Tournament-Fishing Tips from Proven Winners

Top captains and mates share their secrets

tournament-fishing tips
Some of the top captains and mates in the world are here to help with winning strategies for your next tournament.Scott Kerrigan

Whether fishing a single tournament, a regional circuit or an entire season’s worth of events, a team must undergo a great deal of planning, preparation, practice and commitment to be competitive in today’s tournament scene. Rest assured, tournament fishing is a team sport, with every member, from the owner down to the guy taking the picture, bearing the weight for the entire operation. A team is only as strong as its weakest link, so knowing your job cold, and doing it without question, represents the swiftest path to success. At the same time, fishing should be fun, and a boat with an uptight vibe usually doesn’t have much of a shot at victory either.

Here, then, are a number of tournament pitfalls, and steps you can take to avoid them. Fishing a tournament can be a great way to supercharge your excitement level, but only if you have a realistic chance of competing for the win.

tournament fishing
All finances should be decided before the tournament. This includes paying for the entry fees, and more.Scott Kerrigan

Money Matters

Always a contentious subject in either a win or a loss, all financial dealings need to be worked out first, regardless of whether you’ll be fishing on board a private boat or one you charter. The team chartering the boat needs to know exactly what the charter fee includes. Do fuel, bait, food and drink cost extra? And who is responsible for the tournament entry fees?

Private boat owners need to have their cost splits worked out in advance when sharing the boat with any guests. Most tournaments also have side jackpots or calcuttas that you can enter, with many paying out six or even seven figures to the winners. The percentage of potential winnings for the crew or boat, and whether that comes from gross winnings, off the top, or net winnings, after tournament expenses, is also something that should be agreed upon in advance. Ten percent per crewman seems to be the average going rate in the industry these days. Make sure you get all agreements in writing, signed by all parties.

docks at a tournament
Some of the best slips are booked well ahead of a tournament, so logistics — including marina reservations — are a priority.Scott Kerrigan

Logistics

Reservations for the marina and the shore-side accommodations for the crew should be made as early as possible. Some of the best slips at certain locations are booked a year ahead of time, and rooms may not be available at some of the popular smaller venues if you wait too late. Also check on rental cars or golf carts, if you’ll be in need of them. Be sure to have the most up-to-date charts for your GPS plotter and paper charts when traveling to different locales. If you’re traveling out of the country, research the customs and immigration procedures, and where you can get provisions and supplies. In non-English-speaking countries, we normally hire an agent.

crew for fishing tournament
A good crewman needs to be hired well ahead of time.Scott Kerrigan

Additional Crew

If you need to hire a regular crewman, or just an additional hand for an event, try to get a commitment from the person as soon as possible. The best guys are usually booked up well ahead of tournament time. When fishing a circuit or a season, we try to keep the same mates for the duration of it. This ensures that everyone stays on the same page, knows where everything is, and is familiar with the way that we fish. Showing a new mate how you do things just two days before a tournament can lead to costly mistakes under tournament pressure. Plus, it takes time away from the duties of the other crewmen to train a new person. One exception to this rule comes when fishing a new place for the first time. Hiring an experienced crewman with valuable local knowledge sometimes pays off as well.

Clean Boats Win

Fishing in big-money tournaments takes a big commitment of both time and money, but to be successful you have to fish like it’s a tournament day every day, even when fun fishing. This gets your anglers and crew on the same page and helps teams conquer unexpected adversity.

The boat itself needs to be properly cared for and maintained. Try to have all annual service work done before the season starts, test and run all systems at the dock, and make sure your safety gear and life raft are up to date. Have as many spare engine/generator parts (belts, impellers, sensors), pumps, outrigger parts/cables, engine oil, hydraulic fluids and the proper tools on board as possible. Having a good spare-parts kit on board can get you away from the dock or back to the dock after a minor breakdown.

cleaning boat on the dock
Boat maintenance is a must to ensure things go smooth out on the water.Scott Kerrigan

Tackle

Tackle preparation consumes an enormous amount of time. Everything must be ready-made and then double-checked. Don’t wait until the last moment to get started. Rod guides need to be inspected for cracks, chips or seized rollers. Reel drags need to be checked for smoothness and set to the proper drag setting for the line class.

