Daily Limit: Winning is everything for Elites

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” – Vince Lombardi

Winning on the Bassmaster Elite Series is difficult. Virtually everything has to go right to hoist one of the coveted blue trophies.

With the number five a common denominator, the three most recent champions are reveling in the thrill of victory: Rookie Will Davis Jr. won in his fifth Elite entry; Luke Palmer “finally” broke through in his fifth Elite season; and Drew Benton re-established himself with a second title in five years.

Take a look at what winning meant for them.

“Winning solves everything.” – Tiger Woods

Drew Benton, 35, was wondering if he would ever win again, saying he felt “snakebit.” The Florida pro, who had won in his second Elite season, hasn’t been fishing poorly at all. The past several years, Benton was close in several tournaments, posted a handful of Top 10s and qualified for the past five Bassmaster Classics.

Yet he was missing the positive reinforcement of a second title. Benton said he’d taken to heart the lofty goals of reigning Bassmaster Angler of the Year Brandon Palaniuk, who professes an angler needs to win every five years to remain relevant.

“To be one of those top tier guys, you’ve got to win at least every five years, if not every three years,” Benton said. “I was at year five. I pushed it to the limit. I was starting to get irrelevant.

“Points-wise, I was doing good, but the wins had eluded me. I had some close calls, second at Harris Chain, second at an Open I lost by an ounce due to dead fish penalty.”

After winning the 2018 Lake Travis Elite in his 44th B.A.S.S. entry, Benton had gone 52 tournaments without again tasting victory.

“I’ve had some off-the-water stuff go on that made my job really tough,” Benton said. “When life’s not going good at home, it makes it that much more tough. I finally got to a good place, and last season and this season have really reflected that.”

The surprise win came in April’s Marathon Bassmaster Elite at Murray Lake, even though Benton had worries a stumble cost him. He lost the two-day lead with a poor Semifinal Saturday, narrowly sneaking into Championship Sunday in 10th place, 4-15 out of the lead.

With solid fish early, Benton was one bite away much of the day. He got it late, a clutch 6-4 kicker coming in the waning moments of competition. It helped him cull to the VMC Monster Bag of 26-7 and propelled him to a timely victory with 87-0.

“I feel like we’re back on track,” he said. “It feels like I’m moving in the right direction again.”

That direction is into the upper echelon of active Bassmaster Elites. Benton joined 28 others with more than one title, and he knows victories hold import in any sport. 

“It puts you in a different, I guess, level,” he said. “In all sports, when somebody wins one event, everyone says, ‘Aw, he got lucky.’ When you do it again, that stamps your name and says you belong and are at the highest level.

“It means it wasn’t a fluke when I won back in ‘18. I can still get it done. It just gives you a little extra confidence.”

With 100 B.A.S.S. tournaments under his belt, Benton believes the anglers’ adage that you only win when it’s your time.

“When it’s not, it’s just not going to happen,” he said. “Being around the game a number of years now, I’m at peace with that. You can’t force it, it’s just gotta be your time.”

He just hopes it’s not as long until next time.

“Winning takes precedence over all. There’s no gray area. No almosts.” – Kobe Bryant

On Night of Champions at this year’s Bassmaster Classic in late March, this scribe took part in a conversation with two-time Elite winner Bryan Schmitt and Luke Palmer. Although he’s fished well enough to never miss a Classic in his first four Elite seasons, Palmer lamented that he yet to win.

“Gosh, is it ever going to happen?” he said.

A month later, Palmer, who works at his family’s hardware store in Coalgate, Okla., was celebrating a runaway victory on Santee Cooper Lakes. He now feels bona fide, his years of work and dreaming coming into fruition. It eased his doubts.

“You don’t know if you’re good enough,” Palmer, 32, said. “You don’t know if you’ve got what it takes. I haven’t really felt like I belong on the Elites. I feel like I’m the average Joe, just because I’m average ole Luke, still working at the hardware store, still mowing grass, still doing cattle.”

With responsibilities at home, and parents who step back in to allow him to fish, Palmer said he hadn’t felt like a “legitimate professional fisherman” because he’s not completely gone “all-in.”

Primarily a shallow-water angler, Palmer said it’s tough to win the way he fishes. Although he’s made nine Top 10s in 56 entries, Palmer said he’s had issues with running out of fish on the final two days.

Palmer was in the hunt at Santee Cooper Lakes in 2021 when Drew Cook weighed 105-5 to best Caleb Kuphall’s 103-1. With the VMC Monster Bag of 33-5 on Day 3, Palmer went into Championship Monday third, 4-9 back of the lead, but he only managed 19-4 to finish fourth.

