Roger Phillips: Idaho's bass fishing star coming to Boise on Saturday

rphillips@idahostatesman.comJanuary 16, 2014 

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Brandon Palaniuk of Rathdrum is entering his fourth season in the professional Bassmaster Elite Series.

PROVIDED BY BASSMASTER

Brandon Palaniuk is a famous competitor in a wildly popular sport, but he’s not a household name in his home state, nor is his sport wildly popular here.

If you haven’t figured out from the photo, Palaniuk is a professional bass fisherman on the prestigious Bassmaster Elite Tour. In the South, it is as closely watched as NASCAR, but in Idaho it barely gets noticed.

But Palaniuk is making a big name for himself and bringing recognition to Idaho’s bass fishing scene.

Palaniuk, 26, will compete in the Bassmaster Classic at Guntersville, Ala., in February, an event he nearly won last year.

He will also be in Boise on Saturday, Jan. 18, at the B.A.S.S. Nation Annual Banquet.

Palaniuk will share his professional bass fishing experiences, share fishing tips, and show fellow anglers a kid from Idaho can rise from the local ranks and make the big time.

“I want to go back and give back to the guys who helped me out early,” he said last week during a phone interview from his home in Rathdrum. “Without them, I wouldn’t be fishing for a living.”

Palaniuk spent seven years competing in Idaho and regional tournaments before exploding onto the national bass fishing scene.

He has two wins (nearly three) in the Elite Series, five top-10 finishes, including second in last year’s Bassmaster Classic.

He has earned $434,632 in Elite Series prize money during three seasons.

His career has been as improbable and unique as a bass angler from Idaho earning hundreds of thousands of dollars catching a fish that isn’t even native to the state.

Last year was a prime example. He was leading a tournament on the Mississippi River near the Wisconsin/Minnesota border and likely to win before he was disqualified.

Palaniuk released a bass to try to catch a larger one, a practice known as “culling.” It is common and legal in Idaho and most states, as well as a standard strategy in bass tournaments, but illegal in Minnesota.

Palaniuk knew the rule, but didn’t know that while fishing the river’s multiple channels he had strayed into Minnesota waters.

Not only did he lose $100,000 in prize money, winning the tournament would have qualified him to return to the Bassmaster Classic this year.

“It really sucked at the time, but a lot of good things came from it,” he said.

That tough break set up a “shot at the buzzer” in New York. With the season winding down, Palaniuk aimed for a fishing spot that he thought would produce winning bass despite sketchy weather forecasts.

The gamble was that his prime spot would be 220 miles round trip up the St. Lawrence River and into Lake Ontario.

Even at the speed of his tournament bass boat, it would mean more time traveling to and from his fishing spot than actually fishing. It left him only a couple of hours to fish each day before having to run back to make his weigh-in deadline.

Crashing through 8-foot waves that came up during the tournament could have sunk his chances, not to mention his boat.

“It was about as big of a gamble as you can make, but the bigger the gamble, the bigger the reward,” he said.

He won the tournament about a month after being disqualified and met his goal to qualify for this year’s Bassmaster Classic.

The win also garnered a lot of attention from the bass fishing press about the guy from Idaho who lost on a technicality only to return and win a major tournament a month later.

It also cemented Palaniuk’s growing reputation as a serious competitor.

It’s part of his “hyper competitive” nature, said the two-time state champion wrestler who made professional bass fishing his life’s calling at age 8.

He spent much of his teenage years working and competing in regional tournaments to prepare himself for the elite level.

And in case you’re wondering, he’s no trust-fund baby. He earned money to compete by building logging roads and “thinking about bass fishing the whole time.”

“I was broke as a joke most of my life,” he said. “I didn’t sleep in the back of my truck (while competing) because it was fun. I couldn’t afford a motel room.”

The question he most often hears while traveling to tournaments back East is, “How in the heck did you learn to catch bass in Idaho?”

He credits Lake Coeur d’Alene for teaching him to catch bass under any conditions and any time of year, which is critical because Palaniuk is always the visiting team.

He’s also in a tough, competitive profession that constantly pulls him in different directions. He has to prepare for and compete in tournaments while meeting promotion obligations and maintaining good relations with his 25 sponsors.

He also has to be mentally prepared for the long and at-times grueling tournament schedule that runs February through September and will take him to locations ranging from New York to Florida, but none west of the Rockies and few west of the Mississippi River.

The closest tournament last year was a 25-hour drive from his Rathdrum home, and that was all freeway driving.

Palaniuk said he spends 250 days away from home, and it costs him about $70,000 a year to compete in the Elite Series.

So far, he’s made it pay off, but more than half of his career earnings came from three of the 36 Elite Series tournaments in which he’s competed, although he placed “in the money” at 21 of those events.

A lost fish, or coming in a few pounds shy of the leaders, can mean the difference between a season-making paycheck and a long, expensive dry spell.

“It’s feast or famine, and it can quickly turn in the other direction,” he said.

But according to many in the bass fishing world, he’s a rising star.

His second-place finish in last year’s Bassmaster Classic makes him a serious contender this year.

“I walked away from (the Classic) feeling really good,” Palaniuk said. “I felt like I did everything I could, and it wasn’t my time to win it.”

In February, that may change, and the “kid from Idaho” could become the first Idaho pro to win bass fishing’s ultimate trophy.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors

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