Top Dog

Competitive sport fishing is a difficult undertaking that tests anglers against game fish in a battle that requires skill, persistence, passion and teamwork. If you have the mental stamina and angling prowess to adapt to the situation and overcome challenges you will beat big fish consistently. However, as difficult as it can be to conquer determined predators on a regular basis—no matter the conditions—tournament fishing brings this lofty challenge to a whole other level.


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Photo: Allison Yi

What was once a battle of man versus fish is now exponentially more difficult with multiple teams doing their best to catch more and bigger fish faster than you. Whether it’s a SKA event in the Gulf, marlin tournament in the Abacos or cobia championship in the Panhandle, success won’t come overnight and it’s no coincidence the same boats and anglers grace the leaderboards season after season. What these crews have in common is that whether or not they are fishing a single event, multi-destination series, or simply fun fishing, they are fully dedicated and focused on catching big fish!

With all of the hard work and preparation that goes into competing in these premier events, don’t be the one to keep your team from taking home the hardware.

Although there are many differences between fun fishing and competitive tournament fishing, the most challenging hurdle to overcome is the financial factor. You’ll need plenty of greenbacks to compete, with tournament entry fees, additional calcutta entries, fuel, dockage and possible accommodation fees for extended stays only some of the associated costs with tournament sport fishing. And if you want to compete with the goal of going home a winner you better be willing to put up or shut up! If you sacrifice any step along the way you will already be at a disadvantage. The top teams don’t skimp on anything! Not to say that underdogs don’t ever pull out surprise victories, but it is nearly impossible to compete with perfection on a consistent basis.

If your sole purpose of tournament fishing is to cash a big check and pay some bills, then you’re better off simply attending the weigh-in. With that being said, there’s always the thought in the back of your mind that the next fish could be the one, and that’s what keeps many coming back for more. Some guys go to the casino, others visit the dog track and then there are those who fish competitively.

You get what you put into tournament fishing and if you work hard good things will eventually come. Every team has to put in long hours of prep work, but tournament fishing will be an easier transition for some than others. If you meticulously maintain tackle and equipment on your hunt for big fish on a regular basis, then you likely won’t be scrambling around at the last minute. The one thing that keeps everyone on a somewhat level playing field is a set of rules and regulations. Whether you are chasing meat fish or in a race for points, rules and regulations vary from event to event and you better have a firm grasp of the eligible species, regulations and fishing boundaries. I’ve seen teams run hours to reach distant waters in order to come back to the scales with massive yellowfin tuna, only to realize blackfin were the only eligible tuna species. In more recent news you likely heard of the story at the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament where a team’s million-dollar purse was disqualified because a mate onboard didn’t have a valid fishing license. With all of the hard work and preparation that goes into competing in these premier events, don’t be the one to keep your team from taking home the hardware.

You will have a severe handicap without top notch tackle and perfect rigs, but it is up to the captain to orchestrate a perfect spread through the anglers in the cockpit. No matter what species you are after the crew must work in unison. You’ll also need anglers who are more than willing to fish long hours in what could be less than ideal conditions as they search for that one bite. The best crews fish together as often as possible and everyone understands their role. While you don’t want lackadaisical anglers aboard and everyone should be serious about the intended goal, it’s important your crew can handle losing and end the day with a smile no matter the outcome.

Above and beyond all tackle and boat preparations, bait is one of the single most important factors in determining winners and losers. Whether trolling or kite fishing, tournaments are often won by the team with the freshest offerings. This is one aspect that immediately separates winners from weekend warriors. Everyone can spool fresh line and make sure their drags are set properly, but bait is the one factor where many elements are involved. Just as much work goes into procuring, properly handling, rigging and prepping bait weeks in advance than what is required on the day of the big event.

Once lines are in the water you are really competing against yourself. At this point all you can do is fish and forget about everyone else. You may see boats in your periphery or hear of catches on the radio, but you can only do your best to find the fish, present a lively spread and successfully land or release the fish that eat your baits. While local knowledge will help this conquest, there’s no ignoring the fact that having a large network of eyes and ears on the water will help in your quest for first place. You’ll have to give information to get information and you never want to treat your competition as the enemy. Always give condition reports and never silence your phone or ignore a hail on the radio when the bite is going off. Attend the captain’s parties and mingle with the other teams, hang out at the dock and become part of the tournament scene. You’ll be surprised how friendly and open many of the anglers are.

If you are entering your first tournament it’s nice to have high hopes, but it’s unlikely you will take top honors your first time around. There are however various entry categories and you can still bring home a whopping sum without taking first place. Be smart and know where the money is. Whether you enter the small boat division, fish meat fish categories during a billfish tournament or compete in an amateur division, there’s more than one way to go home a winner. You may not be able to outfish the competition, but you can certainly outsmart them. While on the topic of winning, it’s paramount you discuss how the potential payout will be distributed in advance. Will the cash be divided after tournament expenses, taken off the top or reinvested for future events? Money does strange things to people and remember that this is supposed to be fun.

Above all, posting consistent results requires the knowledge that only comes with years of on the water experience. You need to be able to read the water, current, weather and understand how changing conditions influence fish behavior and feeding patterns. Every cat has his day and you might stumble upon success, but you’ll likely be a one hit wonder if you don’t master the fundamentals first. Tournament dates don’t always coincide with ideal conditions and you’ll have to make do with the conditions you are given.

In the end, tournament fishing shouldn’t be much different than a typical day on the water. Every day you spend on the water should be practice for the big event and you should always be focused on catching big fish. On some occasions a single fish can mean the difference between going home empty handed or with a first place check, so it’s important you make every fish count. You really can’t do more than try your best to land every fish you hook. Don’t forget to have fun along the way and support the sponsors that make these dream events come true. Good luck on your rise to the top!