Palaniuk's roller coaster season

The "baddest" rollercoaster in the world is reputed to be Kingda Ka at New Jersey's Six Flags Great Adventure Park. Kingda Ka accelerates from 0 to 128 miles-per-hour in 3.5 seconds and features a 418-foot drop — roughly equivalent to falling from the top of a 40-story building.

Brandon Palaniuk had a Kingda Ka kind of year on the Bassmaster Elites Series in 2013. There are other ways to describe Palaniuk's season of highs and lows.

"It was a hurricane, a hurricane of emotions," said Palaniuk, adding, "It was a perfect storm. It was a train wreck."

Somehow the 26-year-old Idaho native kept his ever-smiling face above the water and qualified for the 2014 Classic. It was some kind of year, all right — not one Palaniuk would care to repeat.

Briefly, it began like this:

1. CONFIDENCE ­— After finishing second to Cliff Pace in the Bassmaster Classic at Oklahoma's Grand Lake, Palaniuk started the Elite Season three weeks later more confident than ever in his third season on the tour.

"I walked away from (the Classic) with a ton of confidence," he said. "I fished the best I could have, and I had a shot (to win). I felt really good."

2. CRASH — In the narrow, serpentine Sabine River on Day One of the first 2013 Elite Series event, Palaniuk was headed toward the weigh-in site when he rounded a bend and saw another boat headed straight for him.

"I turned right, hugged the bank, and (the other boat driver) panicked," Palaniuk said. "He turned left and came right toward me. He t-boned me at about 40 miles per hour."

The bow of the other boat came up over Palaniuk's boat about mid-ship, missed his Marshal's head by less than 2 feet and slid off, leaving some deep scratches on Palaniuk's Skeeter bass boat and some men shaking in their shoes and thanking God for their lives.

(Note: Palaniuk didn't mention the incident, and no one in the media was aware of it until two weeks later. Compared to Mike Iaconelli accidentally putting his boat on the bank on the Sabine, which was widely reported, this story flew under the radar, so to speak, all season.)

New Jersey's famous Kingda Ka rollercoaster and Palaniuk's 2013 season followed a similar trajectory.3. CONFIDENCE SHATTERED — Palaniuk made his check-in time that day on the Sabine; local police gathered everyone after the weigh-in to complete an accident report but Palniuk finished 90th in the tournament. That's 90th out of 100 competitors.

At event No. 2 on Falcon Lake, Palaniuk finished 82nd. He was in full crash-dive mode after Bull Shoals, where Palaniuk had won the year before, when he finished 81st  in April.

Palaniuk's season was all but over after only three events into the eight-tournament 2013 season. He figured that four top 20 finishes in a row would give him a shot at qualifying for the Classic. A 24th place finish at Georgia's West Point Lake — and his first check of the season — gave him some hope. But that was dashed when he finished 79th on the Alabama River.

There was no other way to make the Classic by late June: He had to win one of the three remaining Elite Series events or a Northern Open. Palaniuk was officially one of the longest of long shots for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic.

The Wrestling/Fishing Combo

Palaniuk was a star wrestler for Lakeland High School but even back then he dreamed of becoming a professional angler.Palaniuk took up two sports when he was eight-years-old: bass fishing and wrestling. The tie that binds those seemingly diverse sports is the mental aspect of each. The "will to win" is difficult to define. How far can you push yourself? Wrestling is a constant test of that, not just the matches, but also "making weight" — getting your bodyweight down to meet the maximum allowed for your classification.

"When you're cutting weight, you test yourself," Palaniuk said. "I learned how much I could push myself. If you're mentally strong, I believe your body will quit before your mind will. You get mentally conditioned. I'd be jogging (to cut weight), and I'd just pass out."

Most of us have never even taken that test – pushed ourselves that hard. But most of us have experienced how easy it is to go brain-dead after a long day of fishing when the fish aren't cooperating.

"If you're not into it 100 percent mentally, you're wasting your time," said Palaniuk. "I realized I was just going through the motions (on the Elite Series)."

The Mississippi River mess

Palaniuk's Day Two catch on the Mississippi River was disqualified after he mistakenly culled in Minnesota waters violating a state regulation.Palaniuk put on his game-face for the Mississippi River Rumble at La Crosse, Wis., in late June. It looked like it was going to pay off when Palaniuk had a big lead after Day Two and had found a school of big smallmouth bass that he had all to himself.

