Know the Rules for Tournament Fishing

Sometimes bad habits can work against you.
A sportfishing crew fishing in rough waters.
Whether there’s big money on the line or just a fun day offshore, crews should strive to follow the rules for every catch. © Scott Kerrigan /

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It looks like most boats are using light tackle to catch billfish these days and posting a lot of it on social media, which is great—we all get to share in the excitement of those crazy bites and jumps. Watching some of these crews working the ­cockpit, though, I have noticed that a few are grabbing the rod tip first in order to get to the leader when they’re out fun fishing. I always like to fish every day like it’s a tournament because there might be a time one day when your muscle memory kicks in during a tournament that requires a video of the release, and grabbing the rod tip first is an automatic disqualification.

I am sure with many of these scenarios that the light leader went into the rod tip to count the release first, but it does start a bad habit, one that could get that fish disqualified during a big-money tournament. It’s one thing to have an observer on board to watch for that splice hitting the rod tip, but trying to see it from a GoPro mounted on the bridge is another thing entirely. I know that many ­novices—and sometimes even seasoned anglers—can forget to lower the rod properly so that the mate can grab the leader without touching the rod tip first. I have even seen crews grab the rod tip—with saltwater flying in their faces—and then grab the double line rather than the leader. Even when you’re using a short double, it still happens.

Muscle memory also works when you get a bite. The mate gets to the rod first, even when you tell them that you want to hook your own fish. This is especially true on a lot of charter boats where the mates hook fish for their clients for a living, or even on a private boat that entertains the owners’ friends and guests who might not fish much. And there are so many tournaments that let the crew be an angler or even hook the fish and hand off the rod. It gets even worse when you have a language barrier with the crew and you ask them to let you hook your own fish. Those mates are really fast and they have great eyes—most of the time they see the fish coming into the spread before it even gets to the bait or lure.
When fishing heavier tackle, you often see the crew helping the angler get the rod into the gimbal of the fighting chair by grabbing the rod to help. It’s one thing to help stabilize the angler to move with the rod, especially when it’s rough, but again, that’s a DQ if the tournament follows IGFA angling rules.

Checking leader lengths is another area where you can make a mistake. IGFA rules limit leaders to a maximum of 30 feet, measured from the knot, swivel or splice that connects it to the main line (or double line) to the back end of the hook. When you’re using wind-ons, don’t forget to include the short bait leader in the overall length too.

There is so much money riding on these tournaments these days and there are so many rules, it’s not easy to understand and follow them all. And if you win big money or have someone protest you, then you might also have to take a polygraph. But if you fish every day like it’s a tournament, you’ll be much less likely to make a mistake during the day, even if the cameras are running and the observers are watching. Best of luck this season.

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