By ITB Staff
The time was, perhaps not too long ago, that tournament time meant rounding up a few friends, grabbing a half-dozen cases of beer, a handful of plugs and taking a boat ride. During some tournaments, the most important thing to remember was that there needed to be at least one person sober enough to gaff the fish. There are some places in the world where camaraderie and alcohol intake still count for something, but on the whole, the modern fishing tournament scene is marked by extremes.
Blue marlin tournament teams on the Gulf Coast point the bow south for double overnight marathon sessions that can put as many as 1,000 miles on the boat. The professional sailfish teams of South Florida have taken live bait catching and penning to the extreme (and beyond). On the Mid-Atlantic, the average expenditure on mullet for dredge fishing and ballyhoo for dink baits could bankrupt some countries in the developing world. Extreme.
The Gulf Coast
Allen Smith is a veteran tournament fisherman in the Gulf and beyond.
“The biggest difference in the Gulf are the long runs and all of the time offshore. This makes quite an impact on your strategy and how you do it,” Smith describes analytically.
Generally, Gulf tournaments allow boats to depart sometime Thursday afternoon. Lines in for the tournament is Friday at 12 a.m. (midnight Thursday). Lines out occurs sometime mid-Saturday afternoon and boats must be back to the jetties around 6:00 on Saturday evening. From ports in Texas or the panhandle of Florida, blue water with the ideal mix of structure and the potential to hold bait may sit more than 100-miles from the dock. The run offshore may be accompanied by runs east to west. Some boats will run as far as western Louisiana from tournaments in Florida.
“Tournaments in a lot of other places are day fishing—Florida, North Carolina, and the Bahamas. In the Gulf, the tournaments are a day and a half of fishing, plus two nights on the water,” Smith says. “We try to make bait on the way out. We stop at inshore rigs to fill the tubes and then have to keep the bait alive. It’s 24-hours per day, there’s not much sleeping. The Gulf fishery is unbelievable. Any given weekend it takes a 600-700-pound fish to be in contention. The geographic expanse is large. There may 100-boats in the tournament that may go to 40 or 60 rigs—there’s a lot of choice.”
The money is in big blue marlin. The best way to catch large blues is live baiting. Tournament boats generally make bait on the run out, with the intention of being ready to the sunrise on Friday. Given the distances traveled by tournament boats, captains start with the furthest point first. They then fish their way back, jumping from rig to rig until they find what they are looking for.
The Need for Speed
The large expanse of fishing territory in the Gulf has created some room for innovation. While the advances in sonar and radar applications are worth noting, perhaps nowhere is the extreme nature of fishing Gulf of Mexico tournaments more fully displayed than in the speed of center consoles.
“Tournaments are often won by fishing places that other people aren’t. We like to consider the bass fishing model—running to a far-off place to fish for a few minutes,” says Scott Cothran, the Director of Marketing and Sales at Freeman Boatworks. “Freemans level the playing field with larger sportfishers by running farther and faster to reach areas that aren’t fished as hard. The 42-foot Freeman can be paired with quad 300s or quad 400s. The boat has a range of about 750-miles with standard fuel capacity. It cruises at 50-knots, with top speeds of over 70.”
Captain JJ Tabor runs the Double J, a 42-foot Freeman based in Cocodrie/ Fourchon, Louisiana. Tabor and his team fish five or six tournaments in the Gulf each year. They are pretty good at it, too. “We started out as wahoo fishermen. We used to just wahoo fish, but people stopped betting against us. Now all we do is live bait blue marlin fish,” Tabor says. “We won close to one million dollars wahoo fishing in four years.” Tabor also won the 2015 Blue Marlin Grand Championship with a 716-pounder.
“Our typical runs are 275-400-miles one way. We generally fish western Louisiana, even if we are leaving from Orange Beach or Destin. On a typical weekend, we’ll run 800-1,000 miles,” Tabor describes. “We carry 150-300 gallons of additional fuel for each tournament. We fish in open boats for three nights, with six or seven guys on the boat.”
“For some tournaments, we leave at noon on Thursday. We’ll run 55-60 miles per hour to get south of the river to fish the first afternoon. We make the remainder of the run at night to be set up for live baiting in Green Canyon at sunrise,” Tabor relates. “Gulf tournaments are Iron Man tournaments. You need to be good at fishing, but also boat prep and problem-solving. You also need the right crew, guys that don’t mind being dragged across the Gulf in some nasty conditions. You also need the right equipment to get back in time.”
The most miles he’s put on the boat in a single tournament? “1,053 miles in the 2016 Emerald Coast,” Tabor says without flinching.
Extremes of South Florida Sailfishing
The teams fishing the professional sailfish tournaments in South Florida do not have to contend with the distances that the Gulf guys face. That said, in their approach to catching, penning and transporting the live baits for their kite fishing exploits, there is perhaps no group that is more extreme. Jamie Bunn is the president of Bluewater Movements and the Quest for the Crest Series.
“As far as the series is concerned, the biggest thing is winning the Burgundy Jacket; crowning the number one sailfishing team in the world,” Bunn describes. “Bait is critical in the live bait format. By far the most effort and attention goes into catching bait before the event. It is very methodical—how far in advance they catch it, how they pen it, they transfer it. Nothing is left to chance.”
“For many teams, the bait fishing starts months in advance. Teams want access to all kinds of bait in case there is advantage to fishing one type on the day of the tournament. Guys will catch goggle eyes, tinkers, sardines, threadfin, pilchards and even ballyhoo. It borders on obsessive-compulsive,” says Jamie.
Then there is the matter of keeping the bait alive and healthy until tournament time. “Some pens are sunk to keep them on the bottom—gogs are kept on the bottom for long term storage. Scaled baits are best kept in round pens on the surface. Teams are very, very cautious about the amount of bait they put in so as not to stress the bait. It’s not uncommon for guys to have six pens, with a few hundred gogs and a few hundred sardines and herring – in their back yard,” Bunn says describing the teams that compete in his tournaments.
“You also need to feed them to get the bait hardy and healthy. This helps prepare them for the stress of moving from the pen to where they will be fishing. It can take three weeks’ time for bait to acclimate to the pen before being ready to be moved. This translates to less die off. With the OCD nature of these highly-skilled, competitive teams, most guys build their own custom cages for their specific needs.”
The sailfish season in South Florida runs from November through February. While the region is not known for its freezing temperatures, fronts can send the thermometer nosediving. “Winter water temperature can hurt the bait and cause die-offs. Under this scenario, teams will figure out where and how to move the pens to keep them safe. In the summer tournaments, die-offs happen from freshwater flows. Some guys will sink their pens in the ocean,” Bunn describes.
Long-term bait incarceration means that the teams are responsible not just for housing the goggle eyes, but for feeding them, too. “The bait gets a mixed diet of dry food and cut up fish. Bonito are popular, they are high in protein and nobody eats them; you just dice them and feed them to the bait. Most tackle shops sell pellet food source for bait. This helps to build up the bait’s slime coat to help when transferring or transporting them,” Bunn says. “Generally teams feed baits on average of once or twice per day.” Granted they are not planned to be hung from kites and fed to sailfish, but there are human prisoners in the world that do not receive this level of care.
South Florida sailfish teams are extreme in their approach to making and keeping bait.
“From the shape of the wells to the time in advance that they catch the bait, to the measures they take to feed it, it is quite a process,” Bunn relates. At tournament time when baits are in short supply, