10 Tournament Tactics That Work

Even anglers who will never fish competetively can benefit from tips the pros swear by.

  Whether one is entering a bass tournament at a regional lake or a billfish tournament on the open ocean — or simply hitting the local lake for a day of fishing with the kids — fishing like a pro means thinking like a pro. Anglers need to hit the water with a solid game plan, and the next time they enter a tournament, they should keep these top tactics in mind. Heck, even anglers who never plan to enter a tournament can benefit from most of the advice that follows, possibly surpassing that know-it-all friend who turns every fishing outing into a competition even if no one else is thinking that way.

1. Chill Out
Though it might sound counterintuitive, worry less about winning and more about having a fun day of fishing. Stress makes people, including anglers, do things they wouldn’t normally do. Capt. Rob Skillman of Moore Bills, who won the 2017 Mako Mania and placed in several other tournaments last season, considers this one of the most important things to keep in mind when tournament fishing. “Stress gives you bad juju,” he said. “It makes you sick to your stomach and it causes you to make bad decisions.” I agree. I lost the biggest fish of the day on the very first cast during the CCA Rod & Reef tournament but managed to shrug it off and maintain a positive attitude. Being stressed out and discouraged after that certainly wouldn’t have helped. And after a full and fun day of fishing, I still earned second place.

2. Fill the Stringer
In some tournaments competitors are judged by the biggest single fish they catch, and in others it’s stringer weight that counts. In others, both are important. Unless it’s a one-fish-takes-all competition, the vast majority of professionals use lures and tackle that target numbers over sheer size until the stringer is full. At that point, they begin upsizing the offerings and culling the catch.

We should note that a few pros, noted Bassmaster competitor Denny Brauer among them, take the opposite approach. He pointed out that choosing to fish solely for big fish is unusual and has “cost some tournament wins,” but it works sometimes. See Tip 10 to understand why. The exception to playing it either of these two ways comes in a no-cull tournament, with a limited stringer. In that case it comes down to one’s best judgement when deciding which fish to keep and which to release.

3. Take a Scientific Approach
According to bass pro Kevin VanDam — a guy with such a good tournament-winning record that it’s beyond difficult to argue with him — taking a scientific approach to fishing on any given day is usually a winning strategy. “Matching the hatch, choosing natural colors, following seasonal patterns. Take all of these variables into account, and create a game plan,” he said. “Fishing isn’t an exact science, but it is a science.”

He considers an educated guess better than “just a guess,” and he studies everything from water conditions to weather patterns prior to a tournament.

4. Prepare by Pre-Fishing
Everyone knows pre-fishing is advantageous, but not everyone does it. Or, more commonly, not everyone’s schedule allows for it. For everyone who doesn’t want to enter a tournament at a huge disadvantage, pre-fishing is a must. It provides insight into hotspots to try, what the fish are feeding on, current conditions and how they might be changing, and a slew of other important factors. If one’s fishing time is limited to weekends, he should still try to fish the area, even if it’s the Saturday or Sunday a full week before the tournament. Not ideal, obviously — pre-fishing the entire week would be more like it — but it’s better than nothing.

5. Stick to the Plan
When things aren’t going perfectly — or maybe they are going better than expected — some anglers may be tempted to abandon their game plan. While some level of flexibility is a good thing, anglers shouldn’t be too quick to abandon their original strategy. After all, it was carefully thought out, and out on the water it’s all too easy to make snap decisions that go off the rails. That’s especially true for anyone not adhering to Tip One.

During one tournament, an angler I spoke to (who asked not to be named in this particular case) quickly left an area he had pre-fished with success, and had planned to hit hard, because the bite was slow. He returned to the dock that afternoon to learn that the bite had been slow everywhere — and the tournament-winning fish was caught in the very place he had been fishing, a few hours after he abandoned it.

6. Stay & Pray vs. Run & Gun
I’m combining these two opposing tournament tactics into one, because truth be told, most serious tournament anglers realize that either one can lead to a win on any given day. Staying in a single spot that one knows holds big fish and working it hard can be effective, as can running from spot to spot and giving numerous different places a quick shot. So, how to decide which to apply? That’s the difficult part, and it’s a call we can’t make here. Which one is correct will vary with conditions, the type of tournament, the rules that apply and many other factors.

The important thing is to make a conscious decision with all the available data. If, for example, a fast-rising barometer is likely to make the bite difficult, working hard at a single location that obviously holds fish will allow an angler to try multiple presentations until he figures out what works. If conditions are ideal for an active fishery, on the other hand, sitting in the same spot all day and not catching fish is probably not the best move.

7. Consult the Checklist
Create a pre-tournament checklist and check it twice. It should cover all the necessary gear, from rods, reels and line to the boat to the outboard motor. Many tournaments have been lost and recreational weekends ruined due to equipment failure, and most of the time equipment failure is preventable with regular maintenance. Prior to a big tournament, or even a recreational day out, an angler should re-spool with fresh line, make sure the engine’s oil is fresh and topped-off, and inspect every hook in the tackle box for sharpness.

8. Do Homework
A number of tournament anglers, ranging from ice-fishing tourney champ Tony Boshold to MLF pro Scott Suggs, consider a careful look at local cartography a key element of preparation. Today’s fishing maps offer incredibly detailed views of the underwater topography, often providing contour detail down to one-foot increments. Such detail allows an angler to check out every cove, point and channel in a lake, river or bay before she even arrives on the scene — if, that is, she takes the time to do her homework.

Bonus Tip: Most modern fishfinder/chartplotters have some version of a self-charting feature, allowing users to create their own contour charts of any given body of water. Utilizing these will give users a leg up on the competition, because even the best and most current charts are imperfect. Changing water levels in a lake from one month to another, for example, will throw their depth readings out of kilter. But anyone who has self-charted the same area recently will have fish-finding data that no one else has access to.

9. Crash Early, Crash Hard
This is another of Capt. Skillman’s favorites, because he said that a good night’s sleep gives him a big advantage over all the guys who stay out late and celebrate.

“It sounds so simple,” he said. “Heck, it’s as simple as it gets, but it gives you a very real advantage. You can think more clearly, react faster and keep a better attitude after a good night’s sleep. Meanwhile, the competitors who stayed out late and enjoyed the nightlife a little too much will be dragging ass.”

10. Roll the Dice
Sometimes, going for broke is the only solution. Fishing at the “safe” spot may produce a number of average-sized fish, and short runs do allow for more fishing time, but it’s often the angler who makes an extraordinarily long and risky run who catches the winning fish. One example: In this year’s MSSA fall striped bass tournament, 99 percent of the anglers fished in the southern reaches of the Chesapeake Bay, where the current reports were best. But Tim Roberts took the opposite approach and ran far to the north. The result was just a single fish — but at 46¼ inches, that fish was more than double the weight of the second-place striper and enriched Roberts to the tune of more than $40,000. Yes, rolling the dice will produce a complete bust sometimes. Sure, playing it safe will probably lead to a middle-of-the-pack finish, but making a bold move can also lead to big-time victory.

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