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TOURNAMENT TACTICS

Its no secret;  a small percentage of anglers win a large percentage of tournament purses, often dominating the event year after year. If you follow the statistics you’ll see the same names in the top ten over and over again, often trading places in the standings, but still in the money. How do a small percentage of tournament anglers manage to win again and again ?  Is it luck ?  Is it skill ? Is it experience ?  All these factors come into play to help make a winner, but none are more important than hard work. It can all be explained in one word: preparation.

Successful tournament anglers simply work harder than the other guys. They plan, prepare, practice and leave nothing to chance. They fish with their eyes and ears as well as their rods and reels. Many tournaments are won before the boats ever leave the slip or launch ramp. The following are a few of the basic principles that will increase your chances of being in the spotlight at the next awards banquet.

RECONNAISSANCE

Simply stated, do your homework. Information is the key to success. You need to know where the fish are if you’re going catch them. There’s a wealth of fishing information out there for those willing to take the time to find it. Fishing conditions can change often and rapidly. Start your information gathering at least two weeks prior to the tournament. Frequently, you will notice a pattern emerging that will help you locate and catch fish on tournament day. If you hear of high fish counts preceding the tournament, pay attention to dates, times, water temperature, water clarity, tides and other information that will later prove valuable.

This is the information age; take advantage of it. Weather faxes, satellite photos, fish reports, 976 numbers and even the Internet can provide you with up-to-date fishing information. Tackle stores, angling clubs, commercial fishermen and your fishing buddies can be good sources of information as well. You or one of your team mates should listen to the VHF and walk the docks the day before the tournament to learn of any recent developments.

PRE-FISH 

If there’s any way you and your team mates can pre-fish the tournament, by all means do so. Not only does pre-fishing help you to locate likely hot-spots, bait concentrations, suitable water temperatures, etc., it allows for the opportunity to check out your equipment and fix any deficiencies you may find. Are your engine(s) sounding and running right? Are the electronics working properly? Are your rods, reels, fishing line and lures in good order? How about the live well. Is the pump working properly? Pre-fishing is also great practice for you and your team, affording you the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them, when the stakes aren’t so high. Teamwork is another key to success, and you can never practice too much. Remember, Murphy’s law applies to boats in general and tournaments in particular. I can attest first hand that Mr. Murphy loves to go fishing. He’s been a passenger on my boat many times.

BEFORE THE TOURNAMENT

Check and recheck everything. Re-spool your reels and pre-set the drags. Make sure you have plenty of lures and that they are all rigged properly. Check leaders for abrasion, nicks, twists and other signs of wear. Have one back-up rod and reel for every set you plan on using in case of a backlash or severe line twist. This applies to lures and jigs also. You should never have to spool a reel or rig a lure on tournament day.

Redundancy is the key. Have spares for everything you can think of, including spools, bait pumps, propellers, nuts, washers etc. Have extra gaffs, tagging sticks, nets, binoculars, pliers and sunglasses available in case one gets dropped overboard. Load your boat just like your planning to on tournament day to ensure that all necessary items can be readily accessed while maintaining an organized, uncluttered cockpit.

Make sure that each team member is aware of his or her responsibility on tournament day and that one team member knows what the other is doing, or is going to do in a given situation.
Discuss tactics, strategies, and “ what if ” scenarios. Fishing tournaments are usually team sports and communication among team members is vital. The communication process should begin long before your baits or lures hit the water.

If you have the capacity and means to keep bait alive until tournament day, try to make bait beforehand to avoid future hassles, or in some cases, disasters. I’ve been in several tournaments where making bait was almost impossible and bait receivers were empty or non-existent. Besides, bait that has cured in your tank for a couple days have become acclimated to their surroundings. They prove to be much hardier than fresh baits and won’t die off as easily.
 

WHERE TO FIND FISH

Armed with the latest intelligence and properly prepared, its time to find the fish. Although planning is an intregal part of your strategy, you need to be adaptable and flexible. Don’t race off to a distant, predetermined location oblivious to your surroundings, while ignoring Mother Nature’s clues to good fishing. After all, it doesn’t make much sense to run past fish in order to find fish. When fishing offshore, the following places are always worth investigating;

* COLOR OR TEMPERATURE BREAKS    on or near the surface indicate the edge of a current, and always a good place to find a gathering of baitfish and the predators that eat them. Be sure to work both sides of the edge.

