WADDINGTON, N.Y. — Brandon Palaniuk busted one of the largest first-day bags of the Bassmaster Elite Series season on Thursday. That was the second item of big news coming out of this Upstate New York town on the banks of the St. Lawrence River.
Thursday’s first newsmaker was Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He made a rare visit to Waddington in the morning, touting the St. Lawrence fishery and other attractions of the region.
As if to prove Cuomo’s point, Palaniuk of Rathdrum, Idaho, hauled 23 pounds, 9 ounces of smallmouth bass to the scales to lead the Evan Williams Bourbon Showdown.
He wasn’t the only one to show off the river, and the big smallmouth that live there. Even to make the Top 12 Thursday, an Elite pro had to break the 20-pound mark. To be among the Top 50 (the second-day cut mark), a pro had to have more than 17 pounds.
Among those turning in 20-plus were Yusuke Miyazaki of Forney, Texas, 22-2 for second place, and Dennis Tietje of Roanoke, La., with 21-9 for third place. Landing fourth place was a two-time St. Lawrence event champ, Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., who weighed 21-1. Fifth place was a tie at 20-15 between Charlie Hartley of Grove City, Ohio, and Randy Howell of Springville, Ala.
Palaniuk — who also led Day 1 of the previous Elite event, which was on the Mississippi River — said he made a decision to make a hard run of 100-plus miles to a spot he’d found in practice. Allowing time enough for a return trip left him with just two hours of fishing time.
“It took me almost three hours to get to my first spot today,” he said. “My first two casts I caught two 3 1/2-pounders. That gave me the confidence that I was going to be able to catch them.”
And confirmation that he’d made the right decision to spend most of his competition time running to the fish rather than casting to them.
“My goal was to catch 23 pounds a day. If I could do that, I felt I could put myself into contention to win,” Palaniuk said. “I’d caught that in practice, so I knew the potential was there.”
Palaniuk makes no bones about it: He’s after a win to nail an instant qualification for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic, one of the Showdown’s prizes. The winner also takes home $100,000.
“I don’t care about the money, just give me the Classic berth,” Palaniuk said.
He was heading toward that prize on the Mississippi River in June. He led the first day, but was disqualified after the second day when he inadvertently culled a fish in Minnesota, which is against the law.
Palaniuk’s closest threat after the first of four competition days on the St. Lawrence was Miyazaki, who had two 5-pounders in his five-fish limit. Like Palaniuk, he had all smallmouth.
And like Palaniuk, Miyazaki said he also committed to a longer than usual run to get back to the best fish he’d found in practice.
“I find a good school of fish, I stay with it,” said Miyazaki, who, again like Palaniuk, had never before competed on the St. Lawrence.
The Carhartt Big Bass of the day was a 5-pound, 8-ounce smallmouth by Brian Snowden of Reeds Spring, Mo.
The full field will return to the St. Lawrence River Friday. The Top 50 will advance to Saturday’s round. Only the Top 12 will compete Sunday for the Showdown’s title and prizes.
Also at stake at the Showdown are points in the 2013 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year competition. The top pro will take the AOY crown later this month after the season finale on Lake St. Clair in Michigan. Points also determine qualifications for the postseason in September and the Classic in February 2014.
The AOY race leader going into the Showdown was Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla. His biggest competition has come from Skeet Reese of Auburn, Calif., 44 points in back of Evers, and Kevin VanDam, trailing Evers by 50 points.
Compared to VanDam’s fourth-place showing on Thursday, Evers was losing some ground at 25th place in Showdown standings. Reese, in 36th place, wasn’t helping his bid to catch up to Evers in points. But points won’t be awarded until the event has ended, so that game can still change.
Fans are invited to watch the pros take off in the morning at 6:30 a.m. ET for the second of four days of competition. The weigh-in will begin at 3:15 p.m. All events are at Whittaker Park in Waddington.
While the pros are on the water, fans can go to the Tastes and Talents of the North Country Festival at the park. Exhibitors include food and wine vendors, artists, crafters and local businesses. Fifteen music acts are scheduled over the four days. Headliners are Bucky Covington on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Jason Michael Carroll on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (followed by fireworks); and Chris Taylor and the Custom Taylor at 1 p.m. Sunday.
The Bassmaster Elite Series Expo, also at Whittaker Park, showcases Elite Series sponsors, including the event’s title sponsor, Evan Williams Bourbon. At the Expo, fans over 16 can sign up for free demo rides in Nitro, Skeeter and Triton bass rigs powered by Mercury and Yamaha engines.
Full online coverage of the Evan Williams Bourbon Showdown is available at Bassmaster.com, where access is free. Features include streaming video of the weigh-ins, real-time leaderboards, from-the-water BASSCam videos and blog reports, and Toyota Hooked Up! shows streamed live on Bassmaster.com with hosts Tommy Sanders and Mark Zona.
ESPN2 TV coverage of the Showdown will air Aug. 18 at 8-9 a.m. ET, and again on Sept. 7 at 6-7 a.m. ET.
ESPN Classic will air the show Aug. 18, 10-11 a.m. ET, and Sept. 8 at 8-9 a.m. ET. In addition, The Outdoor Channel will present the show Sept. 16. For times, check local listings.