I can't tell from your original post, but was the WSM empty on your trial run? If so, yes it will run hotter and the temp swings will be quicker since there is nothing to moderate the heat (even the food mass contributes to this as well). A WSM does run a little hotter the first few smokes, but it's not much. 15 to 25* probably.
As to how you run the WSM, it depends on what you are cooking and even what method you are using. A lit chimney over 1/2 ring of unlit is standard load and will work. A lot of people go this way for pretty much all smokes in a WSM. For longer smokes such as butts, the minion method is very popular. Minion runs at a lower temp since there are less coals lit but it runs longer on a load of coals. Neither is right or wrong, both will work. I suggest you try them both as they both have a purpose and use in a WSM.
Without a power draft controller, I would let the assembled smoker stabilize at around 250* and then put the cold meat on. This will drop the temp a little but don't worry, it will quickly recover. Most people try to target 225* at the top grate (the dome temp is a little higher, so 240-250* on a dome thermometer would still be OK). Use the lower vents to throttle back the heat if needed or open them more if the temp continues to drop after 20 minutes. Once you get it loaded and stable, you should not have to fiddle with the vents for quite a while in a WSM (if at all). But until you learn your WSM, I would check the temps until you are comfortable you have a stable run.
As to the water pan. Just like with how you load the charcoal, you have a lot of options. The options are what makes a WSM so great (in addition to the fact it is a real stable running smoker too). You can go with an empty foiled water pan for high temp smokes, a foiled and water filled water pan, or a sand filled and covered with foil water pan, or a foiled 14" clay saucer base in an empty water pan. The water and other "mass" items help serve as a temperature moderator and even out the temp swing. It depends on what you are cooking and what method you are using as to how you set up the smoker.
For the standard smoke, just foil the water pan to make clean up easier and use a chimney of lit coals over 1/2 ring of unlit. Take the middle section off, put in the water pan and load with hot water (I use hot tap water, but some people go so far as to boil a large pot of water). Then carefully lift the middle section back on the lower coal holding section, put in the grate and top dome and let it run for about 15-20 minutes to make sure you have the temps stable where you want them (temp depends on what you are cooking also). Then once it's stable, load the meat.
You can either use fist size chunks of smoke wood in the unlit charcoals, or just open the door and throw some chips or pellets on top of the lit after you add the meat. I prefer the chunks in coals method as it provides thin blue smoke much longer than chips or pellets on top of lit coals.
As to what to smoke? You can smoke anything in a WSM.
As to the other point in this thread....
Turkey = full load of coals (not minion method) and a foiled but empty water pan or clay saucer base in an empty water pan. Control the temps in the 325-350 range with the lower vents only. *ALWAYS* leave the top vent in a WSM full open and do not use it to try and control the temps.
Black bird skin? Not burnt, it's smoked. It will be wonderful once you let it rest a few minutes and slice it up!
I remember the first turkey I smoked in 2006. Wife was sure it was ruined and her brother brought over some oven roasted turkey breast "just in case". Well at the family gathering my turkey was all consumed and no one even touched the oven version. That says a lot.
Edited by dward51 - 12/31/11 at 2:51pm