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Big Game Hunters

bait fish

Getting into the Game

Gearing up to compete in top-level offshore tournaments is a serious and costly undertaking


Most anglers who enjoy saltwater fishing gravitate toward one or two favorite species and then spend most of their time pursuing those fish. As their experience and knowledge grow, these same anglers will likely branch out to try new and different aspects of the saltwater game, often by taking a trip to unfamiliar waters a few times a year.

But, inevitably, those among us who possess a fiercely competitive spirit opt to go the route of formal competition, entering the complex world of fishing tournaments. Some do so because they simply enjoy the camaraderie that comes with being around fellow fishermen. Shared experience and knowledge definitely make such events attractive to many of us. But others get into the tournament game for different reasons.

Eager to Compete

A lot of us want to see what we’ve got, and there’s no better way to test that than by comparing our skills with those of our peers. It’s a basic human desire to test and push ourselves, to determine whether we’re really as good as we think we are, and, of course, to learn, grow, and improve in the process. 

Many levels of saltwater fishing competition exist, but I would argue the sailfish tournament circuit that takes place each winter off South Florida represents competition as intense and difficult as any in the world. That’s because a great many teams who are really, really good at it work that circuit every season. You want to come to Florida and get into the winner’s circle in a top-shelf sailfish tournament? Then you had better be prepared and bring your A game.

Sportfishing team

A Team Is Born

To look more closely into what such an effort entails, I spoke with my friend Stephan Pfeifer who not too long ago entered the tournament fray in a big way. Before getting into offshore fishing, he hunted big game in Africa. But unlike many hunters, he took a decidedly different approach to the sport.

“Being from Wisconsin, I was your typical white-tail deer hunter,” Pfeifer says. “But after reading several of Robert Ruark’s hunting books, my wife, Sue, and I ­decided to take a trip to Africa to go big-game hunting.” Most hunters new to Africa choose to start with plains game, a safer alternative than hunting dangerous animals usually reserved for experienced hunters. Not so with Pfeifer.

“The booking agent tried to steer me toward plains game, but I promptly changed those plans and booked a trip to Zimbabwe to hunt dangerous game,” Pfeifer says. “When we got there, the professional hunter asked me what animals were on my list. I told him I had no list, but instead wanted him to teach me. Forget about any list, just teach me how to hunt dangerous big game in Africa.”

On that trip Pfeifer ended up harvesting two cape buffalo and a leopard, which led the trackers to call him “Mdala Steve.” Mdala means “respected elder” in the African Shona language, and the name stuck. This would come into play when Pfeifer entered the fishing world.

Going Fishing

Steve, Sue, and their son Erich soon caught the fishing bug after buying a 27-foot Everglades and renting a winter home in Islamorada, Florida. The Everglades soon turned into a 54-foot Viking, but the crew at Galati Yacht Sales from whom they purchased the Viking told them right off the bat that the 54 would be a starter boat. “Carmine and Michael Galati predicted we would be changing boats in two years, and they were right,” Pfeifer says. Last year the Pfeifers upgraded to a beautiful, brand-new Viking 62, and like all of their previous boats, the 62 was christened Mdala.

Pfeifer implemented the same methodology he had used when he began hunting in Africa. He went through several crew changes before finding the right combination of skills that suited his goals and a group of personalities that meshed perfectly. The right crew can obviously make the difference between success, mediocrity, and even failure. Everyone has to know his or her job and be good at it, but equally important, everyone must get along like family and communicate effectively.

The Pfeifers found such a crew in several young men from Islamorada: Captain John Hagen and mate Cody Gunther. “In Islamorada, someone can be 28 years old, yet have 20 years of experience,” Pfeifer says. “When working with the crew to set the goals for Mdala, it reminded me of our African hunting experience. I went to them and said simply, ‘Teach us how to sport fish.’”


Serious Competitors

Hagen and Gunther went to work doing just that, beginning in late 2016, and Pfeifer spared no expense in pursuit of his goals. Both he and Sue are intense competitors who take the game seriously, and in a short time, they have come a long way. “We’ve been team building in various tournaments, which led us up to the last event we fished, the Jimmy Johnson National Billfish Tournament held out of Key Largo’s Ocean Reef Club in March,” Pfeifer says. “We ended up with 13 sailfish after two days of competition against the best crews in Florida. Several boats had 13 fish toward the end, and the first boat to catch 13 placed third on time.”

The Mdala crew ended up in seventh place out of 84 boats after a heartbreaker at the end, when they hooked a 14th fish but it broke off. Such is the level of intensity found in most Florida sailfish tournaments. From Ft. Pierce to Key West, dozens of these events take place each winter and the competition keeps these crews coming back for more.

“I could not be more proud of Team Mdala and our wonderful crew, where all egos are checked at the dock and the team continues to develop into a cohesive unit,” Pfeifer says. “We will continue building toward our first tournament win while having fun and gaining great life experiences along the way.”

Such a no-holds-barred commitment to creating a competitive team will undoubtedly carry the Mdala team into the winner’s circle soon. That level of investment in terms of time and energy is exactly what it takes if you truly want to run with the big dogs on the sailfish tournament circuit. Because without that, you don’t stand a chance.

Catch Editor-at-Large John Brownlee on Anglers Journal TV and see a binge-watch-worthy backlog of previous episodes at

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.