Bass Gypsies: On the Road With Brandon and Brianna Palaniuk, Pt. 2

Editor's Note: In part 2 of this feature, we follow 23-year-old professional angler Brandon Palaniuk and his 21-year-old sister Brianna through the grind of competitive bass fishing. After his Cinderella performance in the 2011 Bassmaster Classic, Brandon has a disappointing finish in the 2012 Classic, but the hurdles don't deter him or Brianna. See part 1 here. The game of tournament bass fishing at its highest level is played out on a rotating lineup of roughly 20 to 30 fisheries in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina and Oklahoma that changes rarely in both its timing and frequency. The majority of the big-time BASS and FLW touring pros also happen to hail from the Southeast; consequently, most of the veterans that Elite Series rookie Brandon Palaniuk of Rathdrum, Idaho fished against in 2011 had spent thousands of hours on places like Toledo Bend, Lake Murray, Wheeler Lake and the Arkansas River. They figured out that bream imitations and topwater baits kill on Toledo Bend in April, and that their encyclopedias of waypoints will produce fish after fish, year after year on the Arkansas River in May and June. Palaniuk, though? Not so much.
"Every event we went to, it was the first time I'd ever seen that lake," he says. "There wasn't a single lake out there that I had ever been to. I knew that all the other guys had a bunch of time on those lakes, and that the only way I'd have a chance was to do my homework and put in as much time as I could to try to match the knowledge those guys had. If I had a week, I'd drive 1,000 miles to practice at a lake for three to four days and then drive back to fish the next tournament. Some lakes suited me better than others, but it seemed like I could find something in every lake that reminded me of fishing at home, that I could relate to."
It's a similarly vertical learning curve for his 21-year-old sister Brianna, whose most critical task as his "road manager" for the remaining five Elites (and the occasional Open) is finding places for the pair to stay. Brandon had accepted the invitation to fish the Elite Series just a couple of weeks prior to the 2011 Bassmaster Classic, so he's made no travel arrangements in any of the nine states they'll traverse. His travel agent is his cell phone, e-mail and Facebook, where he's contacted throughout the trip by members of the BASS Federation and Facebook friends - complete strangers - and offered a room, a bed, a couch, a hammock, a place to park.
Brandon is, in Brianna's words "really rather thrifty", so there's no quick-fix click to Travelocity.com, either. As she takes over the travel planning, Brianna starts to become familiar with the websites of the state park and campground systems of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, etc.
"Everybody else plans and makes reservations six months before the tournament, I was doing it a week before we showed up in towns whose names I didn't know how to pronounce," she says. "Our rule was that we'd try to stay in a hotel the night of a tournament - we stayed at two hotels the entire trip - and it didn't have to be four-star. As a matter of fact, it didn't even need to be three-star or even two-star. We're from a family where it doesn't really matter if it's a little dirty or rough. Mostly, it was one big, giant camping trip."
Brianna is successful in locating campgrounds and a handful of cheap hotels through most of the Elites, with one notable exception: Lake Murray in Columbia, S.C. where the Palaniuks find out that Southern hospitality is indeed alive and well (at least in the home of a kind-hearted local couple named Mary and Gene). "Come to find out the campground was on the other side of the lake, two hours away from the launch," Brianna says. "I instantly broke down into tears in front of the park ranger when she told me because I thought Brandon would fire or kill me. She was so sweet - her name was Mary - and offered for us to stay with her and her husband, Gene. They lived within walking distance of the ramp. They had never even seen me before, but it was one of those pay-it-forward moments: this 21-year-old girl wearing short shorts and UGGS breaks down in front of you, clearly not from South Carolina. Mary said 'I just hope somebody would take my kids in if they were in this situation'. They were amazing, kind people. We met a lot of people like that."
Welcome to Camp Palaniuk
It becomes obvious very quickly that Brandon Palaniuk will not compete on Top Chef anytime soon as he describes one of his specialty road dishes: the Top Ramen burrito. The ingredients are hot water, a packet of Top Ramen and a towel. "So you have a package of Top Ramen that costs you maybe 25 cents, and you can get free water at Wal-Mart," he says. "You open the top of the package and pull the little spice pack out, but you have to be careful not to rip the package down the side. You dump the spice pack into the package and then you put the hot water in, but you have to put just enough in to mix the noodles. This is the part that gets tricky: you kinda mush it up with your hands to mix the noodles up inside the package … I learned that in my logging days - all you need is Top Ramen and a Thermos."
Brandon's Tundra is his rolling hotel room, with a cot that he's built out of 2 x 4s under his shell, a memory foam mattress, sheets and a sleeping bag. He's up before dawn and gone until dark most days, either pre-fishing or competing, and Brianna has dinner ready when he gets back. She does laundry whenever needed - "The rules were, if it falls on the floor at the laundromat, it goes back in the wash, no matter what," she says - maintains his Facebook page, organizes the travel finances, pays his bills, washes his boat and truck, serves as his "relief driver" etc.
