Tournament Bass Fishing: Is It For You?
I remember my dad taking me and my brothers fishing in Michigan many years ago. We would often go to a local river, lake or cut to fish for perch, bluegills or anything else that would hit. Often, the fish weren't biting and my dad and brothers would want to pack up and go home. I would almost always ask to stay a little bit longer but usually the answer was a vote, and I normally lost.
I distinctly remember a trip to a Michigan cut, off of Lake Huron, when supposedly the perch were running. After a couple of hours soaking minnows, we had not caught a thing. My dad had a friend who lived within a mile of the cut and told us to pack it up and we'll all get warmer at his buddies house. I complained as usual and asked him if I could stay because I thought the fish would start biting when the water started warming up later in the day. He took a while to answer and replied "Paul, aren't you cold? Let's warm up at my buddy's place. Besides, the fish aren't biting." Of course my answer was, " Dad, please can I stay longer? I know they'll start biting." Dad said, " You know Paul, you must love fishing. I'll tell you what, you can fish for a couple of hours and I'll take Mark and Matt with me unless they want to stay." Was I ever happy and of course my brothers didn't want to stay, so they took off with dad.
It was cold, about 40 degrees and I checked/changed my minnow every 5 minutes or so. I'd cast up the cut, down the cut, changed my spot but nothing seemed to want my bait. I was watching my line (no bobber) when finally I got a bite. Jerked on the pole and reeled in a 10" perch. Within about 10 minutes I caught about 5 perch, stringered them all up and time expired as my dad and brothers came to pick me up. Darn, I wish they had stayed at my dad's buddies house a little longer.
Well guess what, they were so surprised that I caught some fish, we got to stay a couple more hours and we came home with a nice bucket of yellow bellied perch (Mmmm, these were delicious).
Prerequisites for a Tournament Bass Fisherman:
So what's my point? The point is that you either love to fish, even if they aren't biting or you like to do it once in awhile. If you love fishing as I do, you can be very competitive in bass tournaments, while if you only want to fish once in awhile, you won't be too successful. If you are the latter, just fish for fun and save your tournament entry money.
Another prerequisite for a good bass tournament fisherman is the will to compete. If you are laid back, just like to cast your line out and wait for the fish to hit, then tournament fishing isn't for you. I grew up playing baseball, running some track and enjoyed these sports. I also had a bunch of brothers, so competition has been instilled in my personality. In fact, whenever I get together with my best bass fishing buddy (met him in Gainesville, Florida while going to UF for my degree) either fishing for fun or prefishing for a tournament, we are always raz each other. If he has more fish, he'll yell something my way saying something like "So, when you going to learn how to fish" or "That's a sissy bait you're throwing, no wonder you can't catch any fish!" Big fish also has the bragging rights and usually we tease each other with sayings like this, "How many more dinks ya gonna catch?" or "My one fish outweighs all 3 of yours", etc. It's always competitive, so if you have this spirit in your blood, then you can be a good tournament fisherman.
How to Start Bass Fishing in Tournaments:
OK- So you think you have met the prereqs and want to tournament fish. Here's my first suggestion, join a local bass club. There are many published bass club lists on the internet, so just Google with " Bass clubs your state" for a list to start with. You could also inquire at a local lake and talk to some fishermen there.
There are two types of bass clubs: 1- Draw tournament and 2- Team tournaments. The draw clubs have boaters and non-boaters prior to the tournament launch, the boaters are paired with non boaters through a random draw out of a hat. If possible, try this club style 1st and fish a few tournaments as a non-boater. You will be surprised how much you didn't know about bass fishing when you see how your boater partner fishes. It's great to learn from more experienced anglers!
The team type clubs have the same non boater and boater teamed up all year long. If you have a good fishing buddy that you want to fish with, go ahead and join this type. The main disadvantage of this style of tournament fishing is that your learning curve for competitive fishing is much longer because you don't have any experienced tournament fishermen to learn from. You'll miss out on some special tips on how to flip, pitch, sidearm cast, prevent splashes during pitching, Texas rig correctly, etc. If you do this style, read a lot of online information and perhaps subscribe to Bassin' or Bassmaster magazine (I think FLW also has one).
