Referring to the $1 million Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship as simply a “fishing tournament” almost seems a little shortsighted.
It is, of course, a tournament with anglers fishing each day for the five biggest bass they can catch. But it’s about so much more than pounds and ounces caught during a three-day event.
The AOY Championship, which is scheduled for Sept. 14-17 on the smallmouth paradise of Mille Lacs Lake, is the culmination of the Bassmaster Elite Series season. A new Angler of the Year will be crowned, berths will be earned and solidified for the 2018 Bassmaster Classic and someone will likely leave brokenhearted after falling out of Classic contention.
The storylines will be plentiful, beginning with AOY points leader Brandon Palaniuk.
“I’ve been that middle-of-the-pack guy the past couple of years,” Palaniuk said. “In a way, it’s really a great spot to be in because you know if you just catch one 12-inch smallmouth, you’re going to the Classic.
“It’s great, but I wouldn’t trade it for the spot I’m in now.”
After a stellar season with six Top 12 finishes, including a victory at the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest benefiting Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on Sam Rayburn Reservoir, Palaniuk is in position to win his first career AOY title with a good showing at Mille Lacs.
He leads Oklahoma angler Jason Christie by just 15 AOY points (811 to 796) — the tightest race in AOY Championship history. So, unlike those who may be fishing for one fish to guarantee their spot in the Classic, Palaniuk will be fishing as hard as he would in any other event.
“I’m hoping to catch 23 pounds a day,” he said. “If I can catch that much, I think I’ll have a chance to win the tournament — and if I win, everything else will take care of itself.”
Christie, who is fresh off a victory in the final regular season Elite, the Advance Auto Parts Bassmaster Elite at Lake St. Clair, wasn’t as specific about what he’s hoping to catch each day. But he said he feels a sense of calm going into the event.
“I’m looking for whatever it takes to help me finish 15 places ahead of Brandon Palaniuk,” Christie said. “That may not be possible, depending on what he does — and in a way, that keeps me from feeling any real pressure.
“Of course, I want to win. But no matter what happens, I know I’m in the Classic — and nothing bad can really come of it.”
The tournament is likely to be an eye-popping event for fans who enjoy seeing lots of giant smallmouth.
Mille Lacs, which has long been known as one of the finest walleye fisheries in the United States, burst onto the bass-fishing scene during last year’s AOY Championship. Minnesota angler Seth Feider had the biggest three-day catch during that event with daily five-bass limits weighing 25-8, 24-11 and 26-2 and totaling 76-5.
In July, Mille Lacs was named the No. 1 bass fishing lake in the country by Bassmaster Magazine.
“If it had been a four-day event, I think Seth Feider would have broken 100 pounds last year,” Palaniuk said. “That’s the kind of lake it is.”
“I went out and caught 21 pounds a day last year and finished in 18th place,” Christie said. “It’s just one of those places where you never know how much weight you’re going to need.”
The list of anglers on the Classic bubble include some of the biggest names in fishing — like California pros Ish Monroe and Skeet Reese and New Jersey superstar Michael Iaconelli.
Some of those who fail to make the Classic will have another chance the following week (Sept. 19-22) in the Bassmaster Classic Bracket on Pokegama Lake at Grand Rapids, Minn. That event will feature the first eight anglers in the AOY standings who failed to make the Classic in a one-on-one bracket-style competition, with the winner earning a Classic berth.
Takeoffs for the AOY Championship will be at 6:50 a.m. CT each day from Eddy's Resort. Weigh-ins will take place at 3:45 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Sunday at Grand Casino Mille Lacs.
On Saturday, all 50 anglers will take a break from tournament competition to participate in a special expo and conduct seminars for Bassmaster University.