Brandon Palaniuk began the 2022 Bassmaster Elite season in much better shape than he did for his 2017 run. Both years concluded with the pro from Rathdrum, Idaho, lifting the coveted Angler of the Year trophy, and Palaniuk said this year's advantage was not lost on him.
Florida's Lake Okeechobee opened the 2017 Elite schedule and when Palaniuk left with a 105th-place finish, he worried his AOY hopes had been derailed. He'd go on to win an Elite event (Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest, Lake Fork), notch a pair of third-place finishes (St. Lawrence River, Lake Champlain) and earn AOY No. 1.
This year, Palaniuk bid farewell to the Sunshine state after recording a pair of top-30 finishes--20th at the season opener on the St. Johns River and 26th at the Harris Chain. This early confidence boost launched a new season with legitimate optimism.
"Getting of Florida with my lowest finish a 26th, I felt like 'Oh, this could happen,'" Palaniuk said. "Even though, I wasn't leading the points coming out of Florida, I was way ahead of where I've ever been. I felt like I wasn't way behind the 8-ball."
Clearly, Palaniuk has grown tremendously since his first AOY win, earning two of his six Elite trophies and notching a Bassmaster Open win. Central to this year's success was appreciating a solid start, while following a mission statement that calculated much more than nine tournaments.
"Winning AOY, winning an Elite event and qualifying for the Classic are always on the list (of seasonal goals)," Palaniuk said. "But for me, it's about constant improvement to where I have a personal satisfaction that I made better decisions than I did the year before and learned from the lessons of years past.
"Sometimes it works out in the form of an AOY trophy and sometimes it doesn't. But as long as I feel like I'm still constantly improving, the year is a win for me."
That being said, Palaniuk definitely set firm expectations for his 2022 season.
"I didn't want to finish lower than 26th, because that was my lowest finish in Florida," Palaniuk said. "I told myself, 'If I can make that my lowest finish, I'll be all right.'"
The 12th angler to win multiple AOY titles, Palaniuk did an admirable job of living up to his ambitious goal. He made eight of the nine semifinal cuts, including top-10s at Santee Cooper Lakes (third), Lake Fork (second) and Pickwick (seventh).
Palaniuk's only miss was a 66th-place finish at the season's second-to-last event on Lake Oahe, the week prior to the season-ender on the Upper Mississippi River. A bitter pill, no doubt, but one that spurred an already motivated Palaniuk to step on the gas.
"I think (the Oahe stumble) challenged me that much more," he said. "Obviously, the entire year is a challenge, but I felt like that last two weeks of the season really tested me in a lot of ways.
"When you go through a challenge like that, when you're able to come out on top on the other end, I think it makes it that much sweeter. You feel like you've earned it."
Beyond the competition, Palaniuk's 2022 AOY title will forever share one of his life's biggest moments--the birth of his daughter Kora Marie on June 6. Dually for Palaniuk's mother and his wife Tiffany's mother, Kora was due for arrival during the season's sixth event at Pickwick (June 2-5).
Prepared to fly home if Tiffany went into labor, Palaniuk fished the full four days, then raced home to be with his wife for the miraculous moment.
"To me, that was when it registered that something special is happening here," he said. "I can only control so much and having that work out the way that we needed it to was pretty special."
Going Down to the Wire
Palaniuk's 25th-place finish on Day 3 on the Mississippi sealed his AOY title, as his closest competitors, Brandon Lester and Chris Johnston, could not catch him despite both making the event's top-10 cut. However, when the afternoon of Day 2 found Palaniuk with only four fish, the dream teetered on fate's precipice. Filling his limit at 3:30 was his winning field goal, his 3-pointer at the buzzer--his season-making keeper.
"If I don't catch that fish, I give up the AOY," Palaniuk said.
When Palaniuk took the stage on Day 3, tabulations had already confirmed where he needed to finish to lock up the title. Suffice it to say, the drama hung as heavy as the storm clouds that had delayed the second day's launch by an hour.
With his fish on the scale, Palaniuk stood stoically; but the moment Bassmaster Emcee Dave Mercer made it official, the dam broke.
"A lot of that (visible emotion) was a sense of relief," Palaniuk said. "That's something you want to happen so badly; you dream of it from the time you're a kid and to do it not only once but twice is just that much more special.
"I feel that every time you win again, that just clarifies that every previous win was not by accident."
Looking ahead, Palaniuk's hopeful to someday give his two AOY trophies some more company. Nothing's assumed; Palaniuk's not made that way. He does, at least, recognize the reality of his record.
"I can't win a third AOY if I don't win the first two."
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