By Todd Ceisner
While the turkey roasted and the potatoes boiled and dinner rolls warmed, Brandon Palaniuk sat and reflected. Then he responded and eventually he relaxed.
Seated at his kitchen island last Thursday, his laptop computer open in front of him, Palaniuk scrolled through hundreds of comments and questions that had flowed into his social media pages over the previous 20 hours regarding the announcement that he, along with Gerald Swindle, was departing Major League Fishing’s Bass Pro Tour after one season and was heading back to the Bassmaster Elite Series.
Palaniuk knew the revelations, made public in dueling press releases issued by MLF and B.A.S.S. around 4 p.m. Eastern time last Wednesday, would stir the emotions of the bass fishing fanbase, regardless of the approaching holiday. He also knew he couldn’t go radio silent for the duration of the Thanksgiving weekend in the wake of such an announcement. So that’s why he made a point to read every question or comment across his Instagram and Facebook fan pages and respond to a good many of them.
“Overwhelmingly positive,” Palaniuk said Monday when asked to characterize the overall tone of the response he received. “Maybe not everyone will understand it right away, but over time I think everyone will. Everyone has been super supportive, and it’s been cool to have sponsors and fans come out and say they support me either way.”
The decision to leave the BPT wasn’t made in haste, Palaniuk said. It wasn’t made out of spite either. It was the product of a lot of reflection and figuring out where he’d be the happiest. Ultimately, he believes that will be as a B.A.S.S. competitor.
“It’s where I’m the most passionate and driven,” he said. “It came down to where I felt was the better fit for me and where my heart was still at. Even when I made that decision (to leave) last year, I went all in on it and I was supportive of it, but it still felt like all year there was a part of me that kept pulling me back. The more I thought about it and reflected on it, the more I realized it’s a huge part of who I am. I’d spent so much of my life focused and sacrificing things to chase that brand. I feel like I still have things I want to do there and still felt that that’s where I was the most connected.
“So it was a – I hate to say – happiness move because it’s not like I was totally unhappy and miserable. You want to be making your living doing something you’re confident and happy with. I enjoyed both. They’re just different. It finally came down to making that decision to where I fit in the best.”
Palaniuk’s roots in the sport were planted when he began fishing B.A.S.S. Nation events more than 10 years ago. It’s part of who he is as an angler, something he referenced last fall when announcing he was headed to the BPT. He said it was imperative for him to get back to his fishing heritage.
“For me, that’s essentially what the entire decision was made over – being able to get back to that,” he said. “I felt like me going back was a better opportunity to give back to those things that gave so much to me. Everything I did was geared toward qualifying for the Federation state team and then to make regionals. Most of my childhood, that was the dream and all of my decisions were made based on that.”
Personal Decision This Time
The quiet solitude of Thanksgiving was a welcome change after weeks of negotiating the process of making the move back to the Elite Series. Palaniuk and longtime girlfriend, Tiffanie McCall, kept a low profile Thursday.
“Thanksgiving Day was the first day where I felt like I could fully relax,” Palaniuk said.
He said the decision-making process to return to B.A.S.S. was much different than the process that led to his Elite Series departure a year ago. He was among the last of the 68 Elite Series competitors to announce his intention to compete on the BPT in 2019. In hindsight, he says that process weighed on him more than the one he just experienced.
“Last year, I felt like I owed people certain decisions and I knew I was letting people down. I felt like I was letting people down no matter what,” Palaniuk said. “That was really rough. I have friends on both sides whether it’s in the management teams or the anglers. That doesn’t change. Through all that stuff, you really figure out who your real friends are and who your acquaintances are. Through all of this I matured a lot and realized this decision was on me. It wasn’t to negatively affect anybody. It was just more of a personal decision I felt like I had to make.
“I tried to remove any outside opinions and just make it about me and Tiff,” he added. “I wasn’t going to blindside her with it. Last year, there was a lot of outside influence coming from all directions and it cluttered my mind. Not to say I made a wrong decision because I’m still glad I made it. I was able to learn a lot from it and grow through the process. I don’t regret the decision at all. I knew that as I thought about it more and self-reflected on it, I needed to make this decision, essentially by myself, for me with no other fishing industry influences.”
Once he’d made his mind up, he first contacted MLF co-founder Boyd Duckett to advise him of his decision. Initial talks also involved MLF president and CEO Jim Wilburn and Palaniuk said both were “super cordial and understanding.”
“I felt like I owed them that much,” Palaniuk added. “For one, they allowed me to come in and be a part of (the BPT). I wasn't going to go to them and say, ‘Hey, here’s a letter from my lawyer.’ … I wanted to work through that process with them. I didn’t want to work through it against them.”
He also wanted to expedite the whole process for the benefit of all involved and allow MLF time to search for a potential replacement in the BPT field.
“The next part was how do we logistically make this work for everyone so that it’s as smooth and easy as possible because everyone has already been stressed out enough,” Palaniuk said. “We didn’t need anybody to be any more stressed out. I wanted to make the transition as easy as possible, but I felt like I needed to remove myself from that and give some other guys an opportunity that may fit in better.”
Was Ready to Go Open Route
Once Palaniuk’s exit from the BPT was more or less finalized – there was an early termination fee related to his BPT contract, but Palaniuk declined to disclose the amount – he contacted B.A.S.S. and spoke with several officials within the organization to gauge what, if any, avenues existed for him to return to the Elite Series in 2020.
Most assumed that in the wake of the mass exodus the Elite Series experienced a year ago, any angler wishing to come back to B.A.S.S.’s top circuit would have to re-qualify via the Bassmaster Opens. Knowing this, Palaniuk had already registered for all eight Opens in 2020. Another option that existed was using the Legend exemption, which had been instituted several years ago to allow anglers with Bassmaster Classic wins or Angler of the Year titles to their credit to remain eligible.
Palaniuk and Swindle, both former AOY winners, met the criteria of the Legend exemption, and that eventually was the method used to bring them back into the Elite Series mix.
“They were cautious of it,” Palaniuk said of B.A.S.S. “It wasn’t a case of, ‘Hey, we don’t want you, but there are a lot of moving parts that we have to vet through.’ I understood that. This was a decision I made and whatever I have to do to get back there, I’m willing to do. Whether that means the Opens, a Legend exemption, whatever that is. I wanted to work through that process and see what made sense.
“Then they have to decide what makes the most sense for their business and I think their first priority was the other Elite anglers. I can’t say that 100 percent, but through the conversations that was a really big concern because we knew there would be mixed feelings from that group, which I don’t blame them. I’m not surprised they would have mixed feelings on it.”
Palaniuk said he and Swindle didn’t coordinate their BPT departures together. They communicated throughout the season about various topics, but never talked about leaving.
“It was never, ‘Hey, I’m going to leave. Are you going to leave,’” Palaniuk said. “It wasn’t until everything was finalized that I talked to him. I didn’t want there to be any of that outside influence. I wanted it to be mutually our own decisions. I had a pretty good idea I wasn’t the only one.”
Palaniuk said he intends to still fish the full Open schedule in 2020, which means he’ll be competing in at least 17 tournaments between January and September. He said he’s anxious to bring a bag of fish on stage again and to engage with fans at the tournaments.
He also said several current Elite Series competitors have reached out in the past few days to welcome him back, but he knows there will be some that don’t agree with B.A.S.S. allowing him and Swindle back in so soon.
“A lot of guys are excited and I’m sure there are some that aren’t,” he said. “That’s on me to earn the respect of the guys who may not be thrilled about it.”