It's an arrangement that allows Brandon to save an hour at the end of the day here, two hours at the end of the day there. He's able to tweak his tackle, answer his e-mails, research Google Earth and bathometric maps of the lakes he'll fish, and focus on the task at hand: Decoding the fisheries and earning enough Angler of the Year points to earn a return trip to the Bassmaster Classic.
"Having that time was huge, and not just for the tournaments," he admits. "Even if you're just prefishing, you're up and out at dark and you don't get back until it's dark - you're running 14 to 15 hours every day, and then you still have to go through all your tackle, get organized for the next day and make sure your boat is ready. If you want to do anything for dinner, it takes an hour to cook and clean up - by the time you get to bed, it's midnight, and you eventually wear yourself out. Having someone there who can help cook and do laundry is important, even if it adds two more hours of the day. That adds up pretty quick."
When Brandon finally rolls into camp at night, he and Brianna eat and visit, watch movies and TV shows on Netflix via a Wi-Fi card in Brianna's laptop - "We really got into Dexter on that trip," Brianna says - and Brandon crawls up into his Tundra bed and crashes by 10 p.m. Brianna pitches her tent beside his truck and reads with a jerry-rigged night light until she falls asleep. The next morning, Brandon is up at 4 a.m., and they do it all over again. This is the hard-partying lifestyle of two good-looking 20somethings for nearly four months.
Quality time with bro and sis
There are two pictures on Brandon and Brianna Palaniuk's Facebook pages that tell the story of their relationship: one taken this past Christmas and one taken at the end of the 2011 Elite Series tour. In the Christmas photo, the Palaniuks are sitting side-by-side on the floor next to a wood stove, talking. Brandon is smiling, and Brianna is beaming, cradling a tackle tray on her lap that's stuffed to overflowing with crankbaits (Brandon's Christmas gift to her). "Best Christmas gift e-v-e-r," Brianna says. "I love to throw cranks, which Brandon absolutely hates. He couldn't have given me a better gift." In the other photo, Brianna is holding an Alabama largemouth in her left hand, with one treble hook of a KVD crankbait buried almost to the shank in her right thumb. Brandon is standing next to her, making a face, pointing into his mouth as if to say "This is where the hook belongs, dope, not in your thumb!" "You can tell he's really concerned," Brianna jokes.
This is how the Palaniuks roll, though. They're both clever and quick-witted, and they tease each other incessantly. Brandon says that "Bri talks so much, sometimes I want to strangle her", Brianna says sarcastically that "all Brandon has to do is fish and look good." Back and forth, forth and back, poke, poke, poke, tease, tease, tease. Brandon is fairly reserved in public and presents himself very professionally with media, sponsors and fans, but in nearly every photo you see of he and Brianna together, he's clowning and making faces. He's being Brandon Palaniuk. "I was incredibly tickled that the two of them were travelling together," the Palaniuks' mom, Tonyna Lyden, says. "For Brandon, I thought it was important that he could just be himself. It's very different when you're working with sponsors and representing yourself on tour. But when there are no other fisherman or media there, it's nice to close the doors and be who you've been your whole life. With Bri, Brandon could just be goofy and silly, and I think that was a real comfort."
Even though they spend untold hours driving in separate vehicles between Elite stops, Brandon following his GPS and Brianna trailing along behind him, the Palaniuks talk the whole way through virtually every mile they cover. Brianna calls Brandon on his cell phone, they put on their Bluetooth earphones, and chatter back and forth for hours at a time between fuel stops, talking about the scenery, the fisheries, the other anglers, the people they've met, the latest episode of Dexter, etc. It's maybe the most disjointed "together" you can be, but, for all purposes, they're sitting right beside each other as they drive. "It kinda sucked being in two vehicles, but we would see plastic flamingos, deem that 'call worthy' and we'd call and talk about it," Brianna says. "We experienced everything together, even though he was in his truck and I was in my car 50 yards behind him."
This is how the Palaniuks have grown up. They're from a mixed household, with six other half-siblings, but the two of them have spent their lives in the same home and have been one another's unattached Siamese twin for as long as they've been alive. Brianna served as the manager on Brandon's wrestling team in high school and even stood on the podium for him and accepted his state-championship medal his senior year as he was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, after fracturing his arm in four places in the final seconds of his last match at the state tournament.
He is Mutt, She is Jeff
I point out to their mother that siblings with such divergent personalities and such a small difference in age can either be best buddies, or they can fight like badgers. There is very little question which of those the Palaniuks gravitate to. "Push comes to shove, those two are there for each other," Lyden says simply. The highlight of the tour - better than "smothered, scattered and covered" at Waffle House, better than fireflies, better than pink flamingos, sweet tea and fried okra - is when Brianna pre-fishes with Brandon during the off weeks between Elite tournaments. Brianna is, according to Brandon "A total city girl, but in a 'north Idaho' way that makes her like the meanest Southern redneck chick you ever met'. They've fished together since childhood, and pre-fish days naturally turn into competitions, which Brandon gives no quarter in. "The first time I really realized how much fun I was having on that whole experience was when we were pre-fishing before it was off limits on Wheeler, and I was making it a competition," Brianna says. "I was only cranking, but totally winning. I went to the bow to start fishing and Brandon pulls back to cast and whips me in the back of the neck with a 10-inch Power Worm. I thought I lost an ear. He looked back and gave me a look like 'Shouldn't have been standing so close.' Oh, then it was on! I won in species, he won in bass."
