- Mike Suchan, Outdoors
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Heading into his first Bassmaster Elite Series tournament isn't so intimidating to Brandon Palaniuk. After all, he just placed fourth in the Bassmaster Classic.
"I'm just ready to kick off the season," said the 23-year-old Federation Nation champion. "Hopefully, keep the momentum rolling from the Classic. I'm excited to fish something that I've been dreaming to fish in just as long as I have the Classic.
"I've been waiting for this since I qualified for it, since I won the Federation. I'm ready to get the season going. I know once it gets started, it will happen quick."
And steady. Palaniuk plans to fish five events in the next six weeks. The Elites begin practice for the Sunshine Showdown on the Harris Chain of Lakes Monday, and competition gets under way Thursday.
"When I pre-practiced, it was the first time I had ever been there," said the angler from Rathdrum, Idaho. "Everything I ever heard about the Harris Chain, it's one of the tougher Florida fisheries."
Palaniuk is the first angler to make the jump from the Fed Nation's qualifying position to the Elites, and he wants more than to just make cuts in the eight events.
"I'm going to fish every single one of them to win," he said. "I'm not going to fish to make the cut. Some guys will fish to cash a check.
"I've only fished at home to win, and it might come and bite me in the butt in the Elites, but that's what I want to do. I hate losing. I want to win. I don't like second, I don't third. I'm going to fish every one to win."
He's been going at it seriously. When contacted before the Classic, Palaniuk was on the water pre-practicing for the St. John's River tournament March 17-20. He had already been on the Harris Chain.
Thursday he was also on the water, scouting Alabama's Pickwick Lake. He first visited West Point Lake in Georgia. After he won the Fed Nation championship, he went straight to the Louisiana Delta to check it out.
That practice paid off for Palaniuk, who weighed in 55-7 at the Classic to take fourth behind Kevin VanDam, Aaron Martens and Derek Remitz.
"I was happy with what I did," he said. "Obviously, my competitive side said I wanted to win. But with it being my first Classic, going against the best of the best, I was happy with what I ended up."
He had one of the five bags over 20 pounds on the final day and was happy with how he fished.
"I lost a 10-pounder the last day. It wouldn't have been enough to win, but it still hurts to lose it," he said. "I was glad to be in position to be in the Super Six. It's was pretty neat to go through that whole ordeal.
"I love everything about the classic, the way they do the weigh-in, all the smoke. They do a good job to make it exciting for the fans and at the same time it's exciting for anglers."
Palaniuk was also able to recognize one of his inspirations, Bryan Kerchal, the only angler to qualify from the Fed Nation and win the Classic. Palaniuk became emotional on stage when he pulled out a replica fish whistle the 1994 champ blew after every catch.
"It was pretty tough for me up there," he said. "I actually held it back a little bit better than I was thinking I might."
Palaniuk said he watched the Classic tape of Kerchal, who died in a plane crash five months after winning, numerous times. His high school wrestling coach, Levi Cushman, contacted Kerchal's parents and bought Palaniuk two of the whistles as a good luck, inspirational-type gift for the Classic.
"I don't remember exactly how it came about. I started talking with friends about when to blow the whistle," he said. "I didn't want to take that away from him. I wanted to do it in honor of him."
As the highest placing Toyota finisher, Palaniuk added $7,500 bonus bucks to his $30,000 Classic winnings. It will help him pay his Elite and Open entry fees as he lives out of his truck until the B.A.S.S. tournament season ends.
It will be a long season on the road. Of the 18 events, Palaniuk plans to compete in 14, and that's excluding the postseason. His original plan was to get hotel rooms for tournament days, but his boat sponsor the Federation Nation continues to step up and offer him places to stay.
Palaniuk said he would have liked the chance earn the Classic berth that goes with winning an Open, but anglers have to fish all three events within the division and he missed the first Southern event.
"My boat wasn't ready in time, so, sadly enough, I won't get in Classic that way," he said, adding he will fish the final two Southern Opens and try to qualify through the Northern Opens. If not, he thinks he can get it done on the Elite Series.
"I want to make sure I re-qualify for the Elites," he said, "and obviously, I want to re-qualify for the Classic."