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Fishing Evolved: Brandon Palaniuk with a Classic Opportunity

Brandon Palaniuk

Palaniuk ponders his bid for Bassmaster Classic crown

I was excited to qualify for the 2016 Classic. After digging myself a hole with disappointing finishes in my first two Elite Series tournaments of the 2015 season, I got back on track when I quit playing it safe, quit looking at the points standings, and went out to catch the most fish possible every single day.

That approach helped turn my season around. I ended up finishing 10th in the points race—my personal best—and qualified for my sixth Classic.

Making the cut is definitely a rush, but after the initial elation subsides it quickly becomes all about work. I’ve spent the off-season taking time to make sure I’m physically and mentally prepared, and that all of my tackle, rods, reels and other gear is ready to go.

I’ve also spent a lot of time conducting research, studying lake maps and doing everything possible to figure out all the variables we might have to deal with when it’s tournament time in early March.

The Classic is set for Oklahoma’s Grand Lake O’ The Cherokees. And while it’s definitely not my home lake, I do have a little history on this sprawling Sooner impoundment.

When the Classic was held on Grand Lake in 2013, I finished in second place. That’s a great confidence booster. Since I’ve had success there in the past, however, it’s going to be really hard to keep from getting caught up in locations and presentations that worked last time, because fishing memories can really come back to bite you.

I haven’t been on Grand Lake since 2013, and a lot has changed in the past three years. There’s been a lot of high water, including record flooding. This has changed the underwater landscape, so I really have to approach the 2016 Classic with a fresh and open mind. I need to be ready to fish whatever conditions that are thrown at me.

On Grand Lake in March, that can mean anything from 70-degree heat waves to a blizzard. Because Oklahoma’s weather is so unpredictable this time of year, we really can’t say for sure what the bass will be doing until we get there. If we have really warm weather, it could kick the prespawn into high gear. But prolonged cold could keep the fish locked in their winter patterns.

While there are plenty of variables, I still think certain presentations are going to be factors. Last time around, I did well throwing jerkbaits, mid-range crankbaits and a Berkley Havoc Bottom Hopper on a shaky-head jig. These could all play a role again, as could finesse tactics like drop-shotting a Havoc Money Maker.

One of the most exciting things about fishing Grand Lake is once you figure out a pattern in one spot, you can usually find other similar areas where the same thing is happening. This allows you to fish new water and fresh bass every day, rather than hoping one isolated spot will hold up the entire tournament.

Grand also has a really healthy bass fishery, with the potential to produce big fish on any cast. Because of all this, I predict it will take some pretty hefty weights to do well. I’m guessing you’ll need to bring in 18 to 20 pounds every day to stay in the thick of things.

It should be a really exciting tournament, given all the great anglers competing on such a solid bass fishery. As is the case with most events, some people are debating whether guys who know the lake inside and out will have an advantage. I think it could go either way. If there are rapidly changing conditions, someone who understands how the fish move and adapt to it could do very well. But history can hurt you, too, if you get locked into old patterns when something new is happening.

Winning the Bassmaster Classic would be a life-changing experience for any angler. I know it sounds a bit cliché but there’s no better way to explain it. Very few anglers can say they’ve won it, and the rest of us would all like to be able to say we did.

Even so, I don’t get too nervous about fishing the Classic. Sure, there’s some pressure. But I worked all year to get this opportunity and I want to make the most of it. So I do my best to focus on trying to win, without getting caught up on all of the extra activities and potential distractions. Staying on top of my game is critical if I want to join that elite group of anglers who’ve won it all.

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