By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

When Brandon Palaniuk started to break down the 2016 Elite Series schedule and formulate tentative game plans for each venue, he circled the first two events and labeled them damage control.

So far, hes halfway to his goal after he escaped the St. Johns River with a solid 37th-place finish, his best Elite Series showing in Florida and best result in a season opener as he enters his sixth year as an Elite Series pro. His previous best finish in the Sunshine State was a 44th at the Harris Chain in 2011, his rookie year.

For me, at this point feel like I have the best opportunity Ive ever had at having a good AOY finish, Palaniuk said last Thursday after day 1 of the Lewis Smith Lake Southern Open was cancelled. I just feel good about starting the season off that way, especially doing it in Florida. Those are, historically, my worst events. I made the right adjustments and fished smart and got out of Florida with a good finish. It makes life a lot less stressful.

He was under plenty of stress last year after a 101st-place finish at the Sabine River netted him zero points in the opener. He spent the rest of the season in catch-up mode. He wound up accumulating enough points to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic and in the process got on a hot streak in the second half of the year. He cashed checks in four of the final five events, including a runner-up finish at Lake St. Clair followed by a 9th-place effort at the Angler of the Year championship to close the year.

When you start with zero, you know you have an uphill battle, he said. "You essentially have seven tournaments to qualify for the Classic. You have to really catch them to make up that ground.

Smarter is Better

Earlier in his career, the automatic Classic berths associated with winning an Elite Series event drove Palaniuk. He was the poster boy for the hero-or-zero mindset. In practice, hed go off and try to find that different pattern that nobody else had thought of. It worked a few times he won at Bull Shoals in 2012 and the St. Lawrence River in 2013 but he knew he had to make adjustments, especially after B.A.S.S. eliminated the win-and-youre-in option.

In 2014, he finished 17th in points, easily making the Classic on points. Last year, despite his stumble at the Sabine, he rallied to finish 10th. Now, hes settling into a mindset where consistency is key and if the opportunity arises where he can make a run at a win, hes still prepared to do so.

I feel like Ive gotten smarter about the sprint and have learned when to sprint and when to finish out the race, he said. For me, its just been about damage control. With the win-and-youre-in, I felt like I could gamble more and if I did it enough times, I would have a good shot at winning. I also had a lot of 70s and 80s. Since making the Classic is such a big deal, I changed the way I fished, but still stayed true to who I am in that aspect. Im not afraid to gamble, but Im smarter about when to just fish what I have.

He cited the St. Johns River, where certain areas are known to get crowded in the spring. This year, he avoided the crowds and had success.

Ive struggled with how it fishes and how crowded it gets, he said. You feel like youre hoping to get lucky and youre the guy who runs across an 8-pounder thats ready to eat. This year, I took a different approach and I didnt have to fish around a lot of people. Being able to do that and make those adjustments, I felt a lot better about my decision-making. From a mental standpoint it helps a lot to kick off the year that way.

Risk Management

This weeks event at Winyah Bay will be another huge mental test. Its a tidal fishery with multiple rivers in play, most of which will be foreign to just about everybody in the field. For Palaniuk, its another event where survival is chief amongst his goals.

Ive never been there and I didnt talk to anybody about it, he said. I literally know nothing about it except whats on the Internet.

Despite his limited intel, he figures most of his competitors will be wrestling with the decision on whether to run a long way and sacrifice fishing time for a chance at better quality fish or stay closer to the blast-off or somewhere in between and catch better numbers of fish.

Does reward outweigh the risk? That will be the deciding factor, he said. Some will say no and some will say yes. I dont know what will be better at this point. Its another damage-control event. Im just going to hope for the best possible outcome.

(When I won at) Bull Shoals and the St. Lawrence, Id never been to either before and didnt know anything until I showed up. I happened to make the right decisions based on what Id read and the current conditions. It was a case of you never know when youre going to win.