TULSA, Okla. — Brandon Palaniuk did everything he could to win the Bassmaster Classic. But Cliff Pace made sure that wasn't enough.
Palaniuk, a 25-year-old, third-year Elite Series pro from Rathdrum, Idaho, had a solid limit Sunday that weighed 15 pounds, 4 ounces, the day's fourth-heaviest bag. Pace had 11-8 Sunday, but combined with the 7-pound advantage that he built over the first two days, it held off Palaniuk's charge.
"I wanted it so bad all day today," Palaniuk said. "But Cliff earned it."
Based on BASSTrakk numbers provided throughout Sunday's action, the Classic's outcome was uncertain until emcee Dave Mercer called out Pace's weight at the BOK Center stage.
"It was heartbreaking," Palaniuk said after the weigh-in. "Everyone was saying he had eight (pounds), so in my head if I had 15, I knew it was going to be close. And when I had 15-4, I thought it was going to be really, really close. But as soon as I saw his fish, I knew he had over eight."
Palaniuk's day went just as planned, and that plan called for running about five key areas on Grand Lake. Going into the final day down by 7 pounds, Palaniuk started in Echo Bay, about a 10-minute run from the takeoff in Wolf Creek. He put five fish in the boat in a little more than an hour, using a green pumpkin and red flake Berkley Bottom Hopper on a 3/16-ounce jighead. The next four fish came in quick succession on a green phantom-colored Storm Wiggle Wart.
Palaniuk ticked the Wiggle Wart on rocks or submerged brush piles, triggering bites on the ticks or when the bait hung up and then came loose.
He fished between Wolf Creek and Horse Creek throughout the tournament. His key areas had to have specific components: Big rocks, a creek channel running from the main river channel toward a spawning flat, and a transition from a 45 degree to a much steeper bank.
"It's really hard to explain to somebody because it sounds confusing," Palaniuk said. "The problem was there were so many different things required to make it a good area, that there weren't many in the whole lake. It was very specific. It had to have softball-size rock. It had to have a channel running from the main river to spawning flat and the fish were holding adjacent to spawning flat. The steep drops were only about 25 to 30 yards of bank."
The action ceased early for Palaniuk. He caught only two fish after the flurry of activity at his productive starting spot in Echo Bay. When the number of spectator boats decreased in the early afternoon, Palaniuk said he had an idea that he was dropping out of contention for the Classic title.
"I had a feeling at about 1 p.m.," he said. "I kind of watched the crowd start dwindling. At that point, I kind of knew something was going on. It's pretty easy to tell. I've been around those guys and seen how the crowd works. They want to see action, and after about 10:30, I never culled another fish. It slowed way down for me."
Palaniuk returned to Echo Bay, the scene of his most success, at about 1:45 p.m. But he couldn't find a single bite.
"I really felt like when I ran back to my original starting point, I really thought I was going to catch them," Palaniuk said. "But I spent an hour there and never got a bite."
Palaniuk said his close call in the Classic will only strengthen his resolve.
"When I started, I had four main goals: Win a Federation Championship, win an Elite Series event, win a Classic, and win an Angler of the Year," Palaniuk said. "To come so close to achieving one of those goals, it just makes me want it that much more."