Daily Limit: Palaniuk remained calm during storm

What, me worry?

Brandon Palaniuk should have been concerned, if not petrified, that his bid for a second Bassmaster Angler of the Year title was in peril. He was struggling on do-or-die Day 2 at the Mississippi River and knew he needed to make the cut to keep pace with pursuers.

The stress to catch five lay squarely on Palaniuk, as a comfortable lead had turned intense. Some have crumbled under that pressure, but the 34-year-old from Rathdrum, Idaho, stood resolved. Palaniuk might have flinched a bit through a slow, painful morning grind, but he said he always felt he would get it done.

“I knew that I was in a bad position, with the weight that I had and then I needed to catch five if I was going to have a shot,” he said. “I can’t say I wasn’t thinking about the AOY being in jeopardy, because I knew that was the case. But I had like an odd calmness that I felt everything was going to work out fine. I just didn’t know when.”

Palaniuk, who won his first AOY title in 2017, led the 2022 AOY standings since the fifth of nine Elite tournaments. He was up 41 points going into the final two events, both fisheries in his wheelhouse. However, an uncharacteristic slip at Lake Oahe (66th) gave Brandon Lester and Chris Johnston a glimmer of hope at the season-ending derby in La Crosse, Wis.

Palaniuk still had a lead of 37 points on Lester and 46 on Johnston. That’s when the Elite Series script writers went heavy on crafting some drama.

With 12 pounds, 13 ounces, Palaniuk stood 36th after Day 1, allowing Lester (13th) and Johnston (fourth) to climb within 14 and 15 points, respectively. Palaniuk said he never looks at the standings, but he knew he needed to make the Top 47 to avoid disaster.

“The first day I knew I was still leading, but I knew the gap was less because the guys who were behind me were ahead of the leaderboard,” he said. “I figured if I kept consistent, I would put myself in position to do what I needed to do.”

Many wondered what must have been going through his head when he was fishless through most of the morning on Day 2. It was unlike him to tighten up. Could this really be happening? Could Palaniuk choke?

From his track record, odds were against that. When Bassmaster LIVE’s broadcast ended, Palaniuk was outside the cut with three fish, and both Johnston and Lester had passed him in AOY on BassTrakk, the unofficial scoreboard.

Palaniuk did have time, along with mental fortitude.

“I didn’t have to do this grand thing to win AOY — just catch No. 4 and then catch No. 5,” he said. “Because I was getting bites and I was seeing fish blow up, that kept my confidence high, to know that I was around fish. I didn’t have to leave anywhere. It was right in front of me.

“So for me, it was, ‘Do I gamble and leave and go try to do something else or just stay right here where I know there are bass?’ I made the decision, I’m just going to hunker down and just try to focus and put five fish in the boat.”

Not catching a limit hasn’t happened often in Palaniuk’s career. He’s also had some great late-day rallies that catapulted him into the hunt. But if there ever was a moment when some seeds of doubt sprouted, it was early that day, Palaniuk said.

“Actually, it was probably before I caught my first one. It was 11:30, and I don’t think I had a bass yet,” said Palaniuk, who worked hard to push out negative thoughts. “When I caught the first one, I was like, ‘OK, you can still make this happen. There’s still enough time.’

“Before that happened. I was trying to figure out what my next move was going to be. ‘Do I need to bail on what I’m doing now, switch gears?’ Once I got that first bite and began putting things together of how the fish had repositioned, it started to come together. It just took me awhile.”

Palaniuk landed a 2-plus pounder in midafternoon. Then about a half hour before his check-in time, he caught his fifth fish, a 1-4 that some reported as the bass that won his second AOY. While an important fish, he’s not buying that the season-long race was decided on that dink. He equated the scenario to a half-court, buzzer-beater in basketball.

“If you don’t have those 100 points before that, that half-court shot doesn’t matter,” he said. “If I don’t have those fish I had throughout the course of the year, that fifth fish doesn’t matter. I can think of fish that were worth 16 points, and every one of those fish was monumental.”

With 11-13, Palaniuk stood 38th after Day 2. Even though Johnston took the tournament lead, only Lester, who was 11th, still had a mathematical chance to pass Palaniuk for AOY. Day 3 served as a victory lap for Palaniuk, who caught one of the better bags at 15-1 to finish 25th, making anyone else’s finish moot. He added 76 AOY points at La Crosse to finish the year with 723.

“When I woke up on Day 3, I didn’t feel any pressure. I just wanted to go and enjoy it, go have fun,” Palaniuk said. “So I was able to fish a lot more free. That Day 2 was just so mentally trying — it took a lot to stay confident and stay calm. I said I’m not going through Day 2 again.”

Johnston, who was 110 points back just two events earlier, posted his second consecutive runner-up finish to take third in AOY with 700 points — he was second last year to Seth Feider, although 61 points back. Lester, who was the last man in to Championship Monday, climbed to fourth with the VMC Monster Bag of the event at 18-7. Lester didn’t miss a two-day cut all year and took second in AOY with 707 points, just 16 back of Palaniuk.

The title puts Palaniuk in elite company. Since 1970, there have been 53 Bassmaster AOYs awarded to 26 anglers, and he became the 12th to win more than one.

“To me, it’s a very humbling thing to look at that group of guys,” he said. “They’re people I’ve looked up to when I was a little kid in Idaho that everyone thought was living a pipedream.”

Palaniuk physically built his pipe a far piece from the standard bass pro breeding grounds, showing that you can make dreams become reality if there’s will. If Palaniuk is anything, he’s a fierce competitor.

“I don’t do it for the hardware, I just do it because I love the feeling of winning,” he said, “but at the same time it’s nice to be recognized for those achievements. I think those are a reflection of all the years and years of hard work and sacrifice.

“When a guy wins AOY, he had an incredible season, but it’s really a reflection of a lifetime of work. A guy doesn’t just decide to fish in 2022 and win an AOY. Everyone who’s here has put in years and years of work, that then allows you to have the knowledge to win a title like that.”

Palaniuk agrees with this scribe that athletes around his age possess the attributes required to win titles like AOY. 

“It’s a crossroads between your mental and physical abilities,” he said. “You’re still physically able to compete, you’re mentally stronger than you were in your 20s, so you’re able to navigate those low spots. Fishing is the most losing sport in the entire world. You have to be able to navigate those down times if you’re going to be successful.”

With his bookend AOY, Palaniuk traveled home to enjoy it with wife, Tiffanie, and daughter, Kora. When contacted, he was headed to a DIY elk hunt on Idaho’s public lands. Out in the wilderness, Palaniuk has plenty of time to scan horizons, reflecting back and looking ahead.

Palaniuk’s goals include more winning — a Classic would be paramount for the six-time Bassmaster derby champ — and another AOY would send him into a super elusive club of five anglers with more than two titles.

“I don’t know if this one’s sunk in,” he said, “or if I already have my eyes set on No. 3.”