The Bassmaster Elite Series has long been billed as putting the best anglers on the best fisheries at the best times, and that practice brought about a record-setting 2022.
For the first time in B.A.S.S. history, there were three Elite tournaments where the four-day total eclipsed 100 pounds. In those three events, eight anglers earned coveted B.A.S.S. Century Club Belts, tying for the third most in a season.
“Those are special moments you cherish,” said Brandon Palaniuk, who weighed 102 pounds, 2 ounces to tie Gerald Swindle for second at May’s Lake Fork Elite. “There’s so much that goes into making that happen. You have to be at the right fisheries at the right times, with the right weather and water conditions.”
Palaniuk was enamored with the milestone, which happened during his second Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year campaign. Palaniuk joined exclusive clubs in 2022 — he’s the 12th pro to win multiple AOYs and is now alongside 37 others in the Century Club.
“Outside of all the right conditions, I think the anglers just continue to get better and better,” Palaniuk said, “so you see higher and higher weights.”
Drew Cook knows breaking into the club requires everything to go an angler’s way. It did for him at South Carolina’s Santee Cooper Lakes in March. After a monster Day 1 bag of 31-13 (see above) and a two-day total of 56-9, Cook was well on his way when weather forced the cancellation of Day 3.
“It was going to be a three-day derby,” said Cook, among the anglers who petitioned for a full event despite it actually lowering his odds of winning, “but fortunately they changed it back.”
On Championship Monday, Cook culled to 24-9 to total 105-5 and win his first Elite wire-to-wire. Caleb Kuphall finished second with 103-1, but that notably came on 19 fish. Kuphall had three bags total 90-1 and suffered a four-fish Day 2.
“That’s very impressive. He just had one bad day. There’s no telling what he could have done,” said Cook, who was proud to win and punch out 100. “You get etched in a book that nobody can take away from you … one of about 40. That’s a pretty big deal there.
“It’s so rare now. At the beginning of Elites, they hit some really good places at exact right times. They did it a good bit. Now it’s super hard to do. It’s hard enough to catch them for four days in a row, let alone catch 20 big bass, average 25 pounds a day and break 100 pounds.”
There were two 100-pound events in each of the first two years of the Elites. In 2006’s inaugural Elite, two anglers did it at Texas’ Lake Amistad. A couple weeks later at Santee Cooper Lakes, Preston Clark set the record with 115-15 while leading five others into the Century Club.
Four surpassed 100 pounds at Amistad in 2007’s opener won by rookie Derek Remitz, then Clear Lake produced seven belts, highlighted by Steve Kennedy’s record-setting 122-14.
No other year had seen multiple events with more than 100 pounds until 2022, when it happened at Santee Cooper Lakes, Lake Fork and the St. Lawrence River. The eight anglers this year tied 2006 for third-most in a season behind 2008 (12) and 2007 (11).
In 2008, all 12 finalists topped 100 at en fuego Falcon Lake, where Paul Elias set the weight record of 132-8. Alabama’s Lake Guntersville had four entries in 2009 and one in 2010, then Lake Okeechobee produced one in 2012 before Falcon Lake sported three in 2013.
There was a five-year drought before the 2019 Fork Elite began a four-year string that added nine entries, starting with Brandon Cobb’s 114-0. Patrick Walters jerked in 104-12 in the fall of 2020 and earned another belt there the next year, however, Lee Livesay took over on the lake where he guides.
On Championship Sunday in 2021, Livesay recorded the third-largest bag in the five-fish era of 42-3 and won with 112-5. This year, Livesay led four Club entries on Fork, winning with 113-11. Livesay, tied with Walters at four wins and two belts, says a 100-pound performance is akin to another title, a grand accomplishment that stands by itself and deserves a championship belt recognizing it.
Before Swindle earned his second this year, he aptly described in this article what having a belt among his hardware means.
“Out of all the trophies I have, that’s the one I’m most proud of,” Swindle said. “I’ve got two Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles, I have an FLW win, I got a B.A.S.S. Opens win, I’ve got all kinds of seconds and thirds, but when I look at that Century Belt, that one’s special.”
The magnitude of obtaining 100 pounds wasn’t lost on Shane LeHew, the fourth angler to earn a belt from Fork this year. Needing a big final day, he got it with a 7-5 and 8-5 for his best bag of the week at 27-10. It allowed him to squeak in at 100-9.
“That final day I was just fortunate to get a couple big bites. It was a pretty exciting feeling,” said LeHew, who was running out of time when he caught the difference-maker. “You’re adding it up in your head and trying to concentrate and fish. I’m asking my cameraman, ‘Did I break it?’ And he nodded yes.
“It was pretty awesome. It’s obviously one of the highlights of my career. There’s not going to be a ton of people who have that opportunity in their career. It’s a pretty small group to be in. It was a phenomenal tournament.”
Although LeHew finished the season with a poor Northern Swing and fell to 44th in the Angler of the Year standings, he’ll get to receive his belt as a competitor, albeit the current last man in, at the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic.
“I’m really happy I made the Classic because that would have looked bad if I was working the Expo,” he said. “It’s a much better feeling that I’ll get the belt on stage while I’m fishing.”
There have now been 54 instances of 100 pounds in B.A.S.S., with Texas leading the way at 30. Falcon Lake’s 15 entries are the most. Fork is second with nine and is followed by Santee Cooper (8), Clear Lake (7), Amistad (6), Guntersville (5), St. Lawrence (2) and Florida lakes Okeechobee and Kissimmee with one each.
St. Lawrence’s addition this year put the number of Century Club venues at nine, but it was remarkable because it was the first time the milestone was accomplished with smallmouth.
“Going in, I didn’t think I could do that,” said Jay Przekurat, who won with 102-9. “I still think I’m kind of soaking that in right now. Probably look back on it more once winter hits, and it’s -30 degrees outside and there’s nothing to do. Then I’ll probably be like, ‘Wow, I actually did that!’ Or it could be a thing down the road like five years from now, ‘Geez, how did that all line up perfect?’”
Along with replaying that, Przekurat will most likely relive how he became the youngest Elite winner at 23 years, 26 days, how he won Falcon Rods Bassmaster Rookie of the Year and also how he beat Ontario Lake wizard Cory Johnston, who had 100-5 despite a lousy Day 3.
Cook was among those impressed with Przekurat’s St. Lawrence total, saying smallmouth belts are “just unheard of” because it’s so rare to have four consecutive days when it doesn’t blow at the U.S.-Canada border.
Przekurat was similarly stunned with Cook’s performance on Santee.
“After practice at Santee, you wouldn’t have thought in a million years someone was going to hit 100 pounds just because how the weather was,” Przekurat said. “All the sudden, tournament day it was like a light switch. You thought everybody had a chance to 90 to 100.
“Same thing with the St. Lawrence. Personally, I think if it was not calm every day, nobody would have broken 100 pounds. It’s just so hard to get around. It limits your fishing time … For my first time there, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Przekurat and the Elites will get another chance at St. Lawrence in 2023 and, if conditions are perfect, 100 pounds could again happen at multiple venues. There are three fisheries on the schedule that have produced Century Belts — Lake Okeechobee, Santee Cooper Lakes and St. Lawrence — and anglers said adding Lake Seminole and Lake St. Clair gives 2023 great potential for another big year.