, the largest bass will be worth the Carhartt Big Bass bonus of $1,000, plus $500 if the angler was wearing Carhartt clothing.
For his Day One bag of 23-9, Palaniuk remained the top contender for the Berkley Heavyweight Award of $500 for the event’s best five-fish limit.
Two pros came close on Friday to besting Palaniuk’s 23-9: Both Ott DeFoe of Knoxville, Tenn., and Bernie Schultz of Gainesville, Fla., posted bags of 23-5. Counting Palaniuk, 12 anglers broke the 20-pound mark Friday by catching the big smallmouth of the St. Lawrence.
As the Showdown heats up, so does the 2013 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points competition. Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla., continued to lead the pack. His hottest competition is still coming from Skeet Reese of Auburn, Calif., Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., and Aaron Martens of Leeds, Ala.
After Friday, Evers was still in front, but VanDam and Martens were gaining on him. Reese was losing ground.
These interim standings only indicate movement on the points leaderboard. Showdown points are not awarded until tournament results are final.
Evers said he’s already doing everything he can to maintain his lead.
“The strategy has been all year to catch more fish than anybody else,” Evers said. “I don’t know what else to do to swing for the fence. I feel like I do that every day. I’m coming in with 30 seconds to spare, running 45 miles; I’m not saving out anything.”
The top pro in points will take the AOY crown later this month after the season finale on Lake St. Clair in Michigan. Points also determine qualifications for the postseason in September and the Classic in February 2014.
Fans are invited to watch the Showdown pros take off Saturday at 6:30 a.m. ET. The weigh-in will begin at 3 p.m. ET. The launch and weigh-in are at Whittaker Park in Waddington, and both are free.
For fans, the host city of Waddington is putting on the Tastes and Talents of the North Country Festival at the park. More than 100 vendors are taking part, including food, beverage and wine vendors, artists, crafters and local businesses.
Jason Michael Carroll will perform on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (followed by fireworks); and Chris Taylor and the Custom Taylor will play at 1 p.m. Sunday. Other music is scheduled throughout each day.
The Bassmaster Elite Series Expo, also at Whittaker Park, showcases Elite Series sponsors, including the event’s title sponsor, Evan Williams Bourbon. At the Expo, fans over 16 can sign up for free demo rides in Nitro, Skeeter and Triton bass rigs powered by Mercury and Yamaha engines.
Bassmaster.com will continue its extensive coverage of the Evan Williams Bourbon Showdown. Features include streaming video of the weigh-ins, real-time leaderboards, from-the-water BASSCam videos and blog reports, and Toyota Hooked Up! shows streamed live on Bassmaster.com with hosts Tommy Sanders and Mark Zona. All access is free.
ESPN2 TV coverage of the Showdown will air Aug. 18 at 8-9 a.m. ET, and again on Sept. 7 at 6-7 a.m. ET.
ESPN Classic will air the show Aug. 18, 10-11 a.m. ET, and Sept. 8 at 8-9 a.m. ET. In addition, The Outdoor Channel will present the Showdown Sept. 16. For times, check local listings.