"I was on top of the world," Palaniuk said. "I was thinking, 'Here's your ticket to the Classic.'

"Then I got that phone call at 10 o'clock, and all my hopes and dreams went down the drain. I didn't blink for an hour."

The phone call, as most Elite Series followers know, concerned whether or not he'd culled a bass while in Minnesota waters that day. Due to an unusual state regulation, it's illegal to cull after you have five bass in the livewell – just in Minnesota, not in the bordering state of Wisconsin. Palaniuk knew the rule, but didn't think he was in Minnesota when he made his single cull that day.

One of his fellow Elite Series anglers had reported the violation, and B.A.S.S. officials were required to check it out. After a thorough investigation, Palaniuk realized he'd been in violation. It was pointed out to him that he'd indeed been in Minnesota when he'd culled a fish – 100 yards over an unmarked state line in the middle of the Mississippi River. So his Day Two weight of 19 pounds, 3 ounces was disqualified — every last ounce of it, which dropped him down to 77th place and out of the Top 50 field for Saturday.

"I made one cull today – just one – in Minnesota, in an area that I believed was in Wisconsin," said Palaniuk. "It was Minnesota waters by less than 100 yards. I had 18 ½ pounds before I made that one cull that just cost me, possibly, $100 grand and a Classic berth."

Said Palaniuk later, "I'd have given up the $100,000 for a Classic berth."

And he also said, "I didn't blame (B.A.S.S. officials). I knew it was something they had to do."

Palaniuk handled the devastating DQ like a gentleman — the ultimate gentleman. In fact, Palaniuk may have won over more fans by the way he reacted to the dream-snatching than if he'd won the event.

But fans don't put you in the Bassmaster Classic. They can put you in the Elite Series All-Star event, where Palaniuk got the most votes this year. But to paraphrase Smokey the Bear, only YOU can create a Classic berth. If Palaniuk's mental strength had been in question before, his shoulders were now flat on the wrestling mat with his opponent in control.

Getting his mind right

Palaniuk took a big gamble at the St. Lawrence River; he committed to a run of 200-plus miles to and from Lake Ontario, leaving only a few hours to catch bass on each of the four days of competition.Palaniuk had six weeks to get his mind right before the next-to-last Elite Series event of the season – the St. Lawrence River Showdown. When the going gets tough, the tough buy maps.

"I'd never been to the St. Lawrence River or been on any of the water connected to it, except Lake Erie," Palaniuk. "I bought eight paper maps and spread them all around the hotel room."

Sure, Palaniuk relied on his electronics, too, once he got on the water. But he wanted the big picture first. He was trying to find the best smallmouth bass water that was within a reasonable distance of the Waddington, N.Y., weigh-in site.

"I was looking at contour lines," he said. "I found a spot where I just knew smallmouth bass had to live. It had big flats, long points and steep drop-offs."

The spot was in Lake Ontario. On Day One of practice, he fished shallow all day, 10 feet or less. The Storm Arashi crankbait, which would be unveiled to the public at the annual ICAST trade show in July, was producing like a champion, as it would the remainder of the season. But the key to success was his map work.

"My first fish was a 4-pounder," Palaniuk said. "I weighed one that was 5-3. I probably had (a best five) that weighed 24 or 25 pounds."

Palaniuk, as he often does, slept in his truck that night in a park near Lake Ontario. On Day Two of practice, he concentrated on deeper water – 15 to 25 feet.

"I had over 15 pounds on my first three casts," Palaniuk said. "I fished deep all day and had probably 25 pounds again. So I already had more water than I could fish in four days (of the tournament)."

On Wednesday, the final practice day, Palaniuk concentrated on logistics. He didn't make a single cast. He stayed in Waddington Tuesday night, so he could leave the take-off/weigh-in site and make the run to his spots on Lake Ontario, which were between 105 and 118 miles away.

"I wanted to make that run, make sure I knew where to get gas and everything," he said. "That turned out to be the worst weather day we had all week. There were 8-footers on Lake Ontario. I had to slow down to 8- or 9-miles-per-hour.

"But that kind of put my mind at ease. I thought, 'If I can make it through that, I can make it under any weather conditions.' I had it down to a science."

