When we first saw the kid from Idaho blaze onto the national B.A.S.S. scene back in 2011, the immediate impression of Brandon Palaniuk was he’d do big things.
Fast forward six years and “The Prodigy,” as emcee Dave Mercer appropriately nicknamed him, broke through as the 2017 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year. A smidge behind the Classic in prestige to the bass fishing world, the AOY is coveted by the pros as the ultimate angler accomplishment.
Last Sunday, Palaniuk became just the 21st man awarded the title in its 46 years of existence.
“I can’t even talk,” said Palaniuk, who pays no attention to pounds and points, concentrating solely on catching fish. “I didn’t know coming into it how much I needed, where I was. I was calm and collected all day, because I didn’t really know what I needed.”
Then the thought of his feat seemed to hit.
“I had one bass at 10:30 – one bass,” he said choking up. “I never got freaked out. I just kept pushing and pushing. For some reason when I woke up this morning, I just felt like it was going to happen.”
Happen it did. Through his slow morning, Palaniuk never wavered, never showed a crack, just kept plugging away. Then bam, he rocked the world, literally. The rock, which he and cameraman Erik Kaffka nicknamed “Dwayne Johnson,” finally came through for him.
“I fished that rock at least twice a day the last two days of competition and had not got a bite on it. I just knew it was set up right,” said Palaniuk, who caught a dozen fish there, enough to take the title, before moving on to cull with two 4-pounders.
Wiping tears from his eyes and fighting to speak without a crack in his voice, Palaniuk trudged forward as usual.
“Who would have thought an 8-year-old kid from Idaho – I mean Idaho, where we’re known for catching trout – would make this happen,” he said.
With his family watching from right off the stage, Palaniuk thanked them and his sponsors, and made a point to mention how his mother always advised him to have a Plan B in case fishing didn’t pan out.
“And I told her, ‘Why?’ Because I’m not going to fail at Plan A,” he said.
It never appeared he would, despite a lean start. For the three weeks before winning the 2010 B.A.S.S. Nation Championship and quite some time after, Palaniuk camped in the back of his truck. He said he liked sleeping in his “Toyota Suites,” and it kept expenditures low that first season.
Palaniuk piece-mealed entry fees to fish the Elites. He vowed to compete, even if it meant taking out a personal loan. Things moved as he got a deal with Skeeter and Yamaha and sold the boat he won. Across the B.A.S.S. Federation Nation, chapters pitched in to send him to the big circuit, and offers of places to stay while on his travels flooded in.
After his spectacular fourth-place finish in the 2011 Classic, where he garnered the attention of many, Palaniuk quickly established himself on the Elites, earning checks in six of his first seven events. The next year, he won on Bull Shoals. He gained more accolades and a little legend status after disqualification at an event left him saying he’d just have to win the next. He did.
And that saved his consecutive streak of qualifying for the Classic, which is now at eight and running. Palaniuk also has come oh-so-close to winning the Classic – he took second on Grand Lake in 2013.
Most thought he’d win that championship before an AOY, because he’d mix a subpar finish in with a string of good to excellent events. This year he cashed in eight of the nine events, including a win at Toyota Texas Fest on Lake Sam Rayburn, and he reached Championship Sunday six times.
“I looked at the schedule this year and said it was a possibility if I could get through Okeechobee,” Palaniuk said. “And Okeechobee absolutely bit me and I finished 105th. And I can tell you I’m happy for those four points.”
That finish, fourth from last, now stands as the record for lowest finish of any AOY winner. It supplants Aaron Marten’s 2013 run that included an 85th place on the Sabine River.
“I guess I can be proud of that one,” Palaniuk said. “If I’m going to hold the record, why not hold that one.
“I would prefer to not have that and absolutely just blow it out of the water. Because that’s my mentality. I want to come out here and respect everybody, and love ’em and kick their teeth in all at the same time.”
One bomb from best season ever
When Aaron Martens won the 2015 AOY, he had the best Elite season ever by average finish. If not for his 105th, Palaniuk would have topped it this year.
Even though he didn’t win AOY due to the postseason point format, Skeet Reese had a phenomenal 2010. He threw down two firsts, two seconds, two fifths, a 48th and a 59th for an average finish of 15.375.
When Martens laid his hand down, he had two wins, a second, third, sixth, 13th, 15th and 66th for an average of 13.375.
Palaniuk’s AOY saw him have one win, two thirds, a fifth, two 12ths, an 18th, a 29th and the 105th. Over the nine events, that averages out to 20.8.
Without that 105th, Palaniuk would have an average of 10.375. If he had even just finished 25th, he would have blown away Martens with a 12th-place average finish.
Cinderella slipper fits Powroznik
The Classic Bracket on Lake Pokegama provided drama, like Dave Lefebre’s over-the-gunnell catch with two seconds left, and the fact that the last man in won.
Seems the format created great tension. Just ask Jacob Powroznik, who swam away with the win. He jumped into the lake afterward as much for his promise as to cool off.
After gaining a big lead, he sweated the outcome for the final two hours, asking if Ish Monroe had upgraded and how much time was left. You could see those last two hours ticked off slowly for him.
“It’s unbelievable, man,” Powroznik said. “It’s just such a relief. It’s the most pressure I’ve ever fished under — and I mean ever.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t ever want to go through that again.”
AOY, Classic Bracket odds and ends
With Mike Iaconelli’s loss in the Classic Bracket second round, the longest active streak of Classic qualifications might have ended. Ike, who was attempting to reach his 19 Classic, has qualified for the past 16.
Aaron Martens could take over that distinction as he has fished the past 14 Classics. Todd Faircloth is next on the active list with 11 in a row while Bobby Lane has been to the past 10.
Rick Clunn holds the record of most consecutive Classic appearances at 28 (1974-2001). Kevin VanDam is next, ending his 24-event run in 2015. Larry Nixon (18) is third and Gary Klein (17) fourth.
Ike, who is tied with Jay Yelas at 16, has a chance to keep his alive if both of the remaining Bass Pro Shops Opens leave a spot for the Classic. Steve Kennedy is first on the AOY points list to receive a bid and Ike is next.
First-time hits and misses
At the AOY Championship, there were five anglers who secured their first Classic qualification, starting with Rookie of the Year Dustin Connell. Connell edged Jamie Hartman by one point for that title, overall finishing 12th and 13th, respectively.
Last year’s winner of the AOY Championship weight derby, Seth Feider, will be going to Lake Hartwell after taking 14th in points. Mark Daniels Jr. goes to the Classic after an 18th in his first season. The final Classic newcomer will be Brandon Coulter, who ended 24th in points.
Adrian Avena and Kelley Jaye, two anglers who made the Classic Bracket with a chance to get to their first Classic, lost first-round matches.