"I'd never been to the St. Lawrence River or been on any of the water connected to it, except Lake Erie," Palaniuk. "I bought eight paper maps and spread them all around the hotel room."
Sure, Palaniuk relied on his electronics, too, once he got on the water. But he wanted the big picture first. He was trying to find the best smallmouth bass water that was within a reasonable distance of the Waddington, N.Y., weigh-in site.
"I was looking at contour lines," he said. "I found a spot where I just knew smallmouth bass had to live. It had big flats, long points and steep drop-offs."
The spot was in Lake Ontario. On Day One of practice, he fished shallow all day, 10 feet or less. The Storm Arashi crankbait, which would be unveiled to the public at the annual ICAST trade show in July, was producing like a champion, as it would the remainder of the season. But the key to success was his map work.
"My first fish was a 4-pounder," Palaniuk said. "I weighed one that was 5-3. I probably had (a best five) that weighed 24 or 25 pounds."
Palaniuk, as he often does, slept in his truck that night in a park near Lake Ontario. On Day Two of practice, he concentrated on deeper water – 15 to 25 feet.
"I had over 15 pounds on my first three casts," Palaniuk said. "I fished deep all day and had probably 25 pounds again. So I already had more water than I could fish in four days (of the tournament)."
On Wednesday, the final practice day, Palaniuk concentrated on logistics. He didn't make a single cast. He stayed in Waddington Tuesday night, so he could leave the take-off/weigh-in site and make the run to his spots on Lake Ontario, which were between 105 and 118 miles away.
"I wanted to make that run, make sure I knew where to get gas and everything," he said. "That turned out to be the worst weather day we had all week. There were 8-footers on Lake Ontario. I had to slow down to 8- or 9-miles-per-hour.
"But that kind of put my mind at ease. I thought, 'If I can make it through that, I can make it under any weather conditions.' I had it down to a science."
"The guy there was awesome," Palaniuk said. "He would be down there at the gas pump, waiting for me every day. That was huge."
Palaniuk spent $1,500 on boat gas over the next four days.
And, for once, Palaniuk's gut-wrenching season helped him. With only the Lake St. Clair Championship event left on the schedule, many Elite Series anglers weren't in the mood to take risks, whether they were still in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race or just trying to maintain a spot in the points standings for a Classic berth. The run to Lake Ontario was a risk. (Aaron Martens would learn that the hard way at Lake St. Clair, where he broke down on Day Four and didn't make it to the weigh-in with what would have been the winning weight in his livewells. Rough water is always a consideration on The Great Lakes.)
"I didn't see another boat for the next four days," Palaniuk said. "I never saw another bass boat (on Lake Ontario)."
He was down to his last three strikes – 1) St. Lawrence, 2) St. Clair and 3) the final Northern Open on Lake Erie. But he wouldn't need the other two. Palaniuk hit this one out of the park. In a wire-to-wire victory, Palaniuk weighed 23-9 on Day One, 21-5 on Day Two, 20-9 on Day Three on 23-5 on Day Four. His total of 88-12 topped second-place Jonathan VanDam by over 7 pounds.
"That took so much stress off of me," Palaniuk. "But I couldn't help thinking, 'Please, no phone calls from B.A.S.S.'"
It should be noted that on Day Two at the St. Lawrence event, Palaniuk made a phone call to B.A.S.S. to self-report that he'd discovered six bass in his livewell — a no-no that happens more often than you'd think. (See: Baker, Shaye, Lake Okeechobee Wildcard event.)
"I would have had close to 26 pounds that day (without the penalty)," Palaniuk said. "But it all worked out."
It was a week-long adventure that took him from the outhouse to the penthouse, Palaniuk-style.