Tournament Control

Getting ready for a big billfish tournament means a lot more than changing your line

About 10 years ago, the use of dredges in East Coast sailfish tournaments began to spread to the rest of the world. You can’t compete in any tournament today without pulling at least one.
About 10 years ago, the use of dredges in East Coast sailfish tournaments began to spread to the rest of the world. You can’t compete in any tournament today without pulling at least one.© Scott Kerrigan / www.aquapaparazzi.com

I am a very lucky guy, but even so, sometimes Lady Luck delivers another great opportunity that makes me feel unworthy. Such was the case this January when I fished aboard the 64-foot Southern Pride in the first leg of the Los Sueños Signature Triple Crown Series. as a hard-charging team that always places near the top, Southern Pride's reputation was a little intimidating to me at first.

I didn’t want to jump on and screw up a good boat’s program. But I knew fishing with them in Costa Rica would give me the chance to talk to some old friends and new young captains who could share some of their tips on preparing their teams for a big tournament, especially an event like Los Sueños.

First Things First

Choosing an event can range from fishing a sailfish tournament in the marina this week to traveling across the world to fish in a prestigious International Light Tackle Tournament Association event. All teams do something better than others; if your team mainly pulls dredges on the East Coast for white marlin and sails, then those skills should transition smoothly into the sailfish and marlin events in Central America. But if you fish all 130s chasing blues in the Azores or Bermuda, then you might want to spend a few weeks practicing your drop-back skills before spending big money on a tournament where feeding a blind strike on the long rigger means the difference between winning and losing.

Some teams travel the world and work on all aspects of the game, and these crews are usually the ones who rise to the top in most events. The ability to catch lots of fish quickly and the skill to fight and subdue large fish aren’t mutually exclusive, but the guys who can do both are in high demand.

Prepping for a high-profile tournament means a lot more than just changing line. Please read the rules!
Prepping for a high-profile tournament means a lot more than just changing line. Please read the rules!Dave Ferrell

Reading the rules before you put your money down for a tournament should give you a good idea of how your team will do in the event's format. Do you need a photographer to document releases? Is it going to be about numbers or a big-fish-on-the-dock ­tournament? How many anglers are you allowed? What kind of licenses do you need? Without reading the rules, you really have no idea of all the potential pitfalls. Even if tournaments say they run by IGFA rules, that usually applies only to the angling and tackle. There might be several exceptions, including passing the rod, which is about as far away from IGFA rules as you can get. Rules can also change from year to year, so to paraphrase Mr. Wolf in Pulp Fiction: "Pretty please, with sugar on top, read the ^&% rules."

Numerous hungry and aggressive Pacific sailfish make a great species to assess a team’s overall skills.
Numerous hungry and aggressive Pacific sailfish make a great species to assess a team’s overall skills. While most big fish tournaments rely on one lucky monster fish to come into your spread and eat, a numbers tournament really tests the entire crew’s ability to locate fish and turn single bites into multiples, then turn those bites into releases. This kind of fishing truly is a team sport, with the anglers doing much more than just winding from the chair when they are told to by the crew, and the teams with good captains rise to the top.Will Drost

Pre-fishing

I’ve never really cared for the idea of pre-fishing a tournament. Any fish I caught that day would be just another big one not in the spot the next day. I kind of feel the same way about big-money blue or black marlin kill tournaments, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of someone catching a real nice marlin the day before a big tournament. If I were pre-fishing a big marlin tournament, I’d only be scouting with teasers in the water. I don’t want to give a big one a chance of getting stung and taking off.

It's a different story, however, if you are fishing in a tournament where the most fish caught sets the bar. Capt. Chris Garner on Southern Pride says you need to do some pre-fishing so that everyone on board knows their job and how to do it. "I like to pre-fish just enough so that we are all on the same program. You have to get some repetition in so that you know what to do. We have pretty much the same seven or eight people who fish with us, but we have three core guys who make up our main team and know what they're doing."

Pelese's Capt. John Lagrone is one of the captains who pioneered sport fishing in Central America, and he says there are only two reasons for pre-fishing an event: honing your anglers' skills and finding the right ­location. "You want to be out and get accustomed to the changes. I like a minimum of four days of pre-fishing. You don't want to burn your anglers out, but you want them to be comfortable with what's expected — and the best way to get ready is to go. The most important day is the day right before the event," says Lagrone. Knowing where to start fishing on the first day is paramount.

Anglers need an educated thumb (top left) to feed a sailfish a circle-hook-rigged ballyhoo — if the fish feels any pressure, it won’t swallow the bait; it will keep trying to kill the bait with its ja
Anglers need an educated thumb to feed a sailfish a circle-hook-rigged ballyhoo — if the fish feels any pressure, it won’t swallow the bait; it will keep trying to kill the bait with its jaws. If this happens, once you push up the drag, the head will come off the bait and you’ll miss the fish.Richard Gibson

Anglers

Everybody dreams about getting the chance to be an angler in a big-money tournament, but few realize the responsibility and pressure associated with a spot in the cockpit. A single fish can mean the difference between first and fourth during tournaments where number of releases matter, so you best bring your A-game. “You have to stay above a 75 percent hookup ratio to stay competitive in the tournaments here in Los Sueños,” says Garner. “Of course you want everybody to be perfect, but that’s just not going to be the case. Besides being able to hook them, you need to have spent some time on boats — staying at attention and on your feet all day isn’t easy. Fishing just a couple of days a year and then showing up to fish a ­tournament isn’t going to cut it.”

