Tournament Fishing: From Pastime To Pro
Take your hobby to the next level and battle monster fish—for monster payouts!
Some of the world’s best offshore fishing is found in Southern Boating waters—the deep Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, where monster game fish are the apex predators of the ocean and prized for their aggression, power and speed. Three major types of offshore tournaments run year-round across coastal regions—billfish, meatfish and king mackerel—and can have jackpots that range from $20,000 to $1.5 million. Billfish tournaments target blue marlin, white marlin and sailfish, while meatfish tournaments target dolphin, tuna and wahoo, and king mackerel tournaments generally only target kingfish. If you want to take your angling skills to the next level but don’t know how, these eight simple steps can turn anyone into a tournament angler.
1. Offshore boat prep
Your boat must be able to handle offshore waters—sportfish, express and center consoles are popular in tournaments due to their practical, durable fishability. Consider installing outriggers, which are extremely helpful to keep your trolling spread tangle free. Your fuel levels need to handle a distance of 120 miles round-trip plus trolling at the fishing spots.
2. Properly sized tackle and equipment
Load at least six big game reels on board (suggested size is Shimano Tiagra 50W or Penn International 50), and a few smaller trolling reels in the TLD30 size range for smaller fish. You will need a good spread of trolling lures, a couple of teasers, a few squid chains, and a variety of dead bait rigs. For first timers, trolling lures are the simplest because they don’t require a lot of experience with rigging bait, plus they are extremely effective in offshore fishing.
3. Consider a captain or mate.
During a tournament, a mate will help rig tackle, coach anglers on reeling in a fish, handle fish when you get them close to the boat, and clean up. A good mate could make the difference between getting a fish on the line or not, by picking the right lures and knowing the best areas to fish. If you go without a captain, research the inlets and waterways where the tournament takes place. Freelance mates are available on a part-time basis for tournaments; ask your dock master for a referral.
4. Location, location, location
For your first tournament, choose one near your closest port with a simple format. Some of the larger, big-money tournaments have the strictest rules and the most competitive teams (often professional teams that do a circuit of competitions each season). To get started in tournament fishing, have fun and meet people in a smaller tournament setting. Also, select a tournament where the fishing grounds aren’t too far off shore. Some Mid-Atlantic and Gulf tournaments have a range of 60+ miles to reach the fishing sites, whereas Hatteras inlet is close to the Gulf Stream at a range of 25 miles. Some Florida tournaments have shorter distances of 10-30 miles depending on the inlet.
5. Detailed preparation
The difference between a good team and a mediocre team is in the details. Professionals ensure they have sharp hooks, clean leaders free from knicks and chafes, solid snap swivels, and maintained lures before every event. Make sure your reels are in good condition and drag settings are correct. For guidance, call a tournament outfitter who can provide tips along with pre-rigged, tournament-quality trolling packs.
6. Research is key.
Visit your local tackle shops and ask what and where people have been catching big fish, and with what baits. Online charting services provide sea surface temperature, chlorophyll charts and bottom topography as aids. For a small fee, Roffs Charts, Fish Track and Frying Pan Tower will personally call you with suggested hot spots. Research is invaluable for giving you a starting edge in the right direction so that you don’t waste time once you’re in the water. Also, be familiar with one of the weather buoy websites for reliable weather info.
7. Budgeting for the tournament
Most tournament entries range from $1,500 to $5,000 per team, but don’t be shocked if the first-place cash prize is $20,000. The payout varies with the size of the tournament and the different entry levels inside the tournament, but be sure to figure in the cost of fuel, dockage, bait, lodging (if you don’t stay on your boat), food, and potentially a captain or mate.
8. Choose your team wisely.
The competition will be much smoother with a team that has some fishing experience, isn’t easily seasick, loves fishing, doesn’t get too upset if you don’t win, and is willing to split costs. These guidelines may sound simple, but they make all the difference. Tournament fishing can be hours of silence followed by immediate heart pumping chaos. Be sure everyone knows his or her job when the line gets tight—who is the angler, who clears what lines, who is handling the fish when it gets to the boat, etc., to get the job done right.
The charm of tournaments comes from the camaraderie with other sportsmen and the adrenaline when you battle a fish three times your size; however most tournaments benefit a community fundraising effort. Regardless of winning, your time on the water assists non-profit community organizations such as Boy Scouts, at-risk youth programs, cancer facilities, and community centers. The mission of most events is to promote sportfishing in their area, promote conservation in sportfishing, raise money for such charities, and promote maritime culture, heritage and education. With only a few winners in each tournament, the continuous turnout proves the fun, competitive, bonding experience of offshore fishing tournaments keeps anglers coming back year after year.
Brandon Carter is the co-founder of Fathom Offshore—a provider of professional lures, rigging supplies and accessories for offshore fishing, handmade in Wilmington, North Carolina. Fathom Offshore partners with successful tournament captains to create lure and rigging designs for everyday use, and they promote offshore tournaments in the Carolinas. Brandon has been an avid saltwater fisherman for the past 18 years primarily fishing along the East Coast. He has entered offshore tournaments and fished in Bermuda, Costa Rica, Mexico, St. Thomas, and the Dominican Republic. “I believe in promoting the outdoors to kids, creating jobs by making fishing tackle in the U.S., and using my resources to inspire and help people.” His favorite part of owning a tackle company is testing lures on a weekday and calling it work, and being able to make anglers’ tournament dreams come true with his gear.
By Brandon Carter for Southern Boating July 2014