Tips for Fishing Tournaments

If you put your money on the line in a fishing tournament, you better pay attention to some hard and fast rules.

April 2, 2014

From gear to knowledge, here’s your source for all things tournaments.

Intel on Spots

tournament-fishing tips

Intel on Spots

Use the time back at the lodge or bars to gather intelligence about the bite. Dave Ferrell

Get local intelligence. If you are fishing in a spot you’ve never fished before, getting some up-to-date local knowledge about where the fish have been caught over the last several days becomes paramount. Actually, this is the case even if you are fishing in your own backyard. Conditions can (and do) change daily, and if you are not “in the spot” you aren’t going to do as well as the boats that are in the meat. This is the one time in life where nice guys finish first.

If you pick up a couple of bar tabs at the local watering hole, or if your mates help the guys next door with some mundane chores, you might be surprised how much faster guys are willing to talk. Be prepared, however, to share your good fortune with others as well … Karma smiles on those who help out friends in need. If you don’t know a soul and hit a place late, then you will have to rely on a good satellite service like ROFFS or Hilton — which you should already have a subscription to if you are serious about fishing tournaments anyway. These services can save countless hours and fuel money by pinpointing favorable areas before you leave the dock.


Bait Plan

preparing bait
Preparing good bait before the tournament is vital. This includes making orders well ahead of time. Dave Ferrell

Secure good bait. If you plan on using live or dead baits, then you can’t wait until the week of a major event to put an order in for 15 dozen dink baits and 500 split tail mullet for the dredges. If you get any bait at all, it will probably be the dregs left over from last season. Bad dead baits during tournament time will cost you a lot more than just a couple of bites. Plan your tournament season early and make sure you put in all your bait orders months in advance.

Also, if you have the ability to carry live baits onboard, you should make an effort to secure a couple of live baits to make sure you have all your bases covered. Good teams know how and when to switch from lures to dead baits to live baits as the situation dictates. If you can’t fish with one of those methods, you are at a disadvantage to the skilled teams that can.

The Right Stuff

fishing offshore in tournaments
Make sure your team has the right skills for that specific tournament. Dave Ferrell

Make sure your team has the right skill sets. If you spend all of your time trolling big lures in the Gulf of Mexico for blue marlin, then don’t enter a live bait sailfish tournament in South Florida and expect to win on your first try. If you are fishing in a big money, fish-on-the-dock tournament, and your team has never taken a fish, it might be a good idea to hire a mate who has taken large fish in tournament situations.


By the same token, if you are going to fishing an all-release sailfish event in Costa Rica, you are going to need a mate who knows how to rig and hook fish on circle hooks. Every event is different and there is no shame in learning a new way of going about catching a particular species in a certain place. The more you learn, the more formidable an opponent your team becomes.

Know the Rules

captain's meeting for fishing tournament
Pay attention at the captain’s meeting — you don’t want to break any rules and lose out on a lot of money. Dave Ferrell

Attend the captain’s meeting and know the rules! Anglers have left millions of dollars on the table after breaking a rule that they didn’t even know existed. To avoid the possibility of law suits, read the rules and attend the captain’s meeting to make sure you know how to document releases, what tournament channels to monitor, what, if any, boundaries are in effect for the event, who can angle and who can’t, prize payouts, etc.

Not attending the captain’s meeting can cost your team money. I left $10,000 on the dock one time after discovering the dolphin tournament I was fishing was a two-fish event instead of a single big fish. My teammates swore that they were going to attend the captain’s meeting but did not. The 57-pounder we needed to beat was a two-fish aggregate and I’d caught two fish in the 30-pound range that would have at least taken second if we had weighed them. Another time, my team enjoyed a $7,000 windfall in the Cajun Canyon’s event after I decided to weigh a 30-pound dolphin over my teammates’ objections. “That fish won’t be big enough,” they said. The biggest fish weighed that day wasn’t in the daily prize category, so my fish took the money!


Photog Know-How

photographer for fishing tournament
The photographer is vital, especially in the current days of catch-and-release tournaments. Dave Ferrell

Make sure your cameraman knows what he’s doing. In these days of catch-and-release, it’s imperative that the person who documents your team’s catches has some level of experience with the team and the equipment he or she is using. Don’t pass on this very important job to the least capable person on the boat.