“Obviously, I want team players who can hook the fish,” says Capt. Scotty Jones. “But it’s just as important to be able to keep calm under pressure. You need a guy who can shake off a miss and not let it affect the rest of his day. If they let a miss get under their skin or get upset when things aren’t going their way, it can affect the whole team. Keeping the same crew and anglers from event to event is huge.” Lagrone feels that you have to catch 90 percent to win. “With the competition you have around here in these tournaments, you have to catch 80 to 90 percent of your bites — because if you don’t, somebody else is going to do it. That becomes even more important if it’s not your best day in terms of bites. If they are scarce, every fish counts.”

During the first leg of the Los Sueños event, I never left my rod for more than five minutes, and I made sure someone was there to cover it when I did. I sat on the gunnel next to our short rigger bait with my hand on the line and my eyes on the teaser for eight hours a day for three days. One day, I had only three bites on my side, but you can’t afford to lose your concentration. The second you let up, a fish will sneak in and snatch down that rigger bait. If you’re not there to drop it back in free-spool, the fish might feel the drag and not swallow the bait.

Teams go to great lengths to get the freshest bait for the spread and on their teasers. Some captains pull only fresh bait teasers on tournament days, feeling that bait draws more fish.
Teams go to great lengths to get the freshest bait for the spread and on their teasers. Some captains pull only fresh bait teasers on tournament days, feeling that bait draws more fish.Tom Spencer

Bait And Dredges

Since most teams are pitching dead bait to everything from sails to giant black marlin, the importance of getting fresh, good-looking and long-lasting bait becomes key. “Importing bait down here to Costa Rica can be difficult, but getting bait from the United States is really important,” says Lagrone. “Having the best bait, both ballyhoo and mackerels, really helps your hookups over having ­something rotten out there.”

“We use Baitmasters — it’s the best you can buy. We use it for all of our tournaments,” says Jones. “It’s the gold standard down here now. A lot of the guys can bring it in on their private planes and use it all the time. I usually use our local ballyhoo on the dredges since they seem to have more color. We also juice them a bit to make them last all day.”

I’ve often wondered why a team will go from using plastic bait on the dredges before the tournament, which tear up the fish, only to switch to naturals once the tournament starts. Jones says that it’s mostly a matter of expense. “We will change our dredges in the tournament over to dead bait. Those artificial shads work just fine for day-to-day fishing, but if you were to fish the naturals versus the shad, then the naturals are going to work better. Either way, we fish a Squidnation squid dredge on one side,” says Jones.

Garner believes in consistency, but he will also switch to a natural dredge during a tournament. “We try to fish the same all the time, but we might pull more natural bait in our dredges during tournaments. We change our colors a little bit, but we usually try to keep things the same day in, day out. I think it’s more about being on them when they are biting than what you are pulling,” he continues.

A fast boat with good electronics can give a team an edge when the bite slows.
A fast boat with good electronics can give a team an edge when the bite slows.Will Drost

Boat Length and Speed

For some reason, the competitive spirit that comes with wanting to fish in tournaments also comes with a healthy dose of speed freak. Everyone seems to want to go faster than the next guy — and it’s not all just about ego.

“You’ve got to have a fast boat,” says Jones. “When you look at the 50-mile range you can fish in these tournaments, you can find yourself a long way out of position if a hot bite starts up somewhere else. When you look at the fence to the east and to the west, that’s a long way apart! I want to run from one side to the other sometimes, but even with our 37-knot boat, I can’t do it because it would just take up too much fishing time.”

Garner's Southern Pride, owned by Ted Smith of Macon, Georgia, is probably the fastest boat in the Los Sueños fleet, and he uses that extra horsepower to his full advantage whenever he can. "The speed certainly helps if you have a radio-signal locater; you can find out where the hot bite is starting, then pick up and head in that direction. It also helps in the morning when you are trying to set up in a better area and you're searching for life, birds and bait — signs that something is going to happen. A lot of times, I get 20 miles out and start looking at the radar to see what kind of life is out there on the surface," he says.

As far as size goes, Jones says a 50-footer should do you just fine. “You don’t need a giant boat; you need speed and good electronics. A good radar, a good sounder and a decent radio will help you find the fish. I picked up that new CHIRP sounder, and it’s light-years ahead of the old stuff. So far this year, it’s been a really weird season; we aren’t seeing as much activity on the top. It’s mostly been going on underwater. If you are only looking for birds, you can end up looking all day. Even when you find them, there might not be any billfish there. Sometimes I’ll move a mile or two off the birds and find the concentration down deep on the bait. I spend a lot of time looking at the bottom machine. I just wish I had a sonar!”

Lagrone prefers a smaller boat, but one that’s still capable of a decent top-end. “I really think some of the boats are just getting too big to maneuver as quickly as you need to,” he says.

Good electronics can help find birds and bait, which point the way to sailfish.
Good electronics can help find birds and bait, which point the way to sailfish.Will Drost

No boat is faster than a radio, and all three captains I spoke with were consistently vague about the lengths they go to get a small group of captains whom they will work with during a tournament. Suffice to say that all of the top teams rely on a select group of tournament participants whom they trust and will share information with.

“During a tournament, there’s a little different mindset going into it. It’s intense but fun when you’re winning — or at least in the hunt. Not so much the other way around,” says Jones. “I always tell our guys: You’ve got to fish these tournaments one day at a time. You can win it in a day and lose it in a day. We are fighting for today, not worrying about what happened yesterday or what’s going to ­happen tomorrow.”

You’re damn right, Scotty — I couldn’t have said it better!