All line should be checked for damage or frays, and then re-spooled or top shot as necessary. All connections and knots need to be retied or redone.

You should always carry a couple of spare backup rods while fishing. These rods need to be rigged with the drag set and ready for use at any moment. You can’t store them inside, where there might be “some assembly required” before you can get them in the game. I also like to keep a reel cover on the spare rods to keep excessive salt spray off the reels.

Dedicated bait-catching rods, both spinning and conventional, should also be out in the cockpit and rigged. By using a five-rod cluster-style holder on each side of the aft-bridge railing, I can store all my spares and bait-catching rods so that they are out of the way, yet easily accessible.

While fishing the Texas tournament season in the Gulf of Mexico last year, we would fish a heavy-tackle, big-fish-on-the-dock event one weekend and a light-tackle, all-release tournament the next, so we had to carry and keep a vast assortment of terminal tackle rigs ready at all times.

preparing fishing tackle
Don't wait until the morning of the tournament to prepare tackle and check gear.Scott Kerrigan

Terminal tackle failures are inexcusable, since keeping your tackle tight is one of the few variables that the crew can control.

For the heavy-tackle events, we kept around two dozen lures of different sizes and head shapes rigged with single-hook rigs. We also kept another dozen single-hook rigs with leaders already crimped on so that we could quickly re-rig a lure by simply sliding the bitter end of the spare leader/hook-set through the lure and crimping on a new loop end.

Fishing live baits around the deepwater oil rigs by using big blue runners and small tunas can be very productive in the Gulf. For live-baiting, we kept three or four different sizes of circle hooks (from 16/0 to 20/0), with Dacron bridles attached, on 24-foot fluorocarbon leaders. We stored 10 rigs with each hook size in labeled zip-lock bags.

preparing tackle before fishing tournament
Depending on the type of event, you'll need a different set and amount of gear and tackle.Scott Kerrigan

We used two different methods to catch live bait during the Texas season. First, I would try to troll the up-current using planers and Clark spoons on short, kite-style rods. If I was marking bait on the sounder ­— typically on the up-current side of the rig — and I wasn’t getting any bites, we switched over to vertical butterfly jigging and used the high-tech jigging rods and reels by Shimano. Since we had both kinds of bait-catching rods and rigs ready at all times, we could switch tactics quickly without eating up tournament time.

When fishing dead baits on light to medium tackle, we use circle hooks in the 7/0 to 12/0 range rigged on 6-foot fluorocarbon leaders in 60- to 150-pound-test. I always keep at least 50 to 100 rigs of each size in labeled zip-lock bags, 25 rigs to a bag. I also coil and store spare wind-on leaders of different sizes with snap swivels already attached in labeled bags.

Our primary dredge rigs, squid chains and other teasers are also pre-rigged and ready to go, with spares of each stored for easy access.

dredge fishing in tournament
Having high-quality bait is a necessity.Scott Kerrigan

Baits

Crews that catch and pen their own live bait for extended periods enjoy a distinct advantage in live-bait events.

Having and maintaining a good supply of the best bait possible is an absolute must. For frozen bait, make your orders early. As the season progresses, bait quality and supply diminishes quickly. Making a bulk order early, storing it, and then having it sent to you as needed is ultimately the way to go.

Catching fresh “dead” baits just before a tournament is a good option in some areas. Make a chilled salt brine to put the baits into immediately after you catch them; then gill and gut the baits and return them to the brine. You can keep good baits fresh for several days in brine, as long as melting ice doesn’t add too much fresh water to the mix.