Gas guzzling in New York

Long runs to Lake Ontario paid off in a wire-to-wire victory and a Classic berth at the St. Lawrence River event.A key factor in his success formula was Millen's Bay Marina, located in Cape Vincent, N.Y., near the confluence of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

"The guy there was awesome," Palaniuk said. "He would be down there at the gas pump, waiting for me every day. That was huge."

Palaniuk spent $1,500 on boat gas over the next four days.

And, for once, Palaniuk's gut-wrenching season helped him. With only the Lake St. Clair Championship event left on the schedule, many Elite Series anglers weren't in the mood to take risks, whether they were still in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race or just trying to maintain a spot in the points standings for a Classic berth. The run to Lake Ontario was a risk. (Aaron Martens would learn that the hard way at Lake St. Clair, where he broke down on Day Four and didn't make it to the weigh-in with what would have been the winning weight in his livewells. Rough water is always a consideration on The Great Lakes.)

"I didn't see another boat for the next four days," Palaniuk said. "I never saw another bass boat (on Lake Ontario)."

He was down to his last three strikes – 1) St. Lawrence, 2) St. Clair and 3) the final Northern Open on Lake Erie. But he wouldn't need the other two. Palaniuk hit this one out of the park. In a wire-to-wire victory, Palaniuk weighed 23-9 on Day One, 21-5 on Day Two, 20-9 on Day Three on 23-5 on Day Four. His total of 88-12 topped second-place Jonathan VanDam by over 7 pounds.

"That took so much stress off of me," Palaniuk. "But I couldn't help thinking, 'Please, no phone calls from B.A.S.S.'"

It should be noted that on Day Two at the St. Lawrence event, Palaniuk made a phone call to B.A.S.S. to self-report that he'd discovered six bass in his livewell — a no-no that happens more often than you'd think. (See: Baker, Shaye, Lake Okeechobee Wildcard event.)

"I would have had close to 26 pounds that day (without the penalty)," Palaniuk said. "But it all worked out."

It was a week-long adventure that took him from the outhouse to the penthouse, Palaniuk-style.

Bass, walleye, steelhead, yellow perch, whatever

Palaniuk shows off some icy bass from Haden Lake, Idaho.That long offseason between the final Elite Series event and the Bassmaster Classic hasn't kept a fishing rod from Palaniuk's hands. You can see all of the photos here. Sure, he's done his homework on the Classic site, Alabama's Lake Guntersville, which went off-limits on Dec. 31. He also stopped in Oklahoma to visit his friend and fellow Elite Series angler Kevin Ledoux, where they caught a nice stringer of bass at Lake Arbuckle one day. But he's also broken ice to catch bass in Idaho, augered through 6 inches of ice (about 20 times — power ice-fishing) at Pothole's Reservoir in Washington to catch yellow perch and walleye, and "sneaky-squirrel-rigged" a Luhr Jensen Hot Lips crankbait to catch steelhead in Idaho's Clearwater River on Christmas day. (The sneaky-squirrel-rig? Well, you'll have to ask Palaniuk. I'm a dead man if I write about it.)

Palaniuk would probably be successful on the walleye tour, if he wanted to be. Lots of days (and nights) over the past few months have been spent chasing state-record-class walleye (or, if you're from the north, "walleyes").

"My biggest was an 18-3 in Washington," Palaniuk said. "It would have broken the state record in almost every other state."

Yep. Washington's record walleye is 19-3. Idaho's is 17-14.

"We don't troll," Palaniuk said. "We've been catching them on giant swimbaits — 7-, 8-, 9-inch swimbaits — at night."

Obviously, Palaniuk loves to fish. There's no better example of that than the semester-ending calculus test Palaniuk was facing during his sophomore year in college.

"I had a (B.A.S.S. Nation) Western Division tournament the same day," Palaniuk recalled. "I tried to take the calculus test early, but the teacher said no. I wasn't going to miss that tournament.

"The teacher said, 'You realize you're throwing away your whole college career for a fishing tournament, don't you?'

"I said, 'Yes, mam.'"

That marked the end of his college days — 1 ½ semesters into a business/marketing degree plan.

Added Palaniuk, "I don't recommend that for others, but it has worked out for me."

Yes, it has, if your heart can withstand a Kingda Ka rollercoaster ride of a season.

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