LUFKIN, Texas — Winning this week’s Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest benefiting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department would obviously mean a lot to Brandon Palaniuk.
It would give him a $100,000 payday and an automatic berth into the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods.
Those would be extremely important career boosters.
But the title he claimed Saturday was important on a different level.
During a ceremony held during the Texas Fest off day, Palaniuk received a special trophy for being the Autism Angler of April. He earned the award by catching the most pounds of bass (107 pounds, 1 ounce) during two the Bassmaster Elite Series events in April and by raising the most money for autism research.
“When they announced that I was the winner of this award, I was standing backstage and thinking about it,” Palaniuk said. “I’m in contention to win my third Elite Series event this week. That means a lot to me — I don’t want to take away from the Elite Series tournament.
“But the Elite Series win is a personal win and a win for the people on my team. This award is a win for everybody that’s affected by autism.”
Palaniuk said he is donating $1,000 to an autism charity in his home state of Idaho — and he hopes the entire Elite Series awareness program will help people everywhere talk more openly about autism.
“We know directly the impact we’re having when we make a donation,” Palaniuk said. “But we have no idea the residual impact that we never see.
“You just look at how many people are affected by it in our close circle on the Elite Series. There’s no way to know how many people are talking more openly about autism because of what we’re doing here on the Elite Series and being affected positively by this.”
The Autism Angler of April award is just the latest step in the efforts started by Elite Series pro John Crews to raise awareness for the brain disorder that now affects the mental and social development of one in 68 children.
Crews began his efforts several years ago when he met Eli Delany and his young son, Luke, who was diagnosed with autism when he was just 18 months old. Eli founded the Massachusetts-based nonprofit charity “My Little Buddy’s Boat” to call attention to the need for autism research funding.
The charity sells bright-yellow decals sporting the phrase “Fishin’ with a Mission,” and Crews and several other Elites began running those stickers on their boats during competitive events years ago. As a result, the stickers have shown up in prominent places like Bassmaster Magazine, B.A.S.S. Times and Bassmaster.com.
Crews, the Virginia pro with 21 B.A.S.S. Top 10 performances, has also brought attention to the cause with flags that were flown by nearly the entire Elite Series field during April tournaments in 2015. He’s also produced special autism awareness bracelets this year.
Crews said the idea for this year’s contest was the brainchild of Bassmaster tournament emcee Dave Mercer, whose 13-year-old daughter, Cadance, is autistic.
“We were trying to think of ways to build it up further, and Mercer suggested the contest,” Crews said. “I talked to Eli about it, and we thought it was a great idea. Every fisherman gets more serious when he knows there’s a trophy involved.”
That was certainly true of Palaniuk.
“Brandon’s already told me, now that he knows there’s hardware involved, he’s going to get on this earlier next year because he wants to win it,” Crews said. “That’s what we want. We want everyone involved as much as they can be.
Palaniuk said the trophy — which was provided by former Elite Series pro Dave Smith and his company MTM Recognition — will be the first trophy to go into his new Fuzion Suites trailer. But it may not be the only one that goes there this week.
He’ll begin Championship Sunday in first place, 2 ounces ahead of California angler Brent Ehrler.