Palaniuk: Picking up the pieces

I was hoping that my first column of the year for Bassmaster.com would provide the exciting details of my winning pattern at the Sabine or Guntersville, but after the first two Elite Series tournaments my primary accomplishment is that I’ve dug myself a big hole. I finished 101st at the Sabine and 60th at Guntersville, and if I’m going to qualify for the 2016 Bassmaster Classic there’s no way I can slip up in any of the remaining tournaments.

It’s a long drive home from Guntersville to Idaho, and all of that seat time has given me an opportunity to think about what went wrong. I’m not beating myself up over it, but I am trying to figure out how to get things back on the right track. The biggest conclusion that I’ve reached is that in order to do well, you have to be who you are. I fish better when I’m fishing to win, taking gambles, but in the first quarter I played it safe.

I know a lot of guys talk in all of the old clichés – “If you’re not first, you’re last,” or “Swing for the fences” – but I’m not sure everyone is capable of fully embracing that mentality. It’s something that’s been a part of my life since I started wrestling and tournament fishing at 8 years old. I was taught that you have to fully embrace the winning mentality if you want to make it happen. If you’re looking to cut a check or avoid a bomb, that often backfires on you. If I’d really made a concerted effort to win at one of the first two tournaments, and it hadn’t worked, I can’t imagine that my results would’ve been much worse than they turned out.

At this point in my career I’m still growing, but I feel like I have a better understanding of fish behavior than at any point in the past. My mechanics are better, too. So the primary focus of my self-criticism has to be the mental focus. I’m taking a step back to really analyze that before the two western events. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I’ve been second-guessing myself in a way that doesn’t happen when I’m fishing well.

At the Sabine River, I had found an area past Galveston Bay that I thought had the potential to produce a win. I’m not sure if it was where Mike McClelland caught his fish, but it was in the same general vicinity. After looking at the weather and considering the likely fog delay, I worried too much about bombing in the first event of the year and elected not to make the run. That’s not like me. I spent the whole tournament second-guessing myself, never really fishing in the moment. It felt like I was going through the motions, and my result showed that to be the case. Mike, meanwhile, made the long run and came close to a win. Huge congrats to Mike.

At Lake Guntersville, I made the right decisions the first day and I weighed in 22-04, which put me in 14th place. In my mind, something changed that night. I knew I’d earned zero points at the Sabine, and history told me that I needed to average a 35th place finish over the next seven events to make the Classic, so I switched from fishing to win to just fishing to make the Top 35. I made worse decisions, and it cost me. I weighed in 11-09, just over half as big as my first day limit.

My goal going forward is to quit second-guessing myself. I realize that saying that and doing that are two very different things, but I think one hallmark of my career is that I’ve been willing to take what seem like big chances – running 200 miles round-trip out into Lake Ontario from Waddington, N.Y. comes to mind – in order to reap big rewards. I won’t be foolish about it, but I won’t hesitate to practice to win and take calculated risks when the opportunities present themselves.

Most importantly, I haven’t looked at the points to see where I am in the overall standings. It really doesn’t matter. In fact, I won’t look at them for the rest of the year. Only when I put my final bag of fish on the scales will I stop and see whether it has put me where I need to be. I know that the “win and you’re in” days are over, but I’m going to treat each tournament as a season of its own. If I get caught up in doing the math of qualifying on a day-to-day basis, I feel like it will prevent me from doing my job the way that suits me best.