Brandon Palaniuk ruined my life

I’ve owned bass boats since Bradley Roy was in diapers, and since that time I’ve always held one bedrock assumption to be inviolate: “There is no substitute for time on the water.”

My bass belief system has been premised on the notion that what makes it possible to become a consistent tournament fisherman is an understanding of not just different species and different types of waters, but also changing conditions. You may have been to a given lake before, but not in the springtime. Or perhaps you were there in the spring, but not when it was in flood stage or during a 90-degree heat wave or after a late snow. I’ve always assumed that the ability to adapt to those changing conditions depends on having a mental library of experiences to recall.

In a way, it’s similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule,” which Brandon Card blogged about last year. As Card described it: “Basically, if you want to become successful at any endeavor in life, you need to spend at least 10,000 hours practicing it. We all know that Mozart, Bill Gates and The Beatles were all born with innate talents in their respective fields. Gladwell looked deeper and found that their surroundings impacted their opportunities to refine that talent. Being born with talent was just the beginning.”

I don’t know if Gladwell’s theory truly works across the board. The basic premise (great talent plus lots of practice equals success) makes intuitive sense, but the 10,000-hour number seems a little too round and a little too neat to be coincidental. Still, it feeds into the widely-held belief that tournament anglers tend to peak at around 40 years of age – the time when physical and mental skills reach their relative apexes. In other words, the time when you can best put that mental library to use.

At the crotchety old age of 43, it appears that I am likely on the downward slope of that angling skill progression. What I didn’t realize, though, is that my assumptions may also put me on the wrong side of the truth because increasingly it is anglers born in the 1980s and ‘90s, without an extensive mental library to draw upon, who are getting the best of their elders.

It’s not surprising that a twenty-something with a pedigree like Jonathon VanDam’s would come out swinging. He was probably handed his first flipping stick as soon as the OB/GYN cut the fluorocarbon umbilical cord. What continues to amaze me is the sheer number of members of Generation Y who have burst onto the Elite Series scene over the past few years and totally shredded my “time on the water” theory.

In the ‘60s, the hippies told us, “You can’t trust anyone over 30.” The modern day analog, at least on the Elite Series, is that you can’t take anyone under 30 for granted.

There’s Casey Ashley, the wise old man of the group at 29, who earned the first of his three Elite Series wins back in 2007, all the way down to Bradley Roy, the only child of the 90s. In between them are eight other pros who were born sometime between 1984 and 1988.

Those 10 anglers already have 11 Bassmaster Classic appearances under their collective belts, and six of them – Ashley, Josh Bertrand, Ott DeFoe, Brandon Palaniuk, JVD and Chris Zaldain – are scheduled to fish the 2014 Classic on Guntersville. Both Bertrand and Zaldain have Bass Pro Shops Central Opens points titles to their credits, and Ashley, Palaniuk and JVD have Elite Series wins. DeFoe, the quiet killer, may be the most mature of all of them from an angling perspective. The point I’m trying to make is that while I’m sure all of them spent long swaths of their formative years skipping little league and homecoming dances and family obligations, it’s not the mental library that makes them great – it’s the innate talent and their exceptional will to get better.

If you had told me five years ago that a recent high school wrestling champion from Idaho – of all places – would win the B.A.S.S. Nation championship, two and a half Elite Series tournaments, and qualify for four consecutive Classics – all before he turned 26 – I would’ve laughed at the idea. How can you develop a sense for southern reservoirs, eastern tidal rivers and the Great Lakes if you’ve never fished ‘em? I still don’t know the answer, but it’s not 10,000 hours.

I could walk the earth like David Carradine in Kung Fu from now until the next century, stopping to fish every lake, river, mud puddle and Bass Pro Shops holding tank between here and Rathdrum, but I’ll probably never get as good as Brandon Palaniuk is right now.

And not only is he better than me – but he’s made me reassess my whole world view. There’s no denying that he’s worked hard, but long hours without the underlying talent won’t take you where he’s gone.

For a 43-year-old man, that’s a bitter pill to swallow, but at least I’m just admitting it from the cheap seats. If you’re a 40-something or 50-something-year-old Elite Series pro who’s just barely scraping by, you’re the one whose livelihood is threatened by their quick ascent. It’s not that there haven’t been young guns who’ve suddenly emerged into the limelight before: 40 years ago it was Rick Clunn and Tommy Martin; 20 years ago it was the likes of KVD and Jay Yelas; and just over a decade ago we experienced the western invasion with the likes of Skeet Reese, Ish Monroe and Aaron Martens. The truth, though, is that there have never been so many of them at one time, with such fully-developed skills, all looking past the “paying your dues” stage and making a beeline for championships and AOY titles.