Targeting the smallmouth bass in the rusty waters of the Mississippi River was a puzzle to solve for professional angler Brandon Palaniuk, one of the young stars at the Bassmaster Elite Tournament last week in La Crosse, Wis.

Palaniuk and his competitors dealt with harsh weather that shortened practice days, and fickle fish didn’t help either, he said, in between bites of food after a long, wet day Sept. 8. Many smallmouth bass were concentrated. Others were spread out. “There was no in-between.” Still, as fish in transition adapt to cooler temperatures or water conditions, anglers do, too. Palaniuk was confident.

That experience and confidence might serve him well at this week’s Angler of the Year Championship playing out on Lake Mille Lacs. The 100,000-plus acre lake is a bit of a puzzle, too, for Palaniuk, who recalled fishing there once before one June when the fish were spawning. “It was a completely different fishery then,” said Palaniuk, 28, who entered this weekend ranked No. 18 for Angler of the Year.

The angler said he takes the same approach into every tournament, and that discipline has helped him adapt to trying conditions whether they be in La Crosse (“every third pool, the river changes a little bit”) or in the potential rough and tumble of a blustery Mille Lacs.

“I fish the moment,” Palaniuk said. “I usually start with a little bit of a plan based on what I found the day before. By the end of the day I might be doing something completely different. I don’t want to get stuck doing just one thing. I’m always thinking with an open mind, changing, trying to figure out the best way to catch them.” (Meanwhile, Minnesotan Seth Feider of Bloomington figured out a way at La Crosse, improbably qualifying for Mille Lacs with a second-place finish in La Crosse.)

Palaniuk cruises for new water and fish in a Skeeter FX20 pushed by a Yamaha 250 outboard, a far departure from the mountain lakes he tested with his mother while growing up in Idaho. He said he fished for everything. Then, at 8, a guide took him on a bass boat. It was a defining experience.

“I learned that were actual tournaments and that you could go and target a specific species,” he said, “and that is when I fell in love with it.”

Palaniuk has been on the Elite tour since 2011, has won two tournaments and has qualified for five Bassmaster Classics. But he doesn’t have to go back far to remember his days of balancing full-time work building logging roads and whisking off to fish tournaments on the weekend.

He likes his current status, but bristles a bit thinking about his ranking.

“Each one of the tournaments that I had a lower finish in, there was just one day where I could have made a better decision or I could have executed better that would have completely changed that,” he said. “[My ranking] is good, but I was around the fish to be a lot higher than that.”