Brandon Palaniuk’s 1 1/4-pound crucial catch late in Day 2 at the Mississippi River has been thoroughly documented at this point. It was the difference in him winning the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year title or finishing third. But there were so many other stories worth telling in that final Elite tournament of the 2022 season.
Palaniuk is the headliner, of course. The 34-year-old Rathdrum, Idaho, pro became only the 12th angler to win multiple Bassmaster AOY titles. He’s well-versed in B.A.S.S. history. This clearly meant something to him – a second title to go with the first one he earned in 2017. Added to the significance was the birth of his first child, Kora Marie. Brandon’s wife, Tiffanie, gave birth on June 6, one day after Palaniuk finished seventh at Pickwick Lake.
Four anglers held the AOY lead during the nine-tournament season: John Crews, after his season-opening win on the St. Johns River; David Mullins, after two tournaments; John Cox, after Santee Cooper and Chickamauga; and Palaniuk, from Lake Fork on. His final margin was 16 points over Brandon Lester and 23 points over third-place Chris Johnston.
Palaniuk has maintained throughout his Elite Series career that he never looks at AOY points until the season is over. He can’t avoid knowing when he is leading, but he says he simply assumes his lead is one point. Tiffanie confirms that’s the case. At Brandon’s request, she censors any Elite Series stories that refer to AOY points before Brandon reads them.
In asking Palaniuk about this after the St. Lawrence River tournament in July, he said, “What I’d love to happen is Tiff look at me before La Crosse and say, ‘Catch one bass. Just catch a bass.’ In a perfect scenario, that’s what I’d want to happen. Where you can just enjoy that last event and not be stressed about it.”
Tiffanie definitely said, more likely screamed, “Catch one bass. Just catch a bass,” at La Crosse, just not in the perfect stress-free scenario that Brandon envisioned.
The following table shows the tournament-by-tournament finishes of Brandon Palaniuk, Brandon Lester and Chris Johnston during the 2022 Elite Season:
|#1 St. Lawrence River||20th||28th||35th|
|#2 Harris Chain of Lakes||26th||5th||63rd|
|#3 Santee Cooper Lakes||3rd||30th||52nd|
|#4 Chickamauga Lake||12th||23rd||20th|
|#5 Lake Fork||2nd||42nd||10th|
|#6 Pickwick Lake||7th||1st||19th|
|#7 St. Lawrence River||25th||32nd||6th|
|#8 Lake Oahe||66th||37th||2nd|
|#9 Mississippi River||25th||4th||2nd|
|Total AOY points||723||707||700|
When you do the math, Palaniuk’s 723 points, divided by nine tournaments equals 80.3 points per tournament, for an average finish of 21st place.
It’s also worth noting that when looking at the last two years of Elite Series competition, Palaniuk and Chris Johnston have been impressively consistent. Palaniuk was third, and Johnston was second in 2021.
Finally, there’s this AOY note: Seth Feider, who ran away with the AOY title in 2021 with an average finish of 14th, noted that the 2022 season-ending tournament at La Crosse marked a “full circle” moment for him. The defending AOY champ didn’t need to catch a single bass to qualify for the 2023 Bassmaster Classic. But he did, finishing 31st at La Crosse and 22nd in the final AOY standings.
In 2016, Feider was fishing for his Elite Series life on the Mississippi River. He finished second to Ott DeFoe that year. Most importantly, that gave him enough points to qualify for the AOY Championship at Mille Lacs Lake a week later. The format that year limited the season-ending tournament to only the top 50 anglers in AOY points. And, of course, Feider won at Mille Lacs.
“It changed my whole life,” Feider said of his second-place finish at La Crosse in 2016. “Without that, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. I would have had to go back to work.”
The rest of the story
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, there are always multiple stories that come from the final tournament of the season. Bryan Schmitt topped the rest of the bunch. The 41-year-old angler from Deale, Md., came into La Crosse seeking the second Bassmaster Classic qualification of his career. He left La Crosse double-qualified.
Schmitt was 50th in AOY points before La Crosse, and that was after jumping from 61st place thanks to a 20th-place finish at Lake Oahe the week before. The final tournament of the season features a bonus that no other Elite Series event has – an automatic Classic berth to the winner. If you ask any of these guys what’s the bottom line for a successful Elite Series season, they’ll tell you it’s qualifying for the Classic.
Therefore, that becomes a major storyline in the final regular season event: Who is in the Classic, and who is out? By winning at La Crosse and moving up to 40th in the final AOY standings, Schmitt bumped the list of double-qualifiers to five: 1) Jason Christie, defending Classic champ and 27th in AOY points; 2) Brandon Lester, Open winner and second in AOY; 3) Kenta Kimura, Open winner and 16th in AOY points; 4) Lee Livesay, Open winner and 35th in AOY; and 5) Schmitt.
With those five, the Classic qualifiers list based on final AOY points, which starts at 39, has grown to 44th place. Shane LeHew became the most recent last-man-in. The list may or may not grow a place or two, depending upon whether a Classic qualified angler wins one of the remaining four Bassmaster Opens this season.