So, you followed my recommendation and want to join a draw style club tournament so what's next. You will usually need to attend their club meetings. In the south, there's usually one club meeting a month while in the north it maybe as often as twice a month because of their limited fishing season. At the club meeting they usually discuss new members, tournament results, payouts, the next tournaments location and a sundry of items. In that meeting, you usually decide to go boater or non boater. After this, the boater is paired with the non boater and you'll find out who your partner will be. If there are more boaters than non boaters, it's usually worked out who will be the boater through a rule or through negotiation between the paired boaters. During the meeting, get your partners phone number so you can call him. During this meeting, the boat launch position is usually announced as well.
Prior to the actual tournament call your partner. When you get a hold of him ask him the following questions:
- Do you want me to come to your house and we can go together or do you want to just meet at the ramp? Tell him you will share all gas expenses with him which is the norm for draw tournaments or team tournaments for that matter. Of course you don't have to pay for his truck gas if he says just meet him at the ramp. You will always need to split the cost of the boat gas!
- How many rods can I bring and how much tackle ? Can I bring my cooler or do you have one for my drinks? If the boater has a small boat, he may ask you to downsize the amount of equipment to bring. This is a common courtesy, besides you are using his boat aren't you?
- Do I need to bring my lifejacket? Lifejackets are a mandatory item for bass tournaments, however your boating partner may already have 2 and your extra one may only crowd the boat. Ask him just in case he doesn't have an extra, or he doesn't like strangers using them out of courtesy.
- What time do you want me at your house or ramp? There's nothing more aggravating to a boater than a late non boater. Usually the boater will "pad" the travel time with an hour or so to allow for gas stops, snack stops and possible flat tires. So if your are not spending the night before at a local hotel near the lake, be ready to get up very early to make the trip to the boaters house or be ready for an early pickup by the boater. Just be ready when the boater asks you to be.
- Would you like me to make some sandwiches for you? Although not a mandatory question, it is a nice offer and the boater will be more willing to help you during the tournament.
I probably forgot some questions, but please ask the ones I listed. Things will go a lot more smooth if you do.
Pre Tournament Preparation
Prefishing: The most neglected part of pre-tournament preparation is the lack of pre-fishing. If you are a boater or non-boater, just like a class in high school or college, if you don't do your homework you will not do well on your test. Just think of the tournament as a test and pre-fishing as homework.
Pre-fishing involves checking out the lake where the tournament is to take place prior to the actual tournament. No matter how many times you have been successful on this lake in the past, you should pre-fish to find the dominant pattern for the current weather conditions, water levels, cover and time of the year. Try to pre-fish as close to possible to the tournament date. During prefishing, never stick more than 2 fish in one spot, and if the fish are not very active such as in cold fronts, you may want to limits it to 1 fish. After that, use hooks with the barbs removed if you want further verification that the bass concentration is good and don't set the hook on any more hits in that area. If you are sight fishing, just use your GPS to mark the spots and maybe toss a hook less bait to verify that the fish would be willing to hit the bait.
Try a variety of baits and locations during prefishing. GPS all of the spots that produced fish and note the cover/depth and weather conditions when/where you caught fish. If you are the non-boater, it is still your obligation to pre-fish if you have a boat. You need to help your partner as much as possible, and you never know as you may have better spots than your boating partner. Try prefishing with a partner. The partner does not have to be your boater/non boater, but the more lines in the water with various baits, the more likely you will find the successful pattern.
Fishing Tackle: Make sure your reels have good line on them i.e. the line is not old or has not taken too much set resulting in tight curly loops. Replace the line if necessary. Lube up your reels if time permits.
Retie all lures with fresh knots while removing the 1st couple of feet of line. You never know if you have nicks or knot abrasion from your last fishing trip. If you still have plastics on your hook, throw them away, leave the hook barren until the day of the tournament, then put on your soft plastic. This retains the smell/scent of the bait.
Be sure you have adequate fish scent for your soft plastics as well as enough toothpicks for Texas rigged baits. Make sure you pack your pliers and clippers.
Sharpen all of your hooks. If possible replace your worm hooks with new ones. Crankbaits such as Rattletraps often have dull hooks. Replace them with sharper ones like Gamagatzu's.
While pre-fishing, tune your lipped crankbaits by bending the eye so they run straight.
Finally, use a rod cover if possible prior to storing the rods in your rod locker (it's also good for the non boater). This will not only protect the rods, but will prevent the rods from tangling inside your box.
Boat Gear and Tow Vehicle: As a boater you need to check the following:
- 2 cycle oil reservoir is filled and take an extra gallon if possible.
