Daily Limit: ‘I love New York’

Not only did tournament winners Brandon Palaniuk and Chris Johnston leave the Empire State thinking “I love New York,” but B.A.S.S. shared those sentiments, despite having to follow stringent guidelines to put on the events.

Palaniuk won on Lake Champlain in dramatic fashion just a week after Johnston became the first Canadian to win on the circuit with his St. Lawrence River title. The organization, and by extension many in the bass fishing industry, felt victorious after the sport was again prominently featured on a major cable network.

“What a great two weeks B.A.S.S. had in New York,” Elite tournament director Trip Weldon began in his recent column. “The competition was intense, the fish catching was great, and the hours of Bassmaster LIVE on ESPN2 were awesome.”

In the time of COVID-19, which had B.A.S.S. and local organizers reformat the events under rigid state procedures, the Elite Series received a prime opportunity to strut its stuff. Looking to fill the void as most major sports were grounded, ESPN2 went to the water, picking up 26.5 hours of St Lawrence and 16.5 hours of Lake Champlain to air on the network. As of 2018, ESPN2 reached 86 million people, or 93.2% of households in the U.S. with pay television.

The June Lake Eufaula event that aired nearly 20 hours on ESPN2 drew 2.8 million viewers, who consumed 86 million minutes of Bassmaster LIVE, more than all of last season. The St. Lawrence broadcasts drew 4.34 million viewers, but the minute numbers and those from Champlain have not yet been reported.

Bassmaster TV analyst Mark Zona, a stalwart on the show alongside host Tommy Sanders, left his two weeks of duty at the JM Associates studio in Little Rock drained but enthused. Contacted by industry insiders as well as many outside the sport, he sees the tide for bass fishing has definitely risen.

“I honestly never saw this happening in our sport, that casual sports fans are paying attention to professional fishing, and that’s 100% due to being on ESPN2,” said Zona, who added the enthralling storylines certainly helped. “The events were packed with drama, from our first Canadian champion battling a violent Lake Ontario to a one-hour flurry that nobody saw coming on Lake Champlain.”

Telling compelling stories has been the trademark of JM Associates since it started developing coverage for bass fishing tournaments in 1996. Founder Jerry McKinnis had a long running show on the network and fostered the relationship to produce around 25 other shows for the worldwide sports network. His son, Mike McKinnis, has taken the reins as executive producer of Bassmaster TV. He oversaw the 2015 move to LIVE on Bassmaster.com, which increased days and hours each year then was picked up by ESPN3.

The coronavirus pandemic has benefitted B.A.S.S.

“It’s hard to say that. It is an unfortunate time for all of us, but it’s been very fortuitous for Bassmaster because we’ve been able to hold our events,” McKinnis said. “It just kind of opened the doors. We’ve talked about it for a long time, then when this happened, they’ve been sort of scrambling on what to air on their networks.

“It’s terrible we’re going through this, but it’s been a great opportunity for the sport. We are one of few ultimate social distancing sports. We’ve had to go through a lot of process in New York and do it the right way.”

A new audience learned of the inherent drama of Elite tournaments. A newspaper colleague caught some coverage and decided to text the Daily Limit.

“Not to stroke you guys too much, but this is great television. Love it,” he wrote. “If this has been on network TV for years, and I’ve just been missing it, it’s my loss.”

He and others were captivated as Johnston battled 10-foot waves on Lake Ontario to eclipse three-day leader Paul Mueller, who on the first day landed the largest smallmouth in Bassmaster history, a 7-pound, 13-ounce behemoth.

Palaniuk was enchanting in his victory, laughing through a ridiculously remarkable big bag in what was the circuit’s tightest final day, while others displayed their passion and pain of losing potential game-changing fish.

The opportunity to broadcast to casual fans will surely serve the long-held mission to “grow the sport.” LIVE coverage includes detailing the lures and patterns the pros utilize, and that might help lead others to cast lines. Since the shutdown in March, many states have reported sharp increases in fishing license sales, and tackle demand has left store shelf supplies low. For 50 years, B.A.S.S. has led the way in improving the fishing experience of members, and LIVE is the latest on-the-water classroom.

“You can now watch a professional bass angler and really learn what he’s doing and how he’s doing it, and get a full insight on how to do it yourself,” McKinnis said. “I think in the coming years this will have a tail to it, and we’ll have an uptick in everything that we do.”