* FLOTSAM of any kind, be it a kelp paddy, weedline, log, or even a soda bottle is worth investigating. Remember to fish deep around these objects since gamefish often hold far below the surface. Many gamefish are slaves to a predisposed, genetic tendency to orient themselves to solid appearing objects. A habit ichthyologists refer to as thigmotropism. You should take advantage of this habit.     

* OFFSHORE RIPS are formed when current flows rapidly over a changing bottom structure such as a steep drop off or sea mount. The strong current of the rip can disorient baitfish, making them vulnerable to awaiting predators.

* SLICKS on the surface of the water are a sure sign that baitfish are being attacked by predators below. The smooth water of the slick is caused by oils released by the wounded bait.

* CANYONS OR FISSURES in the continental shelf serve to channel or concentrate water flow which often traps an abundance of bait. The slope of the shelf can also create upwellings, which can be detected by changes in water color and / or temperature.

* OFFSHORE BUOYS AND PLATFORMS act as fish magnets for both bait and gamefish. The buoy, mooring line and platform legs attract fish, especially if they’ve accumulated large amounts of marine growth.

* SEA MOUNTS AND RIDGES deflect current upwards, creating an upwelling of nutrients and cooler water from the ocean’s depth. These nutrients spark plankton blooms as they come in contact with increased warmth and sun light, which attracts baitfish to feed upon the new born phyto and zoo plankton. This baitfish feeding frenzy quickly gets the attention of gamefish, which often appear in large numbers to feed upon the concentration of bait schools.

* BIRDS hoovering or diving on bait is a sure sign of gamefish activity. Often overlooked are birds sitting on the surface. A group of birds sitting on the surface is a strong indication that feeding activity has recently taken place or is about to. Pelicans that circle without diving is also an excellent indicator of gamefish.

* MARINE MAMMALS are often found in the company of gamefish. Dolphins, of course, could have tuna schools below them. Sometimes marlin too. Seals mean there are baitfish in the area, which probably means that predators are as well.

* METERING BAIT is definitely a hint to work a specific area. Predators seldom stray far from their food source, and may actually feed off of the same schools for days at a time.

* THEN THERE ARE MORE SUBTLE CLUES of gamefish activity, such as “breezing” fish or “nervous” water. This may appear as ruffled puffs of wind showing on the surface of the ocean on an otherwise calm day.           
  

CAPTAIN’S MEETING AND KICK-OFF PARTY
Most tournaments have a mandatory captain’s meeting, usually followed by a dinner or kick-off party. These events are frequently held the evening before the first tournament day. Its a good idea for all team members to attend these events, because it’s a chance to gather some last minute information on fishing conditions. Many tournaments provide teams with satellite imaging, weather faxes, tournament grid maps and other valuable information, in addition to the usual scuttlebutt you hear from other competitors. It’s also the best time to ask questions about tournament rules, regulations, weigh-ins or any other questions you may have.

What captains meetings and kick-off parties are not good for is a place to tie one on.  Generally, alcohol is available at these events and in some tournaments the booze is free-flowing and served in copious amounts. I love to party as much as the next guy (probably more), but having a team consisting of a bunch of hung over, sleep deprived drunks is not conducive to winning tournaments. Minds need to be alert and eyes need to be sharp if you want to be competitive in this sport. Fortunately, most tournaments have awards banquets after the tournament is over. This is a much better place to celebrate. Hopefully, you can celebrate your  own victory.

TOURNAMENT DAY   

So far, you’ve done all you can to prepare for the big day. If it’s a shot gun start, be there early. This allows time to check sea conditions and hopefully, places you near the head of the pack when the gun fires. This is especially important if you’re one of the smaller boats in the tournament. Its no picnic being trapped behind the wakes of 40 foot sportfishers as they charge towards the horizon. After the pack thins out, check your baits. Remove all dead and dying bait from the tank and discard or save for chum. Remember, never keep your bait tank overcrowded. More is not better.

