By Steve Wright
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Brandon Palaniuk appears to be the favorite going into the final day of the Bassmaster Elite Series Green Bay Challenge. Not only did he catch the biggest bag of the tournament so far, with 21 pounds, 2 ounces Saturday, he found a new hot spot at the end of the day.
And it’s not like Palaniuk needed it. He had about 20 pounds in the boat when he left the place he’d found late on the last day of practice and has expanded upon every day since. His three-day total is 56 pounds, 2 ounces.
“I ended up finding another spot,” said the 24-year-old Palaniuk, who is from Rathdrum, Idaho. “On my second cast there, I caught a four-pounder and I left, so whether or not there are any more fish there, I don’t know. But it’s definitely a spot I will hit tomorrow.”
Palaniuk led the youth movement that flipped the top four Saturday: Veterans Dean Rojas and Aaron Martens fell from first and second, respectively, to fourth and third. Youngsters Palaniuk and 23-year-old Jonathan VanDam jumped from fourth and third, respectively, to first and second.
In an event that due to limited tournament waters has made Lake Michigan fish incredibly small, Palaniuk and VanDam, the nephew of Kevin VanDam, have found areas that they’ve had virtually to themselves for three straight days.
Rojas and Martens, on the other hand, have caught their fish from the heavily pressured waters right at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ inexplicable boundary established north of Little Sturgeon Bay.
“I don’t know what to think anymore,” said 37-year-old Rojas, who led going into the day thanks to some help Friday from his friend Terry Scroggins. “I knew I could catch them the first day, but after what happened yesterday and what happened today, I don’t have any preconceived notion of what could happen tomorrow.”
Rojas, a 10-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier, had only two bass in the boat about 1 p.m. Saturday when he resorted to some fish he had been able to see on Thursday.
“I had sight-fish leftover from the first day,” Rojas said. “I knew I could go to them.”
Rojas weighed, by far, his lightest limit of the tournament – 13-8 – Saturday. But he felt lucky to have that.
Martens also weighed his smallest limit of the tournament on Saturday – 16-1 – but it wasn’t that far off his 16-5 the day before. Martens had the only 20-pound bag of the event until Palaniuk and VanDam (20-12) came charging Saturday.
Martens, at least, sounds a bit more confident than Rojas.
“It’s possible their fish could move,” said the 39-year-old Martens, who has qualified for the Bassmaster Classic 13 times. “My fish could move, too. But I’ve got a ton of spots.”
The margin is miniscule between Palaniuk and VanDam – only four ounces. Martens is 3 pounds, 2 ounces behind Palaniuk and Rojas is 4-12 back.
VanDam should be considered a co-favorite going into Sunday, now that the only other angler in his area – his uncle – isn’t part of the final day field. Kevin VanDam, the seven-time Bassmaster Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year, finished 19th.
“I really only have one area,” Jonathan said. “But it’s a good-sized area and there are a lot of fish there.”
Outside of the top four, everyone else in the final 12 anglers is a long-shot Sunday. Tommy Biffle of Wagoner, Okla., is fifth, almost nine pounds behind Palaniuk, and he’s fishing in the Fox River, where a 20-pound-bag may be out of the question.
“If the wind came up, where they had a hard time fishing, or couldn’t get there, I’d have a real good shot,” Biffle said. “But other than that, I’m not catching the 20-pound stringers that they are.”
Amazingly, for the fourth straight day the wind isn’t predicted to blow Sunday on Lake Michigan.
It looks like two youngsters vs. two veterans for the $100,000 top prize in the Green Bay Challenge.