Live bait for the south Florida tournament season needs to be ordered well in advance, unless you have the means to catch and store your own. Most winning teams keep bait pens filled with baits that are hand-fed weeks before the event.

preparing bait for fishing tournament
Fresh bait always gives teams an advantage over crews using pre-ordered frozen bait.Scott Kerrigan

Million-Dollar Question

The biggest question that always pops up just before a tournament is: Where are we going to fish? Internet access on smartphones, tablets and laptops and sat-phone links offshore allow you to monitor water conditions in real time 24/7. There are several websites now, that, for an annual fee, provide unlimited access to information such as sea-surface temperatures, chlorophyll levels, salinity, water color, current direction and more. By watching the areas that you want to fish on a daily basis, you can keep tabs and have a pretty good feel for what’s going on.

Do your homework and familiarize yourself with each different site’s features and functions, and learn how to use them. Another option is sites such as ROFFS or Terrafin that analyze all the data and give you a fishing forecast that’s good for 24 to 36 hours. You can sign up for a single forecast or a package deal that’s good for a given number of forecasts.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Now that you have a team together, the boat and tackle ready, the bait secured and a spot picked out on the chart, it’s time to practice and pre-fish. The more practice fishing your team can do together, the better. A team needs to fish together for a while before they can make things work smoothly and capitalize on all situations. Every team should hold a meeting to discuss what the plan will be, and detail each person’s responsibility for different situations. Also, discuss what plan B will be when plan A doesn’t work out. Just like any sports team, everyone in the cockpit needs to know what they are supposed to do and what the others are doing, so that they can back each other up as necessary.

fishing tournaments
Do your homework and learn the fishing grounds before the tournament starts.Scott Kerrigan

Pre-Fish

Pre-fishing the areas you want to fish during the tournament in the days and weeks prior to the tournament will give you the best input and idea of what’s happening on the water. During the tournament, pay attention to the radio to learn what’s being reported and where. If it’s not happening where you are, don’t be afraid to make a move — you only have a limited time to fish during a tournament, and every second counts.

Know All the Rules

Attend the captains meeting! Any rule changes in the tournament will be detailed at that meeting. Tournament organizers will also answer any questions that you have concerning the rules. Make sure everyone is aware of IGFA rules, the individual tournament rules, the lines in/out times, return/weigh-in deadline times, and check that all individual and boat fishing licenses and permits have been purchased and are current.

Most tournaments require video confirmation of released fish, so make sure that all cameras have charged batteries, the correct time-and-date stamp and ample recording space. Do not store your hand-held cams in the air-conditioned salon and then rush out to take your release photos. Keep them out in the cockpit so that they don’t fog up from a rapid change in temperature.

fishing in tournaments
Building chemistry among the team is a key to success in tournaments.Scott Kerrigan

Teamwork, Networking and Karma

There are a lot of things that go into making a great tournament team. I firmly believe that one of the most important ingredients is having the same anglers and crew in every tournament that you fish. As a captain, you are only as good as your mates and your anglers. Everyone has a job, and if the team has spent enough time fishing together, you don’t have to say much during crunch time.

Capt. Ronnie Fields frequently places in the top three while fishing on Big Oh and says that a big part of that success comes from the ability to network with other captains.

You can be the best fisherman on the planet, but if you don't have the right mates and the right anglers, who can hook 90 percent of what you see, you are probably throwing your entry fee out the window. I fish a lot of tournaments on Big Oh with my brother, Ronnie Fields, and crew, and with the exception of an angler change every now and then, they keep the same core group for every tournament. And they win or place in almost every tournament they fish.

Another important factor is pre-fishing. Too many crews wait until the day of the tournament to try and find the fish. Heading out to a spot where you caught fish a week earlier generally doesn’t bode too well for your chances — conditions change daily. Pre-fishing also allows your crew to stay sharp and work out any problems or tackle failures that could cost you a fish or, worse, a day of tournament fishing.

You have to become a scientist of the sport. Knowing how to read and study the weather, currents, water conditions, bottom structure and feeding patterns is the difference between the winning teams and the dead money.

