ONAMIA, Minn. – The superlatives compiled during last year's Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship on Mille Lacs Lake have had a definite effect. It's still a great smallmouth bass fishery. But when the top 50 Elite Series pros begin this three-day tournament Thursday, what many of them learned a year ago is no longer true.
"I had some stuff that I thought would be really, really good, and I could not even get a bite off of it in practice," said Brandon Palaniuk, who holds a 15-point lead over Jason Christie in the AOY race. "That's a bummer. It's not the same lake. It is, but we're here a year later."
That presents a more interesting challenge for this year's Toyota Bassmaster AOY Championship.
"I haven't found any groups of fish," Christie said. "I can get a bite here and a bite there. I don't have a spot I want to start on (Thursday). It's kind of a guessing game."
Seth Feider won last year with 76 pounds, 5 ounces. Brent Ehrler was second, 6 ½-pounds back at 69-13.
"I think the weights are going to go down," Feider said. "It's going to be hard to catch 15 big ones. It will still be in the ballpark of 70, 70-plus. But I think you'll see way less 20-pound bags.
"You'll still see a 25-pound bag the first day of tournament, but I doubt anybody will be able to do that three days in a row."
It's not just Palaniuk, Christie and Feider who believe this will be the case. Several local anglers familiar with Mille Lacs have noted the difference in this lake. Last year's AOY Championship fireworks, when the average bass weighed in at 3.95 pounds, and the lake being named No. 1 in the country by Bassmaster magazine have definitely cranked up the fished pressure here.
"A lot of those fish are still here, they're just not biting," said Feider, who is from Bloomington, Minn., and has spent many hours over the past 10 years on Mille Lacs. "There's a lot of places I've seen that have a bunch of fish on them, but you can sit there for an hour and not catch one. There are other places you can go where there are not that many, but you can catch every one you see. I think it's just they've been caught a lot. They only bite so many times."
There will be less of a margin for error in compiling a 20-pounds-plus bag this week. Landing every bass that bites will be at a premium.
"Guys aren't going to catch a 22-pound bag and cull out an 18 and a 20 to get there," Palaniuk said. "There will be less fish caught, but there will still be a lot of big ones caught."
Palaniuk is noted for not looking at the AOY standings at any time during the season. He, of course, knows he's leading now.
"It doesn't change anything," he said. "I don't know what the gap is. I don't want to make decisions trying to play it safe and hang on to something. I want to make decisions based on trying to win."
A year ago, Palaniuk finished 12th here and Christie was 18th. Christie needs to finish 16 places higher in the final standings to overtake Palaniuk for the AOY title.
"It's a good tournament because it's going to be tough," Christie said. "It's one of those tournaments where anything could happen."
Speaking of which, Jacob Wheeler is still in contention for the AOY title. He needs to finish 34 places higher than Palaniuk AND 16 places higher than Christie to claim the title.
The odds are long for that scenario in a 50-man field. But, hey, maybe this is a tournament where anything can happen.