WADDINGTON, N.Y. – Brandon Palaniuk wanted – needed, in his mind – to find a way into the 2014 Bassmaster Classic, the world championship of bass fishing.
"I don't care about the money, just give me the Classic berth," Palaniuk said after he led on the first day of the Aug. 8-11 Evan Williams Bourbon Showdown at St. Lawrence River out of Waddington, N.Y.
The instant qualification that comes with a Bassmaster Elite win was the only unlocked door left to him.
Sunday, the 25-year-old pro from Rathdrum, Idaho, walked right through that door. Palaniuk's prize included $100,000 as well as the Classic qualification he coveted. The 2014 Classic will be his fourth consecutive appearance.
"It's been one of my goals since I started (the Elite Series) to never miss a Classic. The Classic is our Super Bowl, so you don't want to miss it," he said after his win. "To be able to go out and have a shot at hoisting the Classic trophy is what every kid, every guy out here fishing, dreams of."
Now a two-time Bassmaster Elite Series champion, Palaniuk won the Showdown wire-to-wire, and by a margin of 7 pounds, 8 ounces. His total weight of 88 pounds, 12 ounces of smallmouth bass bested the 81-4 total produced by Showdown runner-up Jonathon VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich.
A hand's-down win is Palaniuk's style. In April 2012, when he took his first Elite trophy, the margin was 11-14. He won that one in wire-to-wire fashion, too.
The Showdown title was a helping of redemption for Palaniuk. He'd lost to VanDam by 2-6 last season at a Lake Michigan Elite event, which like the Showdown, was all about smallmouth bass.
And Palaniuk made up for a mistake he made earlier this season when he was leading an Elite tournament by 6 pounds. Because he inadvertently culled a bass in Minnesota waters, his Day Two weight was disqualified, and he fell out of the competition.
The Idaho pro took a big gamble to win the Showdown. He committed to a run of 200-plus miles to and from Lake Ontario, leaving only a few hours to catch bass each of the four days.
The first day, he had to fight 6-foot waves. The trip was slightly better for him on the second and third days. Sunday, a Classic berth and $100,000 on the line, he got a break on the morning leg of the run.
"It was great. There was a little chop in the morning, but nothing bad," he said.
As on the other three competition days, his destination was the huge spawning flats of Henderson and Chaumont bays, where he had found large numbers of big smallmouth around the longest points.
"I looked for any long point that had steep drops on the sides," he said.
He caught his first limit of Sunday quickly, repeating the drop-shotting technique that got him into the leader position three days running. The catch was three 5-pounders, a 4-pounder and a 2 1/2-pounder.
"That gave me the confidence I needed," he said. He built his bag to 23-5.
He tied his drop-shot rig with 8-pound Fireline Crystal and used a leader of 6-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon. The hook was a No. 2 Gamakatsu Splitshot/Dropshot model, and he used a 3/8-ounce tungsten weight.
His primary lure was a green pumpkin Berkley Power Bait Twitchtail Minnow. He also used the same bait in a clear silver shiner color. The thin tail and 3-inch size was key to taking the smallmouth, he said.
After about three hours, he set out on the 100-mile return trip. Although rougher than in the morning, he made it back without incident, and checked in on time.
VanDam said he didn't attempt any heroics to try to overtake Palaniuk.
"I didn't do anything different than I'd been doing all week. I fished the same area; I knew there were a lot of good fish there. I was just hoping that with the wind blowing a little bit, it would make it tougher on Brandon," VanDam said.
VanDam said it crossed his mind to make a "blind run" to Lake Ontario, but because he had not practiced there, or been there at any time during the Showdown, he nixed that idea, and stuck to the St. Lawrence river. He keyed on areas with rock, then looked for smallmouth holding on the rock.
Drop-shotting with a Strike King Dream Shot – the same lure he used to win on Lake Michigan last season, VanDam weighed 19-9, which wasn't enough.
"I'm happy to be in second place, but a little disappointed, too," he said. "I did everything I could. But to be the top guy who fished the river is saying something."
The young pro is looking to the next event, which will be on his home water, Lake St. Clair. He's shooting for a Classic qualification through the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points standings.
Finishing in third place at the Showdown was Ott DeFoe of Knoxville, Tenn., with 78-10. In fourth place was Elite rookie Cliff Pirch of Payson, Ariz., with 78-6. Aaron Martens of Leeds, Ala., was fifth with 77-15.
Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla., continued to lead the 2013 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race. With Showdown points now awarded, Evers is looking over his shoulder at Martens, the 2005 AOY, who trails Evers by 30 points. Michigan's Kevin VanDam – Jonathon's uncle and already a seven-time AOY winner – is 39 points behind Evers.
The finish line for the points race is the Aug. 22-25 Plano Championship Chase, Aug. 22-25 on Lake St. Clair out of Detroit, Mich. If Evers continues to dominate, he'll take his first AOY crown.
Elite pros earned bonuses at the Showdown:
* Carhartt Big Bass of the tournament, worth $1,000 plus another $500 for wearing Carhartt apparel: Steve Kennedy of Auburn, Ala., for his 5-13 weighed on Day Three.
* Berkley Heavyweight Award of $500 for the best five-fish limit: Kennedy for his 23-14 on the third day.
* Toyota's $1,000 bonus to the leader in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race: Evers. This is the fifth consecutive time Evers has been No. 1 in the AOY standings after a 2013 event.
* Luck-E-Strike Comeback Award of $500: Jason Christie of Park Hill, Okla., who achieved the biggest jump in the AOY standings, up from 55th into 35th place.
* Power-Pole Captain's Cash award of $500 to the highest finisher equipped with Power-Poles: Palaniuk.
* Livingston Lures Leader Award of $500 for heading up the leaderboard on the second day: Palaniuk.
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 Showdown Sept. 16. For times, check local listings.
The Evan Williams Bourbon Showdown was hosted by the City of Waddington, N.Y.