- Fill up the gas tank or at least put in enough to last the whole tournament.
- Charge up your trolling motor batteries and big motor battery.
- Check your trailer tires/tow vehicle tires for air pressure and lube the trailer wheel bearings via the zerk fitting.
- Fill up your tow vehicle and check the oil and antifreeze.
- Bring an inexpensive 12V air inflator and tire plug kit. These work great in case you get a screw/ nail in either your tow vehicle or trailer tire.
- Make sure your vehicle jack will work on your trailer, if not you may need to buy a bottle jack for your trailer in case it gets a flat.
- Make sure your spare tires have air in them.
- Always hook up your safety chains when towing and check your winch strap/cable for any signs of wear.
- Be sure to plug in your trailer lights
- Put in your boat plug just to be on the safe side. If it is raining you can always bilge or pull out your plug at the ramp. It's better than trying to get the boat back on the trailer when it's sinking because you forgot to put the plug in!
- Check your boat lights out to make sure they work.
- Make sure you bring your raingear and lifejackets.
- Make sure you have non expired flares, fire extinguishers and whistle or horn.
- Check your boat registration/trailer registration. I leave these in a compartment in my boat.
- Pack your float markers.
- Bring your fishfinder and GPS.
- Check all your trailer and tow vehicle lights.
- Bring your weigh in bags.
There's probably some other things, but this list should always be checked.
Boat Ramp Launch Preparation and Launch: 1st, make sure you leave early enough to get to the boat ramp at least one hour before safelight. Safelight does not equal sunrise! It is usually 30 minute to an hour before sunrise. Bass tournaments start the launch process at safelight.
Bass tournament fishermen are often impatient. That's their competitive nature going to work and rookies at boat ramps are often aggravating to tournament fishing pros. The main reason is the amount of time the rookies take to launch their boat.
When you get to the ramp and you are approaching a line of boats switch to your parking lights only (as long as you can see in front of you). This helps the fishermen who are launching their boats see the ramp and the path their boat is taking while they back up. Bright headlights in their eyes while backing up blinds them!
While in line, both you and your partner need to make launch preparations. here's the list:
- Keep your parking lights on and exit the vehicle.
- Remove your boat straps, transom saver and double check that your boat plug is in.
- If a vehicle ahead of you pulls up, get back in your vehicle and pull up again. This will prevent a line forming that goes out to the main highway.
- Prime your fuel bulb in your boat.
- Put in your boat lights.
- Lower your motor to a lower position, but not to low as to hit the ground while going over bumps/ grade.
- Make sure everything is out of the tow vehicle and in your boat that you are going to take. If there is a boat check in the line, open up your livewells and your compartments so the check can be done quickly.
- If you are next in line to launch, line up the tow vehicle and boat to the ramp. If the non boater can, have him back in the boat with you in it. Make sure you tell him to close all windows, bring the keys and lock up the vehicle after he parks. Tell him to watch you for hand signals as the backup lights will light you up and that you will be having him stop when the tires first touch water. This is so you can undo the bow strap/cable. Also have him open up the side window so he can here you just in case something happens or he misunderstands your hand signals. Usually a come here motion with your hands means keep backing up while a palm forward (like a policeman stop) means stop. Tell him to take his time. A point to the left or right means that the boat needs to go that way, while a straight back come here means to go straight back.
- When the tires 1st hit the water (this is approx. and may vary according to what you like), indicate a stop. Go to the front and undo your bow strap. Get back in the boat driver seat, and have the non boater come back until the boat is floating, then give him the stop signal. Give him the go forward signal (motion forward) so he can park.
- Lower your motor the rest of the way for carbureted motors (not necessary for EFI systems) and put your idle bar in the best position to start . Prime the motor by holding the key in (most motors) and start the motors. Get out of the way of the ramp as soon as you can and find a spot to beach or dock.
- Turn on your boat lights.
- Warm your engine until it's warm enough that it will be easy to start at launch time. Then turn it off.
- Plug your livewells.
- While your partner makes his way back to your boat, get the rods out you are going to use and strap them in with your Rod Savers or bungies on your front deck.
- Use your flashlight and get your soft plastics on.
- Now you're ready for the pre-tournament meeting.
This meeting is usually held when all fishermen have launched their boats. It may start before if there are late arrivers, but those late arrivals will just miss the meeting.
