by Justin Hoffman (c) 1999
To many weekend and recreational anglers, tournament fishing means expensive entry fees, high-performance bass boats and high-caliber contestants. This, however, is not the case at all. Tournament fishing is a sport everyone can enjoy and, with so many to choose from nowadays, there is definitely a tournament out there which is right for you. By choosing the appropriate one, doing some research and planning, and always staying confident, you'll be on your way to becoming a more proficient angler and progress towards becoming a "tournament pro".
My own start in tournament fishing came nine years ago in the first Bass'n'tario event ever held. It took place on Lake Scugog, about an hours drive east of Toronto, and it would be this event that would later hatch the tournament "bug" in me. It wasn't a picture-perfect start to a career by any means, but it was the start of a great learning process. I'd like to say that my partner and I won that first event, (which we didn't, although we did place in the top 50) but we brought a lot more home that day than a paycheque.
Choosing the Right Tournament
It seems like everywhere you look these days there's a new tournament series available which is looking for entrants. Many of these are great starting grounds for the beginner, and by doing a little homework, you can find the right one that suits your needs.
My suggestion to those who are interested in this sport is to try to find a local series to fish first. Many of these local tournaments have cheaper entry fees, and a higher emphasis on being a great starting ground for a beginner. By doing a little research, you can find many of these smaller tournaments on your favourite lakes, which can definitely give you an edge. A series I fished last year, and quite enjoyed, was the Reel Fish'n Competition. This was a unique series as it was only open to those boats that had a horsepower rating of less than 60 (which in my case still includes me). This really evens out the playing field, as no one has the advantage of extra speed from a high-performance motor. This was a well-run series that really catered to the beginner, and I'd suggest it to those starting out.
Another interesting route is to fish a pro/am event. These, simply put, are usually two-day events where you, the amateur, is paired up with a professional. Normally you both fish as a team, out of the professional's boat (which is always a high-performance bass boat with all the goodies!). This provides the best opportunity to learn a lot about fishing in the shortest amount of time. You get to see first-hand how the pro's plan their strategy, the lures and techniques they use, and the spots they fish during different times of the day, and under different conditions. These tournaments usually vary in cost, and in some cases can be a bit pricey, but the knowledge they provide, and the hefty payouts, certainly make up for the expense. For some it may be the only chance they ever get to ride in a bass boat, or fish with a "celebrity" from television, and those memories will last a lifetime.
Whichever tournament series you choose, you can rest assured knowing that the coordinators will help you along the way with any questions you may have, and the competitors will always be friendly and courteous.
Once you have decided on a tournament, there are a few things you can do in the months leading up to the big day to help you succeed. There are two styles of tournaments; namely those fished alone or with a partner. If you choose the route of partner events, make sure your partner is someone you can get along with, can make decisions with, and is someone you trust. As simple as that sounds, I've seen some teams out on the water nearly get into fistfights over disagreements, and this can only lead to failure.
Purchasing some good-quality topographical charts is a definite plus. Not only will they help you find your way around the lake, but they can also be used to find spots that other competitors may not know about. I like to mark directly on the chart a number of areas that look promising, and then try each of these during pre-fishing.
One thing you must remember is that all tournaments are catch and release. This means that your boat must have a fully operational live well. For those that don't have one, there are many cooler-style live-wells that do the trick nicely, and aren't that expensive. Most tournament series will also provide you with plans if you write asking for them.
Now is also the time to stock up on equipment and tackle, and make sure all of your existing equipment is in top shape. Purchasing items now will save you the headache of trying to find things just days before the event.
For me, pre-fishing is the most important step to tournament success. Pre-fishing, simply put, is practicing out on the chosen lake, prior to the day of the tournament. It includes such things as searching for productive areas, seeing if the fish are in an aggressive or negative mood, and seeing which lures work best under different conditions or areas. Usually, pre-fishing is allowed up until the day before the tournament, except for when the event falls on the first day of the season, in which case you are not allowed to fish or bring any rods. Pre-fishing can often make or break your day, because the more knowledgeable you are about the lake, and its structure, the less chance of fishing blindly or haphazardly.
Many of my tournament successes have come as a direct result of pre-fishing. One event, in particular, was a Top Bass tournament on Pigeon Lake, which is part of the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario. My partner and I had a good bag of fish, but were one short of our limit. With only an hour to go, we made a long run down to the river, to a small area of bullrushes that held a number of quality fish that we had found a week earlier. On the second pitch with a flipping jig, I hooked a four-and-a-half pound bass; this fish gave us fifth place, a respectable paycheque and second place for Big Bass. If we hadn't found this spot during practice, and didn't know it held fish, the results may not have been so rewarding.
If you and your partner both have boats, pre-fishing can be more valuable if the two of you go out separately to the lake to scout around. This can double the area of the lake you can cover, and can help you fish different areas of the lake, during different hours or weather conditions. This is always a point to keep in mind, especially if the lake is new to you both, or large in size.
Don't let the fact that you don't own a flashy bass boat keep you from joining a tournament. I still fish every event out of my trusty 14-foot aluminum Springbok. Although I've added a lot of features to this rig, including foot-controlled trolling motor, electronics and two livewells, it still can be competitive against all bass boats. They may have a bit of an edge when it comes to speed, but other than that, it comes down to hard work and skill. So whatever boat you own, as long as it meets the tournament requirements, you can be competitive and win tournaments.
No article on tournament fishing would be complete without a word about confidence. If you choose to fish this sport without some degree of confidence, you might as well hand over your entry fee and stay home. Confidence in what you're doing, and also in yourself, accounts for 90-per cent of your tournament success. Always enter into a tournament thinking that you can win, because once you lose this spirit, your gameplan will ultimately unravel. During a tournament towards the start of my career, this happened, and it proved costly. It was around noon and we still didn't have a fish to show for our effort. No matter where we tried, we came up empty handed, and the harder we tried, the sloppier our casts became. It was then that I began to worry, and really strayed from our pre-established game plan. Due to this lack of confidence, we started running and gunning up and down the lake, fishing spots and areas we had never tried before. Suffice to say, we headed to the weigh-in with one puny bass and an empty gas tank, and a vow never to lose our train of thought again. I'm glad to report that we've never encountered that scenario again.
One thing about tournament fishing, it is always full of surprises. You can be fishing in 30-degree weather one day, and battling a cold front or thunderstorm the next. This is one reason I love tournaments so much; I'm never sure what's going to happen next.
Information about bass fishing, and tournaments in general, is one thing that has greatly improved over the years. There is so much information to be found in magazines, and the television and now on the Internet. By putting in the time learning more about new techniques and principles, you'll be on your way to becoming a better angler and tournament competitor.
As you can see, tournament fishing isn't only for the elite; it's also for the everyday angler who is willing to put in a little time and effort. Remember, Rick Clunn and Roland Martin didn't become professionals overnight; in fact they started out just like you and I, and through hard work and dedication, got to where they are today. Tournaments are a fun and excitement-filled activity that, besides the monetary rewards, are an enriching source of pleasure that make the fishing season truly unforgettable. Try fishing one this year and begin the pastime that keeps getting better and better, one tournament at a time.
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