Your daughter might be an Instagram star, but if she botches the release photo on a daily winning fish it could cost you thousands of dollars. I’ve had to disqualify fish when the camera was set to the wrong date and time for the area. Talking video and/or stills of releases is usually one of the topics covered very thoroughly during the captain’s meeting … make sure your cameraman is there and sober as well!


filling fishing boat with gas
The last thing you want is to run out of gas when racing to the overlooked hot spot. Dave Ferrell

Maintain the boat and gear. Slacking off on maintenance rarely bites you when you are sitting at the dock — it usually comes to haunt you on the night before the big tournament! During a tournament you are usually going to run your boat a little harder. You might go wide open during the start to get to your favorite spot first, pick up and run 10 miles through nasty seas to reach a productive spot you heard about on the radio, or troll around at 14 knots trying to catch a wahoo. When you run hard, things tend to break.


This is one of the few variables that you can actually control, so keep you and your anglers safe and take care of the boat. All oil and filter changes should be up to date and never leave the dock without a full tank of fuel — you’d be surprised the things that get overlooked in the days coming up to a big tournament! Likewise, all of your tackle should be in tip-top shape, with new, properly working drags and fresh line. Your teaser reels, either electric or manual, should all work properly. If your halyards and outriggers need attention, now’s the time for you to take care of them as well; stiff halyards and rigging means more time resetting the spread, and time means bites during a tournament.

Know Your Role

fishing offshore tournaments
A good team is one where everyone does his or her job. Dave Ferrell

Make sure everybody knows their job. This is almost the same thing as having the right skill sets, but not quite. Every time a fish comes up into the spread, everyone onboard should know exactly what his job is at that point in time. If you’re an angler, then you go to your rod, no matter where it is, and pick it up and wait for the bite; if you are one of the mates, you head for the teaser reel on the side the fish came up on, etc. You shouldn’t have to be searching for the tag man, cameraman or gaff man when the fish is on the leader; they should already be doing their job.

Splitting the Pot

Top Fishing Tournament Tips - 5
Everyone enters to win, so finalize details about splitting up the pot before the tournament begins. Dave Ferrell

Make sure you have details about splitting up the pot in writing! I gave all of that dolphin money to the team because we didn’t have an agreement before the event. I felt that the money should go to the owner to offset expenses and that came back to me in the form of several more invitations to fish with the team in other events.

Before entering a tournament, the team and the moneyman backing the event need to come to some sort of agreement on how the winnings will be split. You are fishing to win so assume that you will! Seasoned, experienced crew hired to fish a tournament usually want to get a little more than the average mate and will want you to cover all their travel expenses, food and lodging. Most crews are happy with a 20-percent cut after expenses — but not all.

Practice Makes Perfect

fishing for dolphin offshore
Practice before the real thing. You don’t want to be the weak link in your team. Dave Ferrell

Anglers need more than one practice day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fished in a tournament with an angler who was fishing for his first time ever! And while some of you may believe in the luck of the first timer (it can happen), when a tournament requires the anglers to hook their own fish, you better have somebody back there who knows how to do it if you really want to win. Tournament time is not learning-how-to-fish time — or at least it shouldn’t be.

It’s kind of unfair to the whole team if you have an angler onboard who is really lousy, or hasn’t even had the chance to practice before that day. In reality, you’d prefer to have anglers at least as experienced as your mates. There’s no reason to hire Bo Jenyns or Charles Perry to come and wire for you if you can’t catch your butt with both hands. Angling — except when lure fishing — requires lots of practice to hit that 80- to 90-percent hookup ratio that wins a lot of tournaments.

Lodging and Incidentals

Tropic Star Lodge scenery
Staying at a place like Tropic Star Lodge in Panama will increase team morale. Staying somewhere far from the tournament base might do the opposite. Dave Ferrell

You might not think so, but where you are sleeping and who’s paying for it can affect a team’s morale and performance. If you are staying at a place that’s a 20-minute drive from the boat each morning, that’s 20 minutes of precious sleep you miss each day. The same goes for the food. You can’t control the weather, you can’t control the bite; what you can control is where you sleep and what you eat. If everyone’s working hard and putting in long hours for the tournament push, rewarding the teammates with a nice meal and quiet place to lay their heads each night (whether they use it or not) can go a long way on keeping a team happy —especially if the fishing hasn’t been stellar.


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