Outdoor Life gets an intimate look at life on the road with two Idaho bass gypsies as they fish their way through the 2011 tournament season. See the story of how 23-year-old Brandon Palaniuk and his 21-year-old sister, Brianna Palaniuk, took the bass fishing world by storm. This is part 1 of a 2-part series.
SHREVEPORT, La. - It seems fitting, considering the gypsy-nomad lifestyle of a professional bass fisherman, that Brandon Palaniuk describes his family tree as "more like a tumbleweed than a tree." Trees, after all, anchor in one place when they're seeded, and that's where they stay.
Tumbleweeds, though? Not so much. They're the drifters of the plant world. They cover some miles, see some country, blow wherever the wind takes them.
Much like the white Subaru Legacy with Idaho plates, and the wrapped blue Toyota Tundra that pulled the Federation Nation Skeeter throughout all of Creation - or, at least, the nine Southern states scattered along the BASS Elite Series trail - in 2011.
Brianna Palaniuk laughs a little when asked how many miles she put on her white Legacy last year, when she served as older brother Brandon's "housekeeper, cook, assistant, scheduler, lunch-maker, laundry lady, bouncer and wingman" during his rookie season on the Elite tour. It's not a simple question, and requires a calculator.
"Oh, jeez, a lot," she says, thinking out loud as she runs through her personal version of White Line Fever. "… drove to the Classic, drove back home. Drove back to Florida … then came home again … then we went to Alabama, and then to Louisiana, back to Florida. Then to North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina … yeah, jeez. A lot. I started with 1,200 miles on my Subaru and now I have 58,000."
Drifting along with the tumbling Palaniuks … er, tumbleweeds.
Who's Brandon Palaniuk?
It seems like everybody in the world knows Brandon Palaniuk this week. He has a loyal (and growing) legion of 5,000 Facebook friends, a slick-looking new website, and a blog on Bass Parade. He's inked deals with Abu-Garcia, Berkley, Rapala, Skeeter and a handful of other notable sponsors. Prior to the 2012 Bassmaster Classic in Shreveport, La. last weekend, his face appeared front and center on several of Bassmaster.com's preview stories, and as the subject of a feature gallery by well-known bass photographer Seigo Saito.
The former Idaho state wrestling champion was being hailed as one of the favorites in the biggest professional fishing event in the world, (he ended up finishing a disappointing 48th, but more on this later) three time zones away from his favorite weed bed on Hayden Lake in Idaho, and 10 to 20 years younger than most of the 50 anglers in the field. It's a far cry from last year at this time, when the bass world outside of the Coeur d'Alene Outlaws (his local club) and Northwest Bass (his local tournament circuit) largely said, "Brandon who?"
"It's almost a complete 180," Palaniuk admits. "Last year going into it, nobody knew who I was except a small group of people in the Northwest and somewhat of a group of Federation guys who I met fishing the Federation tournaments. All the Elite and Open guys had no idea who I was. I'd show up to the boat yard and nobody talked to me."
Rewind to one year ago, and that 2011 Classic on the Louisiana Delta in New Orleans. Twenty-three-year-old Brandon Palaniuk, the Federation Nation representative from little Rathdrum, in northern Idaho (population 6,800), slugs it out on Lake Cataouatche with Kevin VanDam, Boyd Duckett, Aaron Martens, Derek Remitz, Scott Rook and a handful of others - anglers with decades upon decades of experience - and comes within a couple of missed bites of winning the whole damn tournament.
The bass world begins to take notice of the quiet, slender kid from Idaho on the first two days of the tournament, partly because he catches enough Cataouatche largemouth to stay within spitting distance of VanDam, Martens and Brent Chapman for the championship, and partly because he has one of the most enthusiastic cheering sections in the building.
Despite the fact that he's 2,447 miles from Kootenai County, Idaho, Palaniuk is lustily cheered by more than 20 friends and family members, who have made it to Earnest Morial Convention Center to don blue T-shirts bearing the words "Do work" on the back (Palaniuk's favorite expression).
Palaniuk steps onto the Convention Center stage on day three and weighs in just over 22 pounds: not enough to displace Remitz on the hot seat, but still easily enough to keep him in the top five and send him out of Louisiana with a $30,000 check - a memorable tournament by anybody's standards, especially for a rookie.
But Palaniuk has a surprise for the crowd and for the world's bass fans watching the live stream of the weigh-in. He thanks his sponsors, thanks the Federation Nation, confirms that he'll be the first angler in history to jump to the Elites after qualifying for the Classic through the Federation … and then hesitates for just the a flash of a second, with a sheepish look on his face, before taking the microphone from BASS emcee Dave Mercer.
