He turns down the lake, and soon lands two bass weighing four and three and a half pounds. Later he catches his biggest fish of the tournament, a 7-12 giant. Those three bass propel him to his second Elite Series victory of the season.
“The only difference between a good decision and a bad decision is a four-pounder,” laughs Palaniuk. “In this case, I had experienced very similar weather conditions in other tournaments, and I thought I might be able to get one good fish on a topwater lure to start my day. I had actually started the tournament in that same place the first morning because it looked so good, but after I only caught one small bass there, I hadn’t gone back again.”
When he pulled into the area that final morning, Palaniuk unexpectedly faced another critical decision. High wind the previous day had turned the water dirty and eliminated his potential topwater bite; the only lure choice he felt might work was a bladed jig, a lure he had not caught a fish on all week.
“I stayed, and I picked up the jig,” continues the Yamaha Pro, “and fortunately, both turned out to be the right decisions. That’s what makes tournament bass fishing so special. We don’t play in a controlled environment like football or baseball. Every lake, river, or body of water we fish is different, and the conditions we face, like wind, rain, clouds, hot sun, water clarity, and all the others are usually changing as we fish.
“We literally have to make decisions on every single cast. What’s the best angle for my cast? Do I speed up my retrieve or slow it down? Should I twitch my lure, jerk it, or let it fall? Am I even using the right lure for the conditions? The questions never stop, but with experience, a fisherman learns to answer many of them subconsciously.”
Successful tournament pros like Palaniuk virtually all agree this type of decision-making can only be learned by spending time on the water under all types of conditions. They create a library of experiences they can relate to in future events, just as he did in winning at Santee-Cooper even though he had never been on those lakes before.
“Of the dozens of decisions every angler has to make on the water, I think three of the most critical questions he has to answer are about lure selection, area of the lake, and the type of cover to fish,” explains Palaniuk. “Each of these questions, in turn, include a lot of variables that will affect a decision.
“Sometimes, you just have to follow your instincts, or that ‘gut feeling’ telling you to do something. One of the hardest things any fisherman has to learn is to follow that instinct, because it’s the correct decision almost every time. I think this is closely related to noticing your immediate environment, paying attention to what’s going on around you. For instance, we’ve all heard that when we see cattle lying down in a field instead of grazing that fishing or hunting will be poor, and when you don’t see any baitfish activity, not even turtles or garfish around you, fishing generally won’t be very productive then, either.”
Quite possibly the most difficult on-the-water decision every tournament angler has to make is whether to keep fishing an area when bass are not biting, or to leave. The thought is always present that the next cast will trigger a strike.
“It is a tough decision,” admits the Yamaha Pro, “and it’s even more difficult to decide when you’ve caught fish there before. I never give myself a time limit in a situation like this as part of my decision. I just try to convince myself that if I do leave, I can always come back again later.”
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