During the meeting, the size limit, the number of fish per fisherman or boat, off limits, weigh in time and other items will be discussed. Make sure you get the weigh in time and the official time. The official time is the one announced that corresponds to the tournament directors time. Therefore offset your watch to match the tournaments official time.
Once the meeting is over, go to your boat, dawn your lifejackets and attach your kill switch. Don't start your motor until it gets closer to your launch number. This just makes it easier to hear the tournament director.
If the boat check is on the water, idle slowly by the check point with livewells running. They will signal you to go if they see you are clear.
When your boat number is called idle beyond all other boats, once you have cleared them, get on plane quickly so you don't hold up the line. Never start to plane if there are alot of boats idling in your planing path. Just use common sense here as no one likes to have a wave come over the sides of their boat when another boat planes right next to them!
If you and your partner did your "homework", you won't be doing a lot of lure changing, tying lures or running around the lake trying to find biting bass. If there was a major cold front or other major change like water level drop, you may have to adjust. Still rely on the spots you caught fish in pre- fishing but you may have to flip or go to the next closest dropoff to find the fish you located during practice.
The non boater must respect the boaters preferences, however if you developed a good rapport prior to the tournament, things will go much smoother. The non boater usually has rights to 50% of the front of the boat during a club tournament. In some big tournaments this is not the case. If you want the front, just be courteous and ask. If the boater says no, don't bring it up any further and do the best you can from the back. A boater that always says no to a non boaters request will often be found out at a later time and will no longer be welcome in that club.
If you are a non boater and fishing from the back of the boat always cast towards the front or side of the boat, never behind when working a weed/timber line. Just respect the boaters line and never cast over his line or into the path of the trolling motor.
If you are the boater, just remember when you 1st started and how unfair it was when that boater never let you up front. Don't you remember the club murmurs of a certain individual that constantly backboated his partner, elbows out like a chicken so there was no way a non boater could effectively cast. I guess this is the biggest downside of a draw tournament!
When you catch your 1st fish, quickly measure it, closed mouth on a metal ruler like the "Golden Rule". Make sure it measures as not only can you be penalized at weigh in but you could get a ticket from the wildlife officer. Close the drain plugs for your livewells if you haven't already and turn on the aerators. Put the fish in the livewell as soon as possible. When the livewells are full, I like to switch over to recirculate and put my timer on.
If you gut hook a fish, I normally leave the hook in it's stomach and cut of the line. This will do a lot less damage than ripping out the hook.
If you get a limit, I cull by weighing all my fish and using a numbered float system. For example, #1 float = 2.8 pounds, #2= 1.5 pounds, etc.. I record this on a piece of paper. When I get my next fish over the limit, I release the lightest one and place the new weight on the paper for that float number. Hopefully you'll be doing this all day long, but remember never to have more fish in your livewell than the limit.
Netting fish properly is also very important. The last thing you want to do is to wack the fish in the side or the head and knock off the fish. When your partner has a fish on, quickly reel in your line and get the net. Try to get the net near the water, when the fish approaches, try to net it by submerging the net before the fish and getting it head first. That way the fish is swimming into the net rather than away from it. Never hit your partners line or the side of the fish with the net. Usually your partner will let you know when to net, but you must be ready!
If it is hot, be sure to add ice to your livewells on occasion. Also make sure you use sunscreen.
When it gets close to tournament weigh in time, remind each other of what time it is and how long it's going to take. Make time adjustments according to weather conditions. A thunderstorm or high winds in the afternoon will likely double or triple the time it took you to get to your spot. Just make sure you adjust for this.
It's time to go, so put on your lifejackets, attach the kill switch and go!
If there is a big line, keep your fish in the livewell so they don't have to be in un-oxygenated weigh in bag. When the time is close, quickly move your fish into the weigh bags being careful that the fish don't jump out of your livewells (Hmmm, has this ever happened to me) and into the lake. For the too close for comfort fish, re-measure and if not sure ask the tournament director for a courtesy measure. This will prevent measurement of short fish and a hefty penalty.
Watch the scales while your fish are being weighed. If the scale doesn't closely match your culling weigh paper, ask for a retare of the scale if possible. Sometimes the scales mess up do to low battery or wind conditions.
If you're in the money, congrats! Shake the tournament directors hand with a big smile on your face.
If you got the prereqs, you've got to try tournament bass fishing! So pre-fish and Do more Catching with Less Fishing.
The Largemouth Herald
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