This year, he started 10th at Santee Cooper Lakes, moved into third on Day 2 before weighing 26-3 to hold the Day 3 lead, 3-8 ahead of AOY leader Brandon Cobb. With Championship Sunday’s big bass of 7-5, he weighed 25-1 to total 96-14. His 14-3 margin of victory ranks sixth all-time.

“For it to happen doing something I like to do, and pretty much using the same bait for eight consecutive tournament days on a body of water two years apart, it’s almost unheard of,” he said. “It’s given me that boost, that little bit of confidence, that hey, I can compete with these guys. I didn’t know if I could win one.”

A new tack might have made the difference. Palmer said he’s noticed Bassmaster winners, for the most part, stay in one area and work it for every fish. Running around and fishing behind others can spell doom. His best results have been hunkering down and not burning more than 5 gallons of gas.

“I came into this year with kind of a hunger, of wanting to win one so bad to where I’m being stubborn,” he said. “I’m staying in areas trying to grind them out, instead of trying to run all over the place.”

After the win, Palmer celebrated, filmed some and hit the beach, getting a nice sunburn in the process. What really burned him was a bomb in the Whataburger Bassmaster Elite at Lay Lake. His 98th finish there dropped him 30 spots in the AOY standings to 43rd, on the bubble to make next year’s Classic, his goal every year.

Missing two other cuts by ounces has Palmer concerned he could miss the Classic after a season in which he won.

“I’ve had my screw-up or two,” he said. “This is the least amount of cuts I think I’ve ever made, and to win on the same year?”

As he finally headed home after six weeks on the road, Palmer got emotional in a video he posted, tearing up thinking of bringing the blue trophy back to Coalgate.

“I can’t wait to get back and thank my mom and dad,” he said. “I got people who really care and want to be there for me. That made this one special.”

“Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, winning next.” – George Steinbrenner

A big breath of relief was in line for Will Davis Jr., especially after the manner in which he won on his home water of Lay Lake. The rookie from Sylacauga, Ala., just 12 miles from the nearest ramp, escaped with a 2-ounce victory over two of the Bassmasters’ biggest winners.

Catching a late fish on Championship Sunday, Davis came in with 14-2 for a four-day total of 62-12. Reigning AOY Brandon Palaniuk, who suffered a freakish dead fish penalty, was second with 62-10. Jason Christie, who lost the potential winning 5-pounder at the boat, took third.

In a rainstorm, Davis, 30, had the huge hometown crowd hooping and hollering as he took the blue trophy in just his fifth Elite tournament.

“It’s very exciting times,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s very special. That might be a once-in-a-lifetime deal to have all your friends and family there.”

Davis is accustomed to success on his home pond, having won around 30 various events there with $300,000 in earnings. He decided to give the Elites a go after qualifying as the 2022 B.A.S.S. Nation champion, just as Palaniuk had done 12 years earlier.

“Starting out, I got good sponsors, but it’s tough,” he said. “I left my job just to go on the road and fish. It was tough. I have to make checks. I have to make cuts to pay for entry fees and stuff at home. It’s a different animal.”

Davis is the fourth first-time Elite winner this year, joining Palmer, Tyler Rivet and Joey Cifuentes, also a rookie.

“It means the world to me,” Davis said. “The early start in my career, to get that win, it lets me know that I can compete with these boys. And it makes you want to win even more.”

Although upset at losing, Palaniuk said he was happy to realize that Davis won’t fall into the trap of believing an Elite title comes easy. Davis has been learning the Elite ropes from good friends Bill Lowen and Mark Menendez.

“You just can’t take it for granted, because you never know when your next one is going to be or if you’re going to have a next one,” Davis said. “You’re going to fish nine events a year, 10 if you make the Classic. You only have that one or two times a year when you feel like you have an opportunity to win, so you better make the most of it.”

Growing up in the industry with his dad’s bait business, Davis knows it’s no easy feat to win or even earn a title like the Dakota Lithium Bassmaster Rookie of the Year, which he currently leads. While he’s never fished up north, he plans to scout Lake St. Clair, Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River.

 “I want to continue out strong,” he said, days before heading out for the Folds of Honor Bassmaster Elite at Sabine River. “This next one’s going to throw a dagger in a lot of them — I just hope I’m not the one getting the dagger stuck in. This next one is going to set the fate for the rest of the year.”

To the victor goes the spoils.