Getting Started Tournament Fishing

News & Tips: Getting Started Tournament Fishing

I still remember the moment rather vividly, even though I was just a teenager. I was watching my usual cavalcade of Saturday afternoon fishing shows. My mother happened to walk into the room just as Ray Scott was crowning the winner for whatever B.A.S.S. event happened to be featured on that week's episode of the Bassmasters. With motherly love and pride in her heart she turned to me and said, "That will be you someday." I quickly replied that it wouldn't, as I didn't like fishing tournaments. When my mother questioned me about this, I told her that I liked fishing too much to want to spoil a day on the water by taking it too seriously and letting the pressure take the fun out of it all.  

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Contrary to what I used to think, the addition of the element of competition to the normal challenges faced by an angler actually adds to and enhances the overall experience.

I held this attitude toward tournament fishing for many years, and while I continued to watch them on TV, it was mainly to learn about different techniques and lures, rather than out of pure interest in the events. Eventually I realized that I really shouldn't be judging something so harshly without having any first-hand knowledge of it. I decided that I would have to see for myself what these spectacles are really like.  

Five minutes before the "blast off" of my first bass tournament, a Pro-Am event on one of the Great Lakes, I felt something in my stomach that I had never felt before while fishing: a serious case of the butterflies. It was a combination of nervous anticipation and a rush of adrenaline, something like what you might feel before a final exam or right before taking your wedding vows. Perhaps not right at that moment, but sometime thereafter, over the course of the next two days of that tournament, I became a convert. If you have never fished such a tournament before, it may be difficult to imagine the atmosphere that surrounds you, and it is difficult for those of us who have to explain.  

Contrary to what I used to think, the addition of the element of competition to the normal challenges faced by an angler actually adds to and enhances the overall experience. I equate this to most other competitive sports in that as much fun as they are to play, they can be even more fun when there is actually something on the line. As with anything, I suppose some people can take things too seriously, but fortunately those folks are in the minority among the tournament ranks.  

Getting Started in Tournaments  

Countless fishing tournaments and derbies are held across the United States and Canada for species such as bass, walleye, salmon, trout, musky, pike, crappie, catfish, perch and carp. Although the terms "tournament" and "derby" are sometimes used interchangeably, they have very different meanings. Tournaments are usually events in which all fish caught are released, while derbies generally allow or require the fish to be kept. Some tournaments are small, one-day, local events, while others, primarily for bass and walleye, have become so popular that multi-event "circuits" or "tours" have emerged over the years, offering fame and fortune to their series champions.

After more than 15 years of participating in bass tournaments, I am often asked how one goes about getting involved in fishing tournaments. I feel that the best way to get your feet wet in this game is by first competing in some "Pro-Am" format events, which are becoming increasingly popular, especially on the bass and walleye circuits.  

In this format, an amateur competitor (which is usually defined as a competitor who has not competed as a professional for a number of years or at all) is teamed at random with a pro, or with a different pro for each day of a multi-day tournament. The amateur (sometimes referred to as "co-angler" or "non-boater") fishes from the back of the pro's boat, and is sometimes able to use the pro's gear too, if they don't have their own suitable equipment. The obvious advantage of this format is that a beginner does not have to shell out big bucks for an assortment of tackle, not to mention a proper boat, before they know whether they are going to like the tournament scene. (Tournaments are simply not everyone's cup of tea.)  

A few of these tournaments offer the less-obvious benefit of allowing the pro and the amateur to fish for a combined limit of fish, rather than weighing what the amateur catches separately from what the pro catches. In this format, the pros are competing against the other pros, while the amateurs have their own division, with their weights carried over from one day to the next. Believe it or not, under this format, it is possible for an amateur (or a pro, for that matter) to win their division without having caught a fish, relying entirely on their partner instead. Of course, this would require an incredible amount of luck, so I'm sure it doesn't happen very often. What does happen, however, is that amateurs are competing against others who are likely of similar skill level and experience, rather than possibly being intimidated by having to compete against full-time pros that have been on the circuit for years. Most of these events require the pro and the amateur to fish for their own separate limits and keep them separated in the live well, but many pros will go out of their way to help their partners catch their limits and do well, right down to showing them where to cast and what to throw.  

Regardless of the format, these events offer a tremendous opportunity for the beginner to learn the winning ways of the pros. Remember that these guys are gunning for big bucks (usually anywhere from $2,000 to $50,000 or more for first), so they are not going to hold anything back, even if it means revealing some of their secret tricks, techniques and favourite spots. Having said that, the pros do frown upon an amateur who broadcasts their day one pro's secret spots to other competitors during a multi-day tournament.  

The entry fee for these events is generally not cheap (usually $200-$400), but considering the wealth of "crash-course" knowledge and experience that can be gained by a beginner during such a tournament, they are well worth the money and are usually cheaper than hiring a guide to show you around a particular body of water for a weekend. In addition, you have the chance to win some cash and/or great prizes, such as boats, motors, electronics, rods, reels, etc. (Amateurs sometimes don't compete for cash.)  

