Lee, one of only four pros to have won back-to-back Bassmaster Classics® (2017, 2018) will be returning to the Bassmaster Elite Series after an absence of five years competing in Major League Fishing events, during which time he won three tournaments and an Angler of the Year title.
“What’s going to be a challenge for me,” admits the Alabama angler, “is that my experience on some of the Elite lakes this year is really limited. I plan to practice on both Toledo Bend and Lake Fork, the first two tournament lakes, before they go off limits. I’ve only been on Fork once and I know the Elite Series has been having an event there each season for years. “Likewise, I’ve been challenged on the St. Lawrence River, the final Elite tournament of the season, and have practically no experience on Lake Ontario where many of the pros will fish. It’s going to be an interesting season, to be sure, but I’m excited about it.”
Lee believes the most difficult tournament of the year will be the June 27-30 contest at Lewis Smith Lake in Alabama, but he’s looking forward to it because he knows the lake well. It’s where he learned to fish, and he understands how the bass there act in the summer heat.
Fellow Yamaha Pro Randall Tharp is also returning to B.A.S.S.® competition after five strong years with Major League Fishing, but he must first qualify for the Elite Series through the Bassmaster Opens. In the nine-event Open Series, only nine Elite qualification spots are granted.
“I know it’s going to be difficult because of the quality of the anglers competing,” says Tharp, “but I’m really excited about the schedule. We start at Lake Okeechobee which is a very special place for me with years of good fishing experiences, and later we go to Santee Cooper, one of my favorite places to fish.
“The only lake I haven’t been on is Leech Lake in Minnesota, but I absolutely love going to new water and figuring out the fish. It’s the third largest lake in the state with over 100,000 acres and has both largemouth and smallmouth, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Tharp has had his new boat rigged and wrapped since September, and his tackle is ready. Throughout his career he’s won three Bassmaster Opens, and along with qualifying for the 2025 Elite series, he’d like nothing more than to win a fourth Open this season.
Brandon Palaniuk, the 2022 Bassmaster® Angler of the Year, faces more than the challenge of tournament competition this season. The popular Yamaha Pro and his wife Tiffanie welcomed the birth of their second daughter, Kyra, on November 22, so they’ll be traveling to each tournament with two children under the age of two.
“We bought a larger 5th wheel camper with two bedrooms, and I’ve spent a lot of this off-season remodeling it to better accommodate them,” explains Palaniuk. “I took out the king-sized bed and turned it into a playroom-bedroom, so that’s where they’ll be spending most of their time while I’m driving. It will definitely be a new learning experience for all of us.”
After his first daughter Kora was born in June of 2022, Brandon and Tiffanie quickly realized their 16 and 17-hour traveling days were a thing of the past and had been reduced to eight or 10-hours. Palaniuk plans on taking four days to drive to Toledo Bend in February.
Fishing-wise, the Yamaha Pro is satisfied with his 2023 season, and had his boat and tackle fully prepared by early December. He’s also looking forward to the coming year, and especially to having the first two Elites at Toledo Bend and Lake Fork, two of the finest bass fishing lakes in the United States.
“We probably won’t have any time to do a ‘test drive’ of any length with the new 5th wheel and the girls before we’re actually on our way to Texas,” he laughs, “so we’re going to be learning as we go. It will be a challenge, and I can hardly wait.”
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