LA CROSSE, Wis. — In essence, a single 1 ¼-pound bass decided the 2022 Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. The picture became crystal clear Monday when Chris Johnston finished second and Brandon Lester was fourth on the final day of the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at the Mississippi River.
The 1 ¼-pounder was Brandon Palaniuk’s fifth keeper on Day 2 of the tournament. He landed it with only 30 minutes left before his check-in time. It gave Palaniuk a five-bass limit weighing 11-13 and a two-day total of 24-10. That was enough to make the Day 2/Top 47 cut in 37th place.
Here’s how tight the standings were on Day 2. Without that bass, Palaniuk misses the cut and finishes in 50th place. If that had happened, after Lester’s and Johnston’s finishes on Monday this is what the final AOY standings would have looked like: Lester 707 points, Johnston 700 points, Palaniuk 698.
Of course, that’s not how it finished. The final totals for the top three were Palaniuk 723, Lester 707 and Johnston 700. Palaniuk wrapped up the second AOY title of his career on Sunday when he finished 25th. It illustrates how competitive the Elite Series is and why the AOY trophy is so treasured by the winner. It’s like a marathon run on a tight rope. One slip and you’re out of the race.
In fact, you can look at Lester’s record this season and it’s hard to see a slip. He was the only angler to make all nine Day 2/top 47 cuts this season. He won at Pickwick Lake, finished fourth at the Mississippi River, fifth at Florida’s Harris Chain and had a “worst” finish of 42nd place at Lake Fork.
Palaniuk was just a little bit better. He didn’t have a win, but he was second at Lake Fork, third at Santee Cooper and seventh at Pickwick Lake. There were three key points in his season. The first occurred with the opening two tournaments in Florida, where Palaniuk finished 20th at the St. Johns River and 26th at the Harris Chain. The state of Florida had previously been a nemesis for Palaniuk. During his previous AOY championship season in 2017 he had to dig his way out of a 105th-place finish at Lake Okeechobee in the second tournament of the season.
The second turning point was at Pickwick Lake. Palaniuk’s wife Tiffanie had been given a due date of May 30th, which was the first day of practice for Pickwick. Palaniuk made it clear that he was leaving as soon as Tiffanie went into labor so he could be there for the birth of their first child. Kora Marie Palaniuk wasn’t born until June 6th, after Brandon finished seventh on June 5th.
“When I came out of Pickwick after having fished all four days before Kora was born, I knew something special was happening, and it wasn’t just coincidence,” Palaniuk said on stage Monday.
And, of course, the third turning point was Saturday’s 1 ¼-pound bass. Palaniuk weighed-in a total of 527 pounds, 6 ounces over the course of nine tournaments this season. And that 1 ¼-pounder made all the difference.
Palaniuk’s final margin in AOY was 16 points over Lester. Interestingly, his final margin in 2017 was 14 points over Jason Christie.
“On the last day (in 2017), I had maybe one bass at 11:30 or 12 o’clock,” Palaniuk recalled. “I rolled up to ‘Dwayne Johnson’ and I caught almost 20 pounds off of one rock – ‘The Rock.’ That one rock won me AOY. Before that I was not going to win. Then I caught those and won by 14 points.”
As emcee Dave Mercer pointed out on stage Friday, after Palaniuk’s struggles on the Mississippi River, the 34-year-old angler from Rathdrum, Idaho, is somewhat of a “drama queen.”
“I hate drama,” Palaniuk said. “But, man, it likes to follow me around. You might as well stitch ‘drama’ on my back pocket.”
Stitch that in small type, below two-time Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year.