I’ve always loved the James River. The tidal fishery is truly a unique venue in terms of professional fishing tournaments. Memories at the James span the decades. Woo Daves immediately comes to mind, as does Rick Clunn’s fourth Classic title. Hank Parker’s win. Jim Bitter’s loss.
More recently, the James has been the site of several Bassmaster Opens dominated by the best in the business. Everyone knew Iaconelli would win there eventually – and he did just that in 2019. Last week, Brandon Palaniuk joined the list of James River conquerors.
Palaniuk’s second-day bag eclipsed 22 pounds, a super-human feat by James River standards, and the result of a true professional performance. After reviewing the tournament reports, I felt it necessary to revisit how this all went down.
Let’s check the details.
Palaniuk’s winning spot required “the exact cast.” It was located 22 miles upstream in the Chickahominy River. For those of you who haven’t been to the James, just getting to the Chickahominy is a good ride in itself, 40-plus miles from the tournament launch ramp. Add to that the vast expanses of the James in that area, where rough water and bucking currents can be commonplace, and Palaniuk’s journey takes on more significance. Also, it should be noted that the Chick routinely features the most fishing pressure of any James River tributary.
Millions of acres of water, and the wining spot turns out to be the size of a truck-bed, 70 miles away, loaded with boats.
Add to this Palaniuk’s lure choice. Known as somewhat of a big-bait junky, Palaniuk didn’t shy from his favorites, leaning on two over-sized swimbaits for the bulk of his catch. Now, I like big lures, too. But I’ve never thought to try a California Special when visiting the James. Have you?
Finally, timing became a key ingredient to Palaniuk’s success. Once he found the bait and the cast, it was vital to present the lure on an incoming tide. Palaniuk’s window of opportunity lasted as little as 25 minutes throughout the course of the day. Yet, it was enough time to sack a winning string.
So, to sum up, the Idaho pro eliminated unheard-of amounts of water, narrowed his target down to a specific cast, chose unorthodox lures that most anglers would never consider and presented them flawlessly for a timeframe that was as little as 1 percent of the day in an area where the casts of others frothed the water.
How in the world do they do it?
I mean, I can’t help but be baffled at times. The true pros – the guys who jump in any chance they get and find themselves frequently at the top of the leaderboards – they just have another gear.
Palaniuk’s win is yet another example of supreme performance in our sport. Sure, there’s those who will discount his win, say that he took shortcuts to reach the top or got dialed in by another angler. But the critics will never get it.
We now see these next-level performances routinely, as touring pros dip their toes in triple-A events in order to keep their lines wet. In the last few years, Bassmaster Opens have crowned a number of big-name champions. Bobby Lane, John Cox, Stephen Browning and Ott Defoe have taken titles.
On the MLF side, Jacob Wheeler, Ish Monroe and Bryan Thrift have gone home with Toyota Series wins. You give these guys a chip and a chair and they’re going to take your money.
Sure, I’ve been vocal against allowing the full-timers into the minor leagues for some time. But, once there, I love their displays of dominance.
Palaniuk’s win is the latest example, and one that, perhaps, illustrates true pro form the best. I wonder who will be next?
And how, in the world, they continue to do it.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)