Tournament of Tournaments
John Rybovich’s tournament continues to test anglers’ mettle while remembering the real joy of fishing.
Like the fish that swim in the ocean, fishing competitions come in all shapes and sizes. Back in 1963 John Rybovich devised an event that evolved into what would officially be called the International Masters Angling Tournament, but would be known simply as The Masters. As a renowned Palm Beach boatbuilder and sportfishing expert, Rybovich was no stranger to the ways anglers benefit from having captains perched high above in the tuna tower, advising which rod to pick up and when to set the hook as they back down to retrieve line and score a release.
For years before the inaugural event—and often at the prestigious Sailfish Club of Palm Beach—Rybovich discussed his thoughts with fellow anglers about what traits in a fishing competition would truly test ability. He believed new rules would define the angler’s mettle without coaching from the skipper and mate. If experienced fishermen would agree to the rules and be willing to compete, it would be accurate to call the winner of the competition “The Master.” The camaraderie alone might seem sufficient, but Rybovich was a thinker and reached out to his friend Ernest Hemingway on a trip to Cuba. He approached the novelist, a big-game angler in his own right, with the idea of the tournament, and explained how a “Master” trophy featuring Santiago, the protagonist from Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and the Sea, in his small boat with a leaping marlin, would be a fitting honor. Hemingway agreed and also provided Rybovich with a signed copy of the book.
Today the rules are essentially the same as they were more than 50 years ago; all four pages of ’em. A tournament committee was formed and anglers wishing to participate had to be sponsored by a current or past participant, and seconded by two additional participants. To attract new blood, the committee readily discussed a list of possible “freshmen” anglers and voted to extend an invitation to participate.
A limited number of boats necessitate restricting the total entries, although each boat will carry two anglers during four days of fishing. A random drawing determines boat and angler assignments. Owners do not get to fish on their own boats and anglers change boats and partners daily. This constant mix levels the field. Anglers may supply their own IGFA 20-pound-class tackle, but the hooks and line are supplied by the tournament committee. Comparable Dacron line is permitted with prior committee approval.
Each angler fishes a flat line and an outrigger and they switch sides every hour. Eligible fish are sails and white marlin only. A fish is considered officially caught when the angler reels the wind-on leader through the first rod guide, or when the swivel reaches the rod tip, if a wind-on leader is not used.
This is a dead-boat, dead-bait tournament with a strict time limit. Once a hook-up occurs the captain must stop the boat’s forward motion with a quick engine shift to reverse. From that point on, he can only use the engines to keep the transom facing the fish. No other backing motion is allowed. Timing commences when the fish is hooked and line peels from the reel with the drag engaged, or the angler can reel. Each fish is worth 100 points for the first 30 seconds timed by the skipper. Five points drop with each ensuing 30-second period. At the end of 10 minutes the fish is considered “overtime” and is worth five points. Broken lines and bad knots are subject to penalties and fish may be disqualified on other technicalities. Double hook-ups or both anglers tied into fish simultaneously add another level of complexity. Surely a lot can happen in the 6½ hours of fishing time each day. But that’s what Rybovich had in mind. The tournament winner is clearly a master angler because he has done it all by himself.
With its strict rules and competitive anglers, The Masters presents a unique challenge. It offers no money to be won. Alas, the winner gets the privilege of picking up the bar tab after the awards ceremony. But it also offers a main-line connection to sportfishing history and the chance to appreciate what Hemingway’s Santiago might have felt and thought alone in that small boat bobbing in the ocean, one-on-one with a special fish. As two-time Master Angler Wayne Whippen remarked, “It isn’t about drag and snag and the boat catching the fish. It is all about an angler and a fish. To me, it is the perfect combination.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.