Tournament billfishing raises the bar for all involved.
It has been said that many anglers go through five stages as their experience in the sport increases. When we’re novices, often as children, we want to catch as many fish as possible during each outing. Later, we want to catch large fish, the biggest from each individual species.
Once we figure out how to catch whoppers, we want the acknowledgement of our peers. We want recognition, coupled with the prestige that comes with being an expert at something. Stage four is where many of us begin fishing competitively, to match our skills against others in organized competition. For a certain type of person, the thrill and camaraderie of tournament fishing represents the ultimate expression of our sport.
And the fifth stage? That’s where you say to hell with the first four and just do whatever makes you happy, which is fly fishing for some of us. But in reality, most people progress to one stage or another and remain there forever. If you think about it, that’s the fifth stage in its basic form: Folks fish the way they love to fish. Fishing being a personal sport as well as a social one, there’s no right or wrong way to participate, as long as one practices ethical standards.
But for those dedicated step-four types, the ones for whom competition and the goal of winning (either the glory of trophies, or big money, or all of the above) makes the sport all the sweeter. There is a wide variety of competitive fishing events, from red drum to striped bass to king mackerel, but here we’re going to focus on the field where the Big Dogs run: marlin tournaments.
Being competitive in the high-stakes world of hunting fish that occasionally weigh 1,000 pounds or more is no easy task. It takes serious commitment of time, capital, and other resources, combined with a clearly thought-out and executed strategy. You can’t just sign up and hope to win; you must do research and assemble a seasoned team on which everyone knows their job well.
Whether you’re fishing for Atlantic sailfish in South Florida or blue marlin in St. Thomas, USVI, you have to start with high-quality equipment that’s in perfect condition. This includes rods and reels, lures and baits, hooks, gaffs and tag sticks, line and leaders, and outriggers. Rod guides should be cleaned and oiled if they’re rollers, and checked frequently for line-cutting nicks if not.
The line on the reels should be replaced frequently, certainly before every event, and leaders replaced after every fish. Opinions differ on the types of leaders one should use: Most old-school skippers prefer snap swivels at the end of the double line, with the maximum length of heavy leader allowed by the International Game Fish Association being 30 feet on anything heavier than 20-pound-test.
Using such a long leader requires the designated wire man to pull the fish to the boat the last 30 feet or so by grabbing the leader. The old-school guys feel that this is the most reliable method. But modern philosophy involves wind-on leaders, where the snap swivel is omitted and the angler can wind the leader right onto the reel, in theory reeling the lure or hook right to the rod tip. Wind-ons still must meet the same maximum length requirements as the snap-swivel types, but the heavier leader is usually spliced to the double line in a smooth connection that rolls easily through the rod guides. The old-schoolers worry that splices may fail under heavy pressure, but the wind-on aficionados counter that a well-built wind-on leader rarely fails. Choose your poison.
The boat itself must be in prime condition, too, ready to perform at its best during battle, where every second counts. Engines and transmissions must be freshly serviced, and electronics must be fully functional and loaded with the appropriate cartography for where you’re fishing. Whether you’re using a fighting chair (highly recommended!), or stand-up harnesses, they, too, must be in top working condition.
Have a Plan
Formulating and executing a logical strategy is key to success. How do you know where to begin fishing? Research the tournament area, especially if you’re not intimately familiar with it. Local knowledge is hugely important, so talk to guys who fish there every day. Chances are they will give you the straight scoop on where the bite has been. Most fishermen (but not all—these step-four anglers can be very competitive) share knowledge freely.
The Internet is a great resource, too. Whether you subscribe to an ocean current and temperature service such as ROFFS, or you dig through the Web yourself to find it, a wealth of data exists, showing you where temperature breaks lie offshore, where blue-water eddies have formed, and where chlorophyll concentrations are highest and lowest. These vital indicators can give you, or your competition, a leg up when trying to determine where to put out the baits.