A big part of the game for most winning captains is their ability to network on the dock. They form loose groups of fishing partners who help each other out during the tournament. It’s much easier for a group of boats to locate the fish, either prior to the event or throughout the fishing day. Cell phones and sat phones make it easy to stay in touch on and off the water. My wife used to hate tournament season, because I would be gone all day, and then come home and get on the computer or cell phone for half the night trying to find out from others what conditions they might have seen in other areas.

Last but not least is karma. It’s important to have good karma on the boat, and staying positive does produce results. Leave the negative attitudes at the dock. The owner has a lot of money invested in the tournament, and the last thing he wants is a bunch of people screaming and hollering at each other.

fishing offshore
Practice makes perfect. The best tournament teams fish every day like it's a competition.Scott Kerrigan

Every Day Is a Tournament

In the past, I’ve written that the best-of-the-best fishing teams don’t do anything different when getting ready to fish a big tournament. Every day is a competition, and the top crews are prepared for a tournament every day that they fish.

Some tournaments are still fished under the IGFA rules, which are the international standard to ensure it is a sport. Others tournaments have jungle rules that allow almost anything except hand grenades.

If you normally use line that overtests, you and your team could get a rude awakening come tournament time.

If the tournament requires the use of IGFA-class line, many teams will have to change their line. After changing to line that breaks where it is supposed to, make sure to check the drag settings with a certified scale. Nowadays, with the trend toward using lines that test way over the class stated on the spool, there’s little need to check drags with more than a one-handed pull from time to time, since there’s little chance of breaking these lines during normal day-to-day fishing. You can’t get away with such sloppiness when using IGFA-rated lines.

Reels need to be serviced regularly in order for the drags to operate smoothly. Whether the crew does it themselves or sends them back to the factory or to a local tackle shop, getting it done prior to the biggest local tournament is a smart idea.

Nothing would make me more likely to look for a different boat and crew than reels that have the line wound up in a pile in the middle of the spool, or with more than about a half an inch gap between the line and the frame of the reel. Always keep your reels properly filled.

We check all of our lines daily and change only the top shot whenever there is any discernible chafe, or even a hint of the milky, opaque look that is a sign that the line has, at some time, been stressed past its elastic limits. Top shots save lots of time and money.

In tournaments, speed becomes more important than it is on a relaxing day with the family. Having more baits and lures already rigged is a good idea. In the middle of a hot bite, you need to have the bait out quickly, not sitting in the cooler. Spare rods and reels with leaders and baits (live, dead or artificial) ready to go are essential. Fish do not grab baits that are still sitting on the covering board; they have to be in the water to get bit.

Any bait is better than no bait, and wasting time setting up a particular bait in its exact position cuts your chances for multiple hookups. Get all your baits out there somewhere, and then spend the time to fine-tune them.

If you find that you have a lot of extra work to get done in order to be ready to fish a tournament, then don’t spend too much in the calcutta; you are already an underdog.

chartplotter for fishing
A good chart or image can help you to pinpoint a specific spot to start the day’s fishingScott Kerrigan

Satellite Charts and Communication

Satellite water-temperature charts and fishing services provide a tremendous help in locating temperature changes and fish-holding warm-water eddies, especially in the Northeast and the Bahamas. The edges of temperature changes provide good places to start looking for current breaks and rips, which, in turn, push bait to the surface. These sea-surface charts and services are essential in the Northeast, due to the vast boundaries for most events. A good chart or image can help you to pinpoint a specific spot to start the day’s fishing, and can save you hundreds of dollars in fuels costs that you would have otherwise burned up looking for good water.

Crew Communication

Good communication among your team, anglers, mates and captain is pertinent to tournament success. Here’s a small sample of the questions that need to be answered and understood by everyone before the start of every tournament day: how many teasers are we fishing; how many hook baits do we need to fish in the water; what happens when a fish comes to the teaser; which angler is positioned where. These are all fine little details that need to be hashed out long before you ever think of leaving the dock. Practice fishing is a great way to ensure that your communication is consistent. Staying calm is key, and screaming at your team will get you nowhere.