Brandon Palaniuk is convinced that it was simply Will Davis Jr.’s time when the rookie edged him to win the Whataburger Bassmaster Elite at Lay Lake.
Palaniuk was visibly upset after coming up 2 ounces short of his seventh Bassmaster tournament title, especially after incurring a 4-ounce penalty for a fish dying in a freakish manner.
“I’ve thought a lot about it,” the two-time Progressive Angler of the Year said. “I don’t believe in coincidence. I don’t know how it happened the way it did, but Will was meant to win that tournament. As frustrating as it is, I just believe that.
“In that instantaneous moment, that’s really hard to swallow. I’ve never been in that position where I actually caught enough to win and something weird like that happens.”
Palaniuk, who led the first three days, suffered a slower Championship Sunday, bringing in his smallest limit at 11 pounds, 3 ounces. His total of 62-10, which included two dead fish penalties, left the door open for Davis.
With a late catch, the rookie walked through with his 14-2 limit, giving him 62-12 and the title over two of Bassmaster’s top winners.
“I talked to Will on the phone today,” Palaniuk said. “I told him, ‘Look, you won that.’ He put himself in position to be able to take advantage of an opportunity like that happening. That’s the way I look at it. He deserved to win that. It was his time to win. Why those crazy things happened, you don’t know.”
Palaniuk noted that Jason Christie, who finished third just 2-3 back of Davis, lost a fish that would have given him his ninth B.A.S.S. tournament title.
“Jason Christie has boat flipped a thousand 5-pounder frog fish, but for whatever reason, his comes off on the final day,” Palaniuk said. “There were too many things that happened to other anglers that were abnormal, and things that Will did that worked out in his favor that all point to it being his time.”
On stage after the heart-breaking loss, Palaniuk offered Davis some sage advice, telling him not to take the win for granted.
“When you win that early on in your career, it’s really easy to take them for granted and not realize how hard it is to actually win these events,” Palaniuk said. “He told me today he understood that. I’m happy.”
Davis was appreciative of Palaniuk, and the 30-year-old seemed to realize his great fortune of winning in only his fifth Elite tournament.
“Brandon is a first-class guy. Mad respect for him,” Davis said. “He was real nice to me. He actually called me yesterday. To beat caliber guys — every one we fish against is a caliber guy — you have to have everything go your way. That’s a fact to win one of these deals. God definitely shined a light on me in this one.”
Davis was a favorite on Lay Lake, living just 12 miles from the nearest ramp and winning 30-some events and an estimated $300,000 there over the years. His winning fish came from a spot he saved for the final day.
“The fish pull up in there late every day,” he said. “I knew that from living here, and my chances to win was to go there.”
Palaniuk surprised himself that he was even in the hunt on Championship Sunday. In practice, he said his best fish were bedding in Beeswax Creek, where the 2010 Classic was famously won. If he had no company, Palaniuk believed he could land a big bag on Day 1 that might allow him to hang on for a top 30 finish.
“Somehow, I had that to myself,” he said. “I had 19 pounds before another boat showed up in there.”
When he weighed in, Palaniuk led with 19-7, including the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the day. However, that 5-14 cost Palaniuk a four-ounce penalty as it died in his livewell.
“It choked on a shad,” Palaniuk said. “You could literally see the bait stuck in its throat. I have no idea what happened.”
Palaniuk told writers he didn’t know if he’d catch any on Day 2, but he kept going back to the well, exploiting Beeswax for 16-5 then 15-11.
“They called me the clueless leader,” he said. “I’m like, I have no idea how I’m going to catch another bass tomorrow. And then I’d go in there and figure something just a little bit different out. Day 3, just figure a little something else out. Same thing on Day 4. It ended up being enough, but not enough.”
Dead fish have tormented a number of anglers through the years. Two-time AOY winner Gerald Swindle finished second to Dean Rojas in the 2011 Elite on Toledo Bend by one ounce after an eight-ounce dead fish penalty.
“Swindle lost $110,000 on Toledo Bend alone due to dead fish,” Palaniuk said. “He would have won that Toledo Bend event and missed the check another time due to a dead fish.”
The most famous dead-fish incident was Dalton Bobo’s one-ounce loss to Dion Hibdon in the 1997 Classic on Lake Logan Martin, which stands as the smallest margin of victory in the world championship.
Bass pros take fish care seriously, Palaniuk said, and livewell aeration and oxygenator systems keep improving. There are more options to cooling water than ice, and there are livewell treatment products that can thwart natural parasites and make the fish healthier upon release.
The pros never know when ounces will mean a check, a Classic berth, a victory.
“I’m so cautious about it that I have a temp probe run into my livewell that connects to my graph so I can monitor the water temp on my screens,” Palaniuk said. “If it starts getting too high, I can go back and add ice.”
Lay Lake was trying with bass weakened by the spawn. Of the 1,254 fish weighed in, 28 expired for a live release rate of 97.8 %, low by B.A.S.S. standards. At Santee Cooper Lakes, 99.94 % of the 1,094 bass weighed were returned alive with only seven dying.
“For our own competition reason, we don’t want a four-ounce penalty,” Palaniuk said. “From a conservation standpoint, we don’t want any to die. We do everything in our power to keep them alive. But things are going to happen.”
Palaniuk’s dead fish on Championship Sunday at Lay was of a freakish nature. All was well until he decided to leave Beeswax Creek in search of an upgrade. He fished several areas where wind and traffic created chop.
“At some point, my livewell divider came loose,” Palaniuk said. “A cull tag on one of my fish had slid behind one of the bars on my divider and pinned that fish up against the divider. It couldn’t swim, couldn’t get oxygen over its gills.”
With only 11 pounds, Palaniuk didn’t think he had a chance to win. Upon learning it would be close at check-in, he went to bag his fish and discovered his predicament.
“I’m like, I have a dead one. It just died,” he said. “I think I do a pretty good job controlling the controllables. That was something that I felt was out of my control. It was a just a weird, freak thing that happened. I’ve never had that divider come apart. For whatever reason, it decided it needed to that day.”
After his initial shock, Palaniuk looked back and was pleased he contended for the title. With his sixth second-place finish coming in last week’s St. Croix Open on Wheeler Lake, Palaniuk totaled $61,047 in May earnings and has topped $1.9 million for his career. He now has 34 Top 10 finishes in 149 B.A.S.S. tournaments.
“What I saw in (Lay Lake) practice, I didn’t think I had a shot to win,” Palaniuk said. “I told Will today, ‘I wanted to beat you. but I’m not mad that I didn’t. That stuff happens. I’m happy for him. I don’t know him really well. Seems like an amazing dude. I love that he’s the B.A.S.S. Nation champion (Palaniuk was in 2010). I have a lot of respect for him.”
Palaniuk holds the prevailing thought from Jerry McKinnis’ book — everything happens for a reason. Yet he doesn’t know exactly why, other than it was Will Davis’ time.
“I’ve seen too many of those things where you don’t understand why they happen when they happen,” he said. “It could be a year from now, five years from now, you look back and go, ‘That’s why it happened.’ ”