TROLLING TIPS

* STAY ALERT: Remember, you are the apex predator. Use all your senses and don’t rely solely on technology to find the fish for you. Successful predators rely on sight, sound and smell. Temperature charts and fishfinders enhance your natural senses, they do not replace them.

* STAY ACTIVE: Tournament fishing is not the time or place to be a salon potato. Sitting on the couch or sleeping in the bunk waiting for something to happen helps ensure that it never will.
You should divide the horizon into areas of responsibility, covering all 360 degrees. It is every team member’s job to search the sea for signs of life. If enough team members are available, three should be watching the water in addition to the skipper. There should be two sets of binoculars working constantly. One team member should be assigned to work the cockpit and the drop back bait. This person should also be responsible for watching the jigs as well as under them. Sometimes fish will track lures without ever surfacing. Quality, polarized sunglasses are a must for the team members not using binoculars. 

FOLLOW THE SWELL: The direction of the swell makes a big difference . Marlin tail down sea and tuna usually run in that direction too. Troll down sea at a 45 degree angle across the swell to position your lures in a more natural presentation.

* TIDES: Tides can be critical. Shark and marlin for example, travel vertically up and down in the water column with the bait. Slack tides often cause baitfish to rise to the surface while strong tidal flows tend to drive them downwards.

* LURE PATTERN: Constantly check and re-check your trolling pattern to ensure that all the lures in your spread are performing properly, replacing the lures that are not. Speed, swell and weather conditions all affect lure performance. You may have to reposition or replace a lure every time you change direction or increase/decrease speed.

* BAITS: Handle your baits carefully. Always have a strong drop-back bait on the hook and swimming in the tank  ready to go. Never touch baits with bare hands. If you drop a bait or bang it up with the net, dump it and get a fresh one.

* BE ORGANIZED: If you have a single, designated angler assign him the cockpit duty. Know who’s responsible for clearing which lines. Know who your wireman and gaffer is going to be before you hook a fish. Have all necessary equipment easily accessible and ready. Every team member should know what the other is going to do in the event of a sighting or strike. This is a team sport. You need to work together.

* BE PREPARED; If your trolling jigs in a marlin tournament and hook 100 pounds of angry mako, be ready to deal with it. Have the necessary equipment available to effect a safe, speedy release.

* NEVER GIVE UP; Fish hard until the last possible moment, ignoring the catches of other boats. Numerous tournaments have been won on hook-ups that occurred moments before lines out, despite an entire day of inactivity.

AFTER THE HOOK-UP

Once a hook-up has occurred, stay calm and stick to the game plan. Changing responsibilities in the heat of battle will only result in mass confusion and lead to a chaotic cockpit. If your trolling a lot of lures, the helmsman should turn the boat towards the fish. This maneuver swings the free lines away from the fish allowing the crew to clear the remaining lines and hopefully, elicits a second strike giving you a double hook-up.

Keep in constant communication with each other. The helmsman needs to know what the angler is going to do and vice-versa. You should never let your spool get below half its capacity. Too much line in the water causes a great deal of friction and stress, in addition to increasing the odds that the line gets nicked by flotsam. Also, remember that as your spool diameter decreases the drag against the spool increases.

When bringing the fish boatside, keep the boat moving slowly ahead, bumping the clutch(s) in and out of gear if necessary. Once the wireman has leadered the fish, the angler should back off the drag in case the fish bolts. Pay close attention to your rod tip to make sure the slack line caused by leadering the fish doesn’t get wrapped around it.      

LINES OUT
If you caught a qualifying fish, make sure you have plenty of time to make the weigh-in. Don’t forget to allow for weather and sea conditions. Conditions are usually rougher in the afternoon than in the morning adding to you travel time. This is especially important if you have a contending fish. Don’t be greedy, staying out to the last possible moment unless you have a surplus of time. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than having the winning fish on board, while making engine repairs 15 minutes prior to the weigh-in deadline. 

Contrary to popular belief, fat wallets, large boats and expensive tackle isn’t responsible for winning tournaments. A hard working team is all you need. I’ll put my money on a team of prepared, diligent and ambitious  novices over a group of wealthy, lackadaisical veterans anytime.

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