Part of your plan has to involve what type of lure or bait to pull. Both common choices have their advantages: Lures let you troll faster and cover more ground, while natural baits have a scent and can be dropped back repeatedly when a fish misses on the first pass. You also have to develop a strategy as to which species to target.
In most tournaments in the Atlantic, blue marlin are worth the most points, for obvious reasons: They simply grow far larger than either sailfish or white marlin, the other two predominant billfish species. Blues typically garner a certain number of points for a release up to a certain size, then get a number of points per pound for fish killed and brought in to be weighed.
In some instances, however, savvy captains have closely examined the rules and the point systems and devised alternate strategies to win. For instance, if a certain region has a large number of white marlin but the blues have been scarce, teams might scale back their tackle and the size of their baits to purposefully target whites. It could take three whites or more to equal the points you can potentially get for a single blue, but if you can catch and release enough whites, you might come out on top.
This often involves the use of dredges, multi-armed metal frames designed to be rigged with dozens of hookless baits and pulled beneath the surface to imitate a school of bait. Dredges have proven deadly on the smaller Atlantic billfish species, white marlin, and sailfish, and have become a standard gear item aboard many boats. This has led to some controversy from purists, but it’s safe to say that dredges are here to stay because they’re so effective.
Teamwork Is Key
Perhaps the most important strategy of all involves assembling a crew of skilled people at all the vital positions, from captain to angler. The captain runs the show, but the mate or mates must each know exactly what’s expected of them and work in unison with the other crew members. When a fish rises to a bait or a teaser, each member of the crew has a very specific job, which they must execute immediately and flawlessly.
The anglers have to know which rods they’re responsible for, and it’s simply common sense to have experienced anglers aboard who know the drill when it comes to correctly hooking a fish. It’s never a 100-percent foolproof process, but having seasoned people in the skill positions raises your odds of success exponentially. The last thing you want is indecision—none of this, “You take it,” “No, you take it!” Everyone has to know their role and react accordingly.
The mates must have all the necessary tools of the trade laid out and within easy reach in the cockpit. This includes premade hook rigs, cutters and pliers, floss, swivels and crimps if they’re used, gaffs, tag sticks, and a bait cooler. The cockpit must be arranged so that the anglers and mates can get around easily, with clear and uncluttered paths to the rods, the cockpit corners, and the transom.
The mates should know who will be the wire man and who will complete the end game, whether killing the fish or releasing it, maybe with a tag. This must be decided long before the fish ever shows itself, with the exception of the kill or release question, which will be determined by the size of the fish. That’s almost always the captain’s call, since the helm offers the clearest view.
Handling the Boat
Consummate boat-driving skills are a must for a successful captain. After the fish gets hooked and it’s game on, how the captain handles the boat can make the difference between a short and successful fight, or a long and drawn out standoff. Shorter is almost always better: The longer a fish stays on the line, the greater the chances of it escaping, and taking your points with it.
Much of the boat-driving strategy involves how to chase a fish. Many younger captains like to race in reverse after a fish, filling the cockpit with water and possibly endangering the boat and crew. While certainly a dramatic way to chase a fish, it isn’t necessarily the most prudent.
Most times it’s better to chase the fish in forward gear at a quartering angle to one side of the boat or another. The captain can see the line angle and keep pressure on the fish through creating a belly in the line with the subsequent water pressure, while still allowing the angler to gain line quickly. Only when the fish comes close will the captain spin the boat and back the final few yards. This method gives the crew much more control over a hot fish.
Know the Rules
This seems obvious, but time and again, winning crews get disqualified over technicalities that they should have been aware of. Know the IGFA rules inside and out, but equally important, know the specific rules of the tournament you’re in. Many tournaments include additional restrictions on top of the IGFA rules, and you have to know every possible scenario to ensure total compliance.
Finally, know the law where you’re fishing, whether it’s state or federal regulations or the law of a foreign country. The legality of fishing gets complex, so the more homework you do, the better off you’ll be. That’s really true across the board—homework, preparation, and strategy on all levels can help transform you and your hand-picked crew from also-rans to consistent visitors to the winner’s circle.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.