"There's one thing I wanted to do that only a few people know about. Just because of the whole Kerchal thing … I'm going to try not to get choked up about it," he says quietly, pausing occasionally, fighting to keep his composure as he refers to 1994 Classic champion Bryan Kerchal, who died in a plane crash four months after becoming the only Federation qualifier in history to win the championship. "When Kerchal won, that was a big deal. And to be here and to have some of the comparisons that he had … um … in his honor, I wanted to do one thing. In his honor, I have one of his fish whistles, and I wanted to blow it for him."
Palaniuk reaches into his pocket and produces one of the little fish whistles that Kerchal was so known for; he blows it five times, the crowd erupts, and the youngster ducks his head, trying to hide his face before Mercer grabs his arm and walks him up to the front of the stage.
"Every once in awhile in every sport, an amazing individual comes along," Mercer tells the Convention Center crowd. "Ladies and gentleman, I would like to introduce you to an amazing individual."
It is, frankly, one of the sweetest, most memorable moments in Classic history.
In the flash of 30 seconds and five toots of a yellow plastic whistle, Brandon Palaniuk goes from successful rookie angler to nationwide darling.
I point out to both Brandon and Brianna that it's not typical for a 23-year-old man to be pure enough in his convictions and confident enough in himself to cry in front of hundreds of thousands of people, but Brandon shrugs it off as him simply paying respects to a boyhood hero.
"That's just Brandon," Brianna says simply. "The whole thing with Kerchal was really deep to him, with all the similarities he had with (Kerchal). Kerchal's dad was really awesome to Brandon, too. At Christmas, Brandon had shown me the video (of Kerchal). I think we had a moment - we talked about it and cried a little bit. Brandon is just super genuine, and really humble."
What's good for BP is good for BP ... "Dear Mr. Palaniuk - I am coming to you with great concern. You are a fisherman. A good one. You are not a housekeeper, cook or laundry attendant. These skills I happen to possess. Being on the water from sun up to after sundown, you must be exhausted. As your personal Boat Bitch, I would be sure all your living and hygiene needs were met … You wouldn't have to worry about me or my feelings. I don't expect you to bring me to any dinners with all your friends and so forth. I am happy chewing gum and reading a book, thinking of how else I can improve my BB skills, and make you a happier employer. I hope that you will take my proposal into consideration and I hope to hear from you soon."
This is how it begins and ends, Brianna Palaniuk's proposal to her big brother to accompany him on the 2011 Elite Series trail. It's written slightly sarcastically and in the jokey tone you'd expect a 21-year-old to talk to her 23-year-old brother, but Brianna is dead serious. She might be barely three years removed from playing the lead in Charlotte's Web for the Lakeland High School Drama Club, and she weighs maybe 115 pounds soaking wet, but this is a girl who operates a chainsaw and excavator for the family's timber-clearing business in Idaho.
She has more road-warrior spirit in her petite frame than most 40-year-old, 300-pound Peterbilt drivers.
"Brianna is all about living the moment and loving every second of life, but she can multi-task like nobody I've ever seen," says the Palaniuks' mom, Tonya Lyden. "She's very, very adventurous and is the kind of person who can change her life on the stop of a dime. Most people can't do that, but she almost looks for that, it seems. She's a capable girl, though - I got a lot of questions as a parent, how I would let her go on the road like that at 21. I just don't have those fears because she takes pretty good care of herself, and is perfectly capable of doing 100 things at once."
Brandon, on the other hand, is deeply focused, goal-oriented and programmed to catch fish; he's also hard-wired for the competition part of the Elite Series equation, having left Lakeland High as a two-time state champion and the winningest wrestler in the school's history. He decided when he was 8 years old, after he fished his first tournament, that his life's goal was to be a professional bass fisherman.
He is, however, not as thoroughly programmed for the mechanics of being on the road for five months at a time, in a part of the country he's never seen before.
"Brandon is so goal oriented and driven that I think he forgets some of the other parts of life occasionally," Lyden jokes. "The fishing part is easy for him. When he was 2 years old on a two-and-a-half-mile hike up to a mountain lake, all we had to do was tell him 'There's fish in that lake' and he just bolted up that mountain. But he tends to procrastinate some of those other things like travel arrangements and such."
