LAKE MILLE LACS – Brandon Palaniuk had said he would be the last professional bass angler to pull his boat off this giant lake the other evening, and he was.
As Tiffanie McCall, his girlfriend, backed a fancy-wrapped Toyota pickup and boat trailer into Mille Lacs in front of Eddy’s Resort, awaiting Palaniuk’s arrival, a faint orange glow dusted an otherwise darkening sky.
Palaniuk, of Hayden, Idaho, was concluding one of three practice days on Mille Lacs that he and 49 other Bassmaster Elite Series pros were allowed ahead of this weekend’s Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship.
At stake are cash and prizes worth $1 million, with $25,000 awarded to the angler who catches the heftiest three-day bag of bass, and $100,000 and the Bassmaster Angler of the Year title reserved for the fisherman who amasses the most points after a 10-tournament season that ends on Mille Lacs.
Palaniuk, 29, who has fished the top tier of national Bassmaster tournaments since 2011 and has nearly $1 million in winnings, was the points leader heading into Mille Lacs, topping Oklahoman Jason Christie by just 15 points, 811 to 796.
Since February, Palaniuk has recorded six top 12 Bassmaster Elite Series finishes, including a victory at the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest on Sam Rayburn Reservoir, north of Beaumont.
“I can’t point to any one thing that has been a difference maker this year,” he said. “I did make some changes in the offseason that helped my focus and confidence. Now it seems even if I don’t have a good practice, I’m confident enough to make something happen when it counts.”
In last year’s Mille Lacs Angler of the Year Tournament, Minnesota’s Seth Feider weighed a three-day smallmouth bag of 76 pounds, 5 ounces, topping the 50-angler field. Gerald Swindle, meanwhile, of Guntersville, Ala., totaled the season’s most points a year ago after Mille Lacs and was named 2016 Bassmaster Angler of the Year.
Palaniuk is hoping to average at least 23 pounds of smallies each day this weekend on Mille Lacs.
“If I can do that I’ll have a chance to win the tournament,” he said. “Then the Angler of the Year title will take care of itself.”
Palaniuk conceded that “northern Idaho” (trout country) and “pro bass fishermen” (most of whom are from the South) are not often spoken in the same sentence.
“One of my mom’s best friends married a guy who fished local tournaments, and he taught me the ropes,” he said.
Qualifying to fish Bassmaster Elite Series tournaments isn’t easy: Palaniuk gained entry by winning a Bassmaster Federation national championship.
“That was on the Red River in Louisiana in 2010,” he said.
The following year, his first on the Elite Series circuit, Palaniuk finished 37th out of more than 100 anglers, “gaining some notice,” he said, and enabling him to sign a handful of sponsors that has since burgeoned to a boatload, including Skeeter, Yamaha, Rigid Industries-LED lights and Rapala, among others.
McCall, 30, and Palaniuk have traveled on the road together since 2011. But this year when they left Idaho in January for the season’s first tournament on Cherokee Lake, Tenn., they drove separately: she piloting the Toyota truck and pulling Palaniuk’s boat and trailer, and he behind the wheel of a Ford dually, hauling a 43-foot fifth-wheel trailer.
The trailer, with its three slide-outs and two bathrooms, is now parked at a Mille Lacs area campground.
“Having the camper has been a big improvement,” Palaniuk said. “It gives us a home base on the road. We sleep in the same bed every night, and we’re able to cook better and eat healthier.”
Palaniuk also hired a videographer this year, Brandon Nelson, to travel with him and McCall to shoot on-the-road videos, as well as tournament footage for uploading to YouTube, Instagram and Facebook.
“It’s costly,” Palaniuk said. “But from a branding and exposure standpoint for myself and my sponsors, it pays off.”
Whether Mille Lacs will pay off this week to the 50 competing anglers with the same number and size of smallmouth bass caught during last year’s Angler of the Year tournament is unknown.
Feider, who lives on the lake, thinks pressure that Mille Lacs smallmouths have received since it was named the nation’s top bass lake by Bassmaster magazine might make fishing tougher.
Maybe, maybe not.
Either way, Sunday afternoon, after the final weigh-in, McCall and Palaniuk will head home to Idaho, two vehicles headed west, two trailers in tow.
“I like to hunt elk,” he said. “I’ll do a little of that, then spend most of November and December at the computer, renewing sponsorships, catching up.”
And preparing for his next bass tournament, beginning Feb. 8, on Lake Martin, Ala.
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Takeoff of the 50 anglers and their boats Friday and Sunday begins at 6:40 a.m. at Eddy’s Resort on Mille Lacs, 41334 Shakopee Lake Road, Onamia.
Weigh-ins are 3:45 p.m. each day at Grand Casino Mille Lacs.
Saturday is reserved for “Bassmaster University” in the parking lot of the casino, a family-oriented, fan appreciation event at which competing anglers will give seminars and sign autographs. Food vendors, children’s activities and games, and interactive B.A.S.S. sponsor displays also will be featured.
All events are free and open to the public.