Now some of you may feel that you already have enough knowledge and experience to jump right into the pro ranks, and that's great. However, fishing in a tournament is very different from fishing your favourite lake on a Saturday afternoon, and unless you've done it before, you don't realize how different it is. There is no question that today's angler is much more knowledgeable about all aspects of their fishing than the angler of 20 years ago, and many of us can actually apply that knowledge while out on the water. However, add the pressure of absolutely having to catch fish, within a time limit, under less-than-ideal conditions — perhaps on a body of water that you are not really familiar with — and it is amazing how scramble-headed you can become. Given enough time and pressure-free conditions, many of us can turn a slow day into a good day just by sitting down, thinking about the situation and analyzing what is happening, or not happening, and figuring out what we need to do differently to start catching fish. Those anglers who can do this on a consistent basis under the collar-tightening conditions of a tournament are the ones who are usually the most successful.  

Once you have fished a few Pro-Am tournaments and you have developed a feel for what these events are like, you may decide that you would like to pursue this aspect of angling on a "cast for cash" basis by competing as a professional. Whether you want to fish one or more local tournaments, or one or more series of tournaments, you may need a tournament partner, as many of these events are "team concept."

Choosing a Tournament Partner  

Ideally, you want a partner who complements your fishing style, rather than mirrors or interferes with it.

A young man with an interest in bass tournaments asked me a while back how he would go about choosing a tournament partner. With only a touch of humor in my voice I said, "About as carefully as choosing a wife!" Depending upon how many tournaments you plan to fish, and how much practice time you plan to devote, you may spend almost as much time with your tournament partner in a given season as you do with your life partner. Needless to say, besides looking for someone who is a good angler, you also have to be able to get along with your partner. Remember that you are going to be spending eight or nine hours a day in the boat with this person during tournaments, under often tense conditions, plus the time you spend pre-fishing. That is more than enough time and opportunity to kill each other, especially when the fishing's tough, so choose wisely.  

This term is probably over-used in professional sports — to the point of cliche — but when it comes to a tournament partnership, you do need to have "chemistry." By that I mean that you should work well together as a team and be able to trust each other. If each angler has their own boat and they can split up during pre-fishing to maximize their search for fish and patterns (a great advantage, incidentally) then come tournament day, each partner must be able to trust the other to only take them to spots where there is a good chance to catch good fish. You need to have as much confidence in your partner's spots as you do your own, or you will not fish effectively and then you are just wasting your time.  

This chemistry should also involve the way you fish. For example, if both anglers can only cast a certain way or can only cast from the front of the boat, they may find that they are constantly getting in each other's way. Ideally, you want a partner who complements your fishing style, rather than mirrors or interferes with it. There is something to be said for a partner whose strengths when it comes to certain fishing styles or techniques are somewhat different from yours, as this adds to your team's versatility but, in the long run, it's better if you both prefer to fish in similar ways, or one of you is not going to be very happy a lot of the time. For instance, if your partner only likes to fish deep, offshore structure, but you find that mind-numbingly boring and need to dunk shallow, thick cover instead, you're going to have some issues.  

Some people may prefer a partner who has less experience than they do, as they are comfortable in a leadership role, while others may prefer a more seasoned partner, hoping to learn some things and improve their own skills along the way. Either way can work, as long as both anglers are comfortable in their roles; however, I feel that in order to reduce the chance of friction and maximize the chances of success, it is best if partners are of basically similar or equal skill levels and experience.  

So how do you find this ideal partner? Probably the best way is to join a local fishing club, such as a local chapter of B.A.S.S., if bass is what you're interested in. These clubs offer the opportunity to meet other serious anglers in your area who share your passion, and many clubs hold small tournaments for members, thereby offering you the chance to fish with different partners under tournament conditions but without the intensity of a major, big bucks event. In these fun-but-serious events, members who have boats are paired with members who don't, and if you've never even tried a Pro-Am tournament, these "clubbies," as they are often affectionately called, are a great way to find out if tournament fishing is something you'd like to pursue further.  

Another good source for at least locating potential partners is the internet. There are tons of fishing sites devoted to just about all species of game fish, and many have dialogue forums such as chat rooms or message boards where you can connect and interact with others who may also be looking for a new tournament partner. I wouldn't suggest signing-up immediately for a tournament with someone that you have just met over the internet, but treat it as an opportunity to maybe make some new fishing buddies, from which a new tournament partner may emerge.  

Once you have found a partner, spend as much time on the water as you can prior to actually fishing in any tournaments to get comfortable with each; to get to know each other's style; and to basically develop a feel for each other. Don't expect instant success with your new partner, as it often takes at least a couple of seasons for a new team to "gel." But like a fine wine, a good team gets better with age.  

Whether you hope to one day "win the big one" or are content to simply compete in a few small tournaments for little more than bragging rights, tournaments can add a level of excitement and energy to your fishing that can be addictive. Give it a try, but remember...I warned you.