By Joel Shangle
ST. CLAIR SHORES, Michigan – Brandon Palaniuk was Boat No. 1 yesterday morning on Day 1 of the Bassmaster Elite Series regular-season finale on Detroit’s Lake St. Clair. As he motored out of St. Clair Metropark with the rest of the 108-boat field following in his wake, Palaniuk didn’t take even a fleeting glance over his shoulder.
He didn’t need to: this year’s Angler of the Year title is BP’s to win or lose.
Palaniuk entered the St. Clair event with 729 points and a sizable lead over Jacob Wheeler (689), Casey Ashley (689) and Jason Christie (686). Sizable but not mathematically guaranteed, of course, what with two events (the St. Clair event and the upcoming AOY Championship on Mille Lacs Lake, Minn.) remaining.
But assessing Wheeler, Ashley and Christie’s chances of running Palaniuk down, the four’s recent fishing history on the Great Lakes tells a compelling story.
First, this immutable fact: Palaniuk is a smallmouth-catching machine (thank you, Pacific Northwest upbringing). Long before he hoisted the championship trophy at Toyota Texas Fest on Lake Sam Rayburn in July, BP had drawn big red circles around the tournaments on the Elite northern swing (the St. Lawrence River, Lake Champlain, St. Clair and Mille Lacs).’
So far so good: Palaniuk finished third in the first two of those events.
But look back even further into Palaniuk, Wheeler, Ashley and Christie’s histories on Great Lake smallmouth fisheries, Palaniuk’s case becomes even more compelling.
Over his last five tournaments on the Great Lakes (Sturgeon Bay, three times on St. Clair, Lake Michigan), Palaniuk has averaged a 34th-place finish. Ditto Ashley. Wheeler’s B.A.S.S. history isn’t yet long enough to cover five events, but his average is 65th.
Only Christie has a better average finish in his most recent five Great Lakes tournaments (27th).
Palaniuk’s numbers are also skewed by one particularly terrible finish, 111th at a 2014 Northern Open on St. Clair. Throw that tournament out and the Prodigy’s average finish in recent GL smallmouth derbies is 14th.
It’ll be hard for Wheeler, Ashley and Christie to close the gap if Palaniuk simply fishes to his average this week.
Oh, but nothing is guaranteed.
In chatting with Wheeler the week before the St. Clair event, he was pretty confident in his chances to at least make Palaniuk sweat for the AOY. And damned if Wheeler didn’t pass Palaniuk on Day 1, weighing in 21 pounds, 9 ounces and ending the day in sixth place while BP scratched out 17-13 for 47th.
Wheeler now enters Day 2 with 794 points to Palaniuk and Christie’s 793.
No matter what, it’s a keenly interesting race, and any one of the four guys mentioned here would be deserving AOYs. Let’s return to this conversation in a few days, shall we?