Palaniuk goes to 2011 Classic

Brandon wants to be like Bryan. All except the tragic death part. Bryan Kerchal remains the only B.A.S.S. Federation Nation qualifier to steal away a Bassmaster Classic title. Months later, he died in a plane crash at age 23.

Brandon Palaniuk, this year's BFN champion, said he has watched that 1994 Classic "probably 25 times. I get choked up a little bit every time I watch it. I've seen every (Classic) on TV. Just to have the opportunity to make that happen is pretty unbelievable."

At 23, the angler from Rathdrum, Idaho, wants to represent the Fed Nation well next week in New Orleans.Palaniuk said he was overcome with emotion when he learned he would have the chance at the dream that took hold when he was 8.

"I was speechless. I'm still kinda speechless about it," he said. "It's so many years of different sacrifices, hard work, hours and hours spent thinking about it.

"Literally, in a couple of seconds you realize you made it. A lot of emotions come and happen at the same time."

Palaniuk put in his time practicing for the BFN championship on the Red River, led after Day One before falling back to fourth. His final day bag gave him a five-pound victory, a new boat, a Classic berth and an invitation to the Elite Series. And he's going for it all.

First the Classic: "I plan on winning it. Everyone is there to win it. I don't have any real high expectations, obviously ... but I want to win. I'm going to go into it and hopefully things line up. If it happens, it's my time. It would be a good story, coming through the Federation, the whole Kerchal story."

And then the Elites: "It's what I wanted to do since I was younger. I figured since I got the opportunity, I've got to take it. I'll be the first one to go from the Federation to the Elites since they had that qualification. It's a big step, for sure." And the Federation Nation has stepped up in a big way to make it happen.

Josh Polfer, the first-year BFN Idaho president who's competed against Palaniuk, was the first in line to help. He talked with other BFN state presidents to devise a plan. First was finding a ride. At the national championship, Polfer approached Ben Jarrett, national sales manager of Skeeter boats, who later offered a deal where Palaniuk could use a boat and either sell it or purchase it after a year.

A Toyota dealer in Idaho set Palaniuk up with a truck, and his rigs will be the first wrapped by the Bass Federation Nation. "It's huge," Polfer said. "We've never had one before." Then there was some scrapping for the Elite Series entry fees and expenses.

At the BFN presidents meeting in Florida, Polfer petitioned other states for help.

"The response has been incredible," he said. "Most have donated whatever they can, anywhere from $100 to $1,000."

Through other fund-raising and selling the boat Palaniuk won, the Idaho BFN set up and account and can send him money throughout the season.

"All the states are chipping in," Palaniuk said. "It's kind of what the Federation is all about. It's like this nationwide team of guys all coming together. We're trying to get up registration and show guys you can make it through the Fed to the top level."

But it's not like Palaniuk is going to need a bunch for living expenses. He said he plans to live out of his truck bed until the Elite season ends in June. He has a four-inch memory foam mattress and a Leer canopy, though he might hit hotels during tournaments.

"I sleep like a baby back there," he said. "The only time it really sucks is when it rains a lot. It gets boring it in back of the pickup."

Fed Nation members are stepping up on that front, too. Emails are flooding in from members offering Palaniuk a place to crash when he's in the neighborhood.

Competing against, and losing to, Palaniuk, Polfer knows he's helping out someone who has the qualities to make it at bass fishing's highest level.

"Brandon is a smart kid, he's calm and collected. It's been his desire his whole life. He's got the passion to do it for a living. This first year is going to be the toughest," Polfer said. "But I think he can make some cuts.

"Idaho is known for potatoes, not fishing. But there's a lot of good fisherman from this state."

Palaniuk is showing that, as well as dedication. He drove two 18-hour days and through a snowstorm, to practice on the Delta for the Classic, then went to Florida to scout for the Elite events there. He's back in Louisiana and has planned out what he needs to accomplish in practice.

"I know what I'm going to do," he said. "Hopefully it's just a perfect world for one week. I think it can be won with a 10-minute run or a two-hour run, one way, just because of how much water there is."

If Palaniuk gets on the right water, he can, like Kerchal, write a stunning Fed Nation to Classic storybook.

With the Elites in his future, that could be the first of many chapters.