You can almost hear Brandon rolling his eyes as he tells his version. "To her, to say 'I caught the most fish,' it doesn't matter if it's a shad, a bluegill, a gar - if it has gills and breathes underwater, it counts," he says. "I'm throwing a 10-inch Power Worm, she's throwing a crank, catching little tiny white bass, and she's just laying it on me she thinks she's whupping my butt. If it's a 3-inch shad, it counts. From then on, all she wanted to do was go crankin'. It didn't matter if we were fishing for suspended smallmouth in 100 feet of water."
Mission Accomplished
Brandon Palaniuk's list of yearly goals, by his own admission, are pretty lofty. He's determined to win the BASS Angler of the Year someday, and to win a Classic. Season by season, though, his first target is one of the 28 berths in the Classic available through the Elite Series trail. He fishes well throughout the 2011 season, finishing 15th at Toledo Bend, 22nd on Lake Murray and cashing a $10,000 check on five of the seven events heading into the final tournament of the season in June on Wheeler Lake in Decatur, Ala. He's well within the points range to qualify for the 2012 Classic, but has a horrendous first day at Wheeler, catching five dinks for just over 7 pounds and plunging to 89th place in the tournament and well out of the top 28 overall for the series. He rallies on Day 2 with almost 14 pounds, but still misses the cut and must agonize over the Day 3 results to see if he's earned a berth in the Classic.
"That was a horrible day," Brianna says. "Brandon and I couldn't even talk to each other, because we'd just start fighting about everything. We sat down and did all the math and figured out who needed to finish where for him to make the Classic, so we were both a nervous wreck watching that weigh-in. That was probably the worst day of the entire season." Palaniuk squeaks through by the narrowest of margins that day, finishing the Angler of the Year standings in 28th place and earning the final spot available in the 2012 Classic. The Palaniuks and friends Marty and Iris Robinson - Marty is a fellow Elite angler - celebrate by fishing on a small pond on the property they're staying at, and Brianna somehow manages to get a treble hook from the crankbait she's throwing stuck in her thumb, past the barb. Iris takes a cell phone video of the whole thing; Brianna turning her head, wincing, warning "I think I'm going to throw up … I think I need to sit down … I'm serious, I think I'm going to puke!" as Marty tries to pull the hook out. Brandon is right there watching, mouthing jokingly to the camera "This is awesome!" The Elite Series mission is accomplished, but they're still Brandon Palaniuk and his little twerp sister Brianna.
Completing the circle
It's well after midnight somewhere on Highway 412 in Oklahoma, and Brianna Palaniuk is back on another cross-country marathon drive, this time back to Idaho from the 2012 Bassmaster Classic in Shreveport-Bossier City, La. Brandon has just fished a disappointing 48th in his second Classic, and is headed in the opposite direction, back to Palatka, Fla., for the start of the 2012 Elite Series schedule. Before the Classic, Brianna admits that she worries about how Brandon would deal with not fishing well at this tournament, and that she's maybe more nervous this year than she was at his first Classic in 2011. Despite the pre-Classic hype and expectations placed on his shoulders, though, Brandon takes it all in stride. "You learn more when you lose than when you win," Brandon says of his performance. "I knew going into the Classic that people were picking me to finish toward the top, but I also knew that no matter how many people picked me, fish weren't just going to jump into my boat. I'm glad that people have confidence in my ability, but I just didn't catch them. I hated it, don't get me wrong, but I learned from wrestling, if you fail at something, you have to use that to light a fire. It's a motivator. Maybe not for this tournament or even the next one, but the whole season in general."
Brianna will flame-run across the country yet again in two weeks to join Brandon at that kickoff tournament on the St. Johns River, but after that, it'll be Camp Palaniuk, singular. Brandon will fish the 2012 tour solo while Brianna pursues her own career in Los Angeles. It's a bittersweet feeling for both of them, and, honestly, probably a little more bitter than sweet. "After that first tournament in Florida, it'll be Brandon's first time fishing a professional tournament without me, and that's a really weird realization," Brianna admits. "This will be the first time I'm not going to be able to watch Brandon in person. I'll have to watch the weigh-ins online, which will be heartbreaking for me. I'd go back out on tour with him in a heartbeat, but it's time that he did it for himself. I just can't tell you what that experience meant to me, how cool it was to see my big brother and hero follow his dreams. To be along with him and laugh and enjoy each other as much as we did was something I'll never, ever forget."

After his sweetheart performance in the 2010 Bassmaster Classic, the real world comes knocking for pro angler Brandon Palaniuk. He has a tough Elite Series season and a disappointing finish in the 2012 Classic.