The Bassmaster Elite at Lake St. Clair, Aug. 20-23, will provide the next opportunity as ESPN is set to air approximately 19 hours from the Great Lakes fishery. Check local listings for times.

From off stage, Cory Johnston watches Dave Mercer crown his brother, Chris, at the St. Lawrence.

Canada revels in Johnston’s win

In 2019, Chris Johnston led the Elite event on the St. Lawrence for the first three days, only to finish second, disappointing the throng of Canadians who crossed the international border in hopes of witnessing history.

This year, with no fans allowed, Johnston had fish literally jumping in the boat. In knocking off three-day leader Paul Mueller, Johnston claimed history as the first from Canada to win a Bassmaster tournament. He joins Australian Carl Jocumsen and numerous Japanese anglers as international winners. He’s the pride of the country, receiving coverage from most news outlets.     

“I can’t even describe how I feel, how cool it is,” he said. “I really appreciate all the support I’ve got back home from all our fellow Canadians. I wouldn’t be able to do this without all their support.”

Bassmaster emcee Dave Mercer, a Canadian, had been dreaming of the day and relished calling out Johnston. Mercer offers this unique perspective.

“While the victory happened literally a slap shot away from the shores of Canada, how 2020 was it that the borders were closed?” Mercer said. “Congrats on making history … Many beers will be chugged.”

Besides his fellow countrymen, Johnston also received support from fellow Elite Koby Kreiger, who fixed a mechanical issue, and cameraman Russell Williams, who “chummed” his spot. Johnston didn’t know if Williams becoming seasick in Ontario’s growl actually helped him, but he sure appreciated his work filming. Williams was “doing his thing” during three of Johnston’s big fish catches but plowed through by getting the camera out and videoing despite illness.

“I don’t know what he gets paid, but it’s probably not enough to go out in that stuff. My hat’s off to Russ,” Johnson said. “He said once he touches the dock, he wants to lay down and hug it.”

Another cool happening was smallmouth rising from the depths and landing in Johnston’s boat. It happened twice in the tournament.

“They don’t do that. They should fight,” he said. “All the sudden it takes off, jumps, clears the gunnel, right into my cockpit. And it was one of my biggest fish of the day. You know things are going right when that happens.”

The milestone of catching more than 100 pounds in a smallmouth tournament remains a goal, as Johnston came up 2-8 short with his record 97-8. There’s always Lake St. Clair later this month.

Palaniuk and longtime girlfriend Tiffany McCall, who’s title on her Facebook page is Personal Assistant/Office Manager at BMP Fishing, celebrate another victory.

The Prodigy is back

Palaniuk, nicknamed The Prodigy by Mercer, returned to B.A.S.S. this year after a season with MLF. He was given a Legends exemption afforded former Classic or Angler of the Year champions, and he didn’t take long to win his fourth Elite title.

“It’s been an interesting couple years,” Palaniuk said. “I just knew this feeling is what I wanted, and it’s why I came back.”

The potential of again embracing an Elite title had Palaniuk shaking throughout his day, which included a spectacular flurry of big smallmouth catches.

“As long as I’m still shaking, I’m going to keep doing this,” Palaniuk, 33, said. “I might be as old as Rick Clunn (74) standing up here still trying to chase these blue trophies. As long as I get that feeling every time I hook a big one, I’m going to keep chasing it.”

Palaniuk, who hails from Rathdrum, Idaho, has long excelled in New York, which is about the same latitude but more than 2,000 miles from home. Champlain was his second Elite Series win there, following his 2013 win on the St. Lawrence River, and he’s been runner-up in New York twice. In nine Elite events in New York, Palaniuk has six Top-10 finishes, including his 10th this year on the St. Lawrence. He’s cashed in every event, totaling almost one-fourth of his $1.3 million in B.A.S.S. earnings from 107 events.

Like Buddy Gross after his win on Lake Eufaula, Palaniuk emphasized having great support, and he put girlfriend Tiffany McCall atop the list.

“The last two weeks, I’ve probably not been the most friendly to be around — more friendly than I used to be,” he said. “I used to be really bad about getting in tournament mode and forgetting that the rest of the world existed. I’ve been trying to get better at that. She honestly keeps the train on the tracks. She handles all the things off the water so I can focus on the water. Without that, you can’t succeed out here.”