Fish to Win Tournaments

Tournaments can be downright humbling

April 15, 2019
illustration of rigged live bait and a marlin
One key to fishing well? You have to beat the fish to the bite. Dennis Friel

I recently fished a tournament in Quepos, Costa Rica, where The Hooker is now home-ported. A very good team beat us, and many other teams placed ahead of us as well. I knew from past experiences that tournament fishing can be a humbling experience, and this one was no different.

Our charter wanted to know what we could have done better to improve our standings. They only fish with us once a year, so I guess that might be one of the problems, along with a few others. I explained to them that we all fish with four to six ballyhoo in our spread, using non-offset circle hooks attached to 50-pound-test fluorocarbon or monofilament leaders, with most boats fishing 25- to 30-pound-test line on their reels. That is the easy part.

Most boats have two dredges and two bridge teasers too. This is where a few more ballyhoo or even mullet and mackerel come into play.


Some fish two or three layers of dredge bars on each of their big electric reels. These consist of two to three dozen or more ballyhoo in them along with other natural baits and artificial lures. Just the cost of the teaser baits on the dredge alone is crazy, especially for a charter boat. And don’t forget that natural baits will wash out during the day, requiring a steady stream of replacements.

After you throw all that stuff over the side of the boat, we troll around at 7 to 8 knots looking for fish. All the boats have decent fish finders but some are now using 360-degree sonars that show a horizontal view of anything swimming around them, while others (like mine) with conventional sounders only see what is directly beneath them. With those high-powered — and high-priced — sonar units, these boats can almost count the billfish around them.

Most of these teams have fished together for years, and they fish many days each season, either practicing or competing in a string of other events. There is definitely no shortage of talent.


One secret? These pros hold their rods all day. You have to beat the fish to the bite, and if you wait for a sail to eat the bait and knock the line out of the outrigger clip, you’re behind right from the start.

Another key to sailfishing is to hook the first one and then circle around it a few times looking for others that might still be around. One of the theories is that when one sailfish jumps, the others are attracted to the area.

Captains like to drive over where they got the first bite, hoping there might be a few more sails nearby. While continuing to drive in circles at full trolling speed, the captain must be able to know where the hooked fish is so they do not drive over the fish and the line, which takes a ton of practice — along with a few mistakes and broken lines.


The big problem: Hooking those darn sailfish! That’s a whole other article, with backlashes included.

Then you need to have a few friends out there with you. It’s a big ocean.

When fishing such a huge geographic area, you might go west while your friends go south. When someone finds the fish, you need that friend to either call you on the radio or send you a text message. And if you find the fish first, you need to call them too. If you don’t, they might not let you know the next time they find the fish first and you went a different direction. Teamwork definitely pays off.


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Even when you do find the fish, you still need to get lucky and drive over the hungry ones. I’ve seen a big crowd of boats catching sailfish in Costa Rica and even the boats that you would bet on have struggled while others catch them really well. But at the end of the year, you will see some of the same names at the top of the leaderboard more often than others. They are just that good.

Then there are the awards ceremonies, where you go to congratulate the winners. If you choose not to go, what will happen when you finally win? Maybe they will do the same to you. Practice good sportsmanship and tournament fishing can be a lot of fun for everyone.


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