Brianna tags along with Brandon to Florida after the Classic, accompanying him to the Sunshine Showdown on the Harris Chain of Lakes in Tavares and the Citrus Slam on the St. Johns River in Palatka. She does some on-camera work for Versus and AnglersChannel.com and helps Brandon with travel. The Florida Elites are learning experiences for Brandon: he finishes 44th on the Harris Chain, bagging 28.1 pounds and a $10,000 check in his first tournament as an honest-to-God BASS pro, and then scratches his way into the top 20 through the first two days on the St. John's River.
This tournament, though, is Palaniuk's Wild Kingdom introduction to the Deep South: He has an owl swoop a bait laying on his deck, an alligator bite off one of his frogs, and then takes a crash course in the world of manatee zones and "manatee cops" as he's pulled over and issued a warning for excessive speed in a manatee zone. That encounter with the manatee cop causes Brandon to be seven minutes late for the day two weigh-in, he's docked accordingly and he fails to cash a check, much less make the cut.
Welcome to the tour, rookie.
"Oh, he was pissed," Brianna says simply. "I think Brandon signed a petition against the mantees. Not really, but if there was one, he'd sign it."
Team Palaniuk is Official
Although the Palaniuks had discussed the possibility of Brianna travelling with Brandon during the Elites to help him break up the road grind, she leaves Florida after the Citrus Slam and heads for home (2,722 miles). But along the way, she texts him her proposal, and reminds him that there is also opportunity for her on the Elite Series through a handful of media outlets (including Bassmaster.com, which employs her as the host of their BASSCam segments).
She also reminds him that he can't do laundry to save his life, that he can't just pull over on the side of the road to sleep every night, and that he can't exist solely on a diet of Top Ramen burritos (more on this later).
"I felt like I could help him, but Brandon is all about living your dreams and I had an opportunity to do (media) while I was on the road with him," Brianna says. "He told me 'If you can get a job doing something, you can come back out with me.' It's always been a dream of mine to do TV and media, so Brandon really couldn't say no."
Long before Brianna is back in the Gem State, the deal is done and team Palaniuk is official.
Brianna does a one-day turnaround in Rathdrum, packing her Legacy with, in her words "a sleeping bag and pillow, pepper spray, a .357, lots of music and Hot Tamales." Just over a day and a half later, she meets Brandon at Pickwick (2,154 miles) for the third Elite tournament. Her cross-country mileage to this point (and she has yet to serve one official minute as Brandon's Boat Bitch): over 5,500.
"I drove to Pickwick from Idaho by myself in less then 40 hours - I'd stop at rest stops and sleep in my car for an hour" she says, anticipating the question about the .357. "You'd have a .357, too."
On the road in "a whole 'nother country"
The town of Rathdrum, Idaho sits in the Panhandle region of Northern Idaho, roughly 135 miles south of the Canadian border and 38 miles northeast of Spokane, Wash. Nestled among the rugged Huckleberry Range to the east, the Rathdrum Prairie to the south, the deep Pacific timber of the Mount Spokane National Forest to the west and 4,100-foot Rathdrum Mountain to the north, it's a region of unbelievable natural bounty that served as an important stop along the Seneaquateen Trail for seasonally migrating native Indian tribes, who referred to the area as the "Great Road of the Flatheads."
Within 60 minutes of the Palaniuks' front door lie some of the best coldwater fisheries in the continental US: the Pacific Northwest's best trophy rainbow trout and Mackinaw fisheries (Lake Pend Oreille and Priest Lake); an eight-species lake system (Coeur d'Alene) that Field & Stream named one of the "Best Fishing Spots in the West" in 2008; two of the best smallmouth fisheries in the world (the Snake River and Dworshak Reservoir); and a river (the Clearwater) with the world's largest salmon/steelhead hatchery.
It's maybe the best place in the country for a fishing-mad boy like Brandon to grow up, and he took full advantage of it. It's also about as far removed from the rural South as you can get, both geographically and culturally.
"The tournaments in Florida were completely different than I expected," Brianna says. "Coming from Idaho, I had this picture in my mind that Florida was 'Miami,' with the beaches and pretty buildings and lifestyle. The little towns we went through in central Florida are nothing like that: there were actually plastic pink flamingos in people's front yards. It's so different out there. There were places where it felt like we were in a whole 'nother country.'"
It's 78 degrees with 96 percent maximum humidity when Brianna pulls out of Palatka, Fla. on Feb. 21 after Brandon's St. Johns River Elite Series tournament, and 32 degrees and snowy when she leaves Rathdrum on Feb. 23 to rejoin her brother on the Elite trail. Brandon places 30th on Pickwick and banks another $10,000, but the Palaniuks have only begun to experience "so different" as their Bible Belt road tour begins.