In baseball, you never say out loud that a pitcher is on his way to a no-hitter. It’ll jinx him. I learned this many years ago while watching Nolan Ryan pitch seven hitless innings. When I revealed this obvious fact to the people sitting around me, you could have heard the “Shhhh!” from the pitcher’s mound.
In the same way, Bassmaster Elite Series anglers don’t want you to talk about the fact that they’re leading the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, or even that they might have a good chance to grab the lead.
In baseball, though, it should be okay to point out that it’s the ninth inning and the bottom of the lineup is up next. If that’s so, then I’m comfortable noting that Brandon Palaniuk is third in the 2017 points race as the Northern Swing begins, and he absolutely loves smallmouth fisheries.
The remaining stops this season are all in the North Country, including the St. Lawrence River out of Waddington, N.Y., July 20-23; Lake Champlain, Plattsburgh, N.Y., July 27-30; Lake St. Clair, Macomb County, Mich., Aug. 24-27; and the season finale Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship on Mille Lacs Lake, Mille Lacs, Minn., Sept. 14-17.
“Right now, I’m in a good position, and the next three events we get to fish for smallmouth. They’re the ones I’ve been looking forward to all year long,” Palaniuk said shortly after finishing 12th in the GoPro Bassmaster Elite at Lake Dardanelle presented by Econo Lodge in early June. Two weeks earlier, he had won the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest benefiting Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on Sam Rayburn Reservoir. He has a hot hand.
Look at Palaniuk’s record on those fisheries and you can see why he might be excited about competing on them. He won the 2013 Elite on the St. Lawrence River out of Waddington, and he was 19th on the next visit in 2015. He slipped a bit in a Bass Pro Shops Northern on Champlain in 2014, finishing 63rd, but he was second on St. Clair in 2015 and 11th at Mille Lacs last year.
Of course, the Idaho pro will have to gain ground on two other young guns, frontrunner Ott DeFoe, who has a 14-point lead over Palaniuk, and newcomer Jacob Wheeler, who is five points ahead. DeFoe of Tennessee does well on those fisheries, too, finishing third at Waddington in 2013, 12th at Champlain and 14th at Mille Lacs.
Wheeler, who won the first two Elite events he competed in, doesn’t have an extensive track record on those fisheries, but he did finish 22nd in the Open on Champlain last year.
It will be a fascinating race to watch, especially since so many outstanding Elite anglers are bunched near the top: Casey Ashley, the 2015 Classic champion, in fourth; Mark Davis, three-time Angler of the Year and former Classic winner, fifth; and Jason Christie, who’s overdue for an AOY or Classic title, sixth. All are within 25 points of DeFoe.
Those guys will be at the top of everyone’s Fantasy Fishing lists the next few months, but what should make fans really excited is that the pros will be competing on “Fantasy Lakes” — Bassmaster’s 100 Best Bass Lakes of 2017.
After what Palaniuk calls a “smallmouth smackfest” at Mille Lacs, the lake was almost a shoo-in to become the No. 1 bass fishery in America. Seth Feider averaged more than 5 pounds per bass — 76 pounds, 5 ounces — to win the AOY Championship at Mille Lacs last September.
And you don’t have to be a pro to do well, as Editor James Hall and I discovered on a fact-finding mission to the Minnesota lake a couple of years ago. Both of us enjoyed days worthy of posting on Facebook.
Only the Top 50 among the Elite Series competitors at the end of the regular season will be able to compete for the $1 million in AOY money at Mille Lacs. But everyone will have the chance to sample other Fantasy Lakes.
Lake St. Clair, ranked No. 1 on the annual list in 2014, is ninth nationwide this year, and the Thousand Islands section of the St. Lawrence River, accessible from Waddington, ranks 11th. In between those two on the schedule, Lake Champlain is rated fifth among fisheries in the North region.
Now you can see why many of the pros last fall were calling the 2017 Elite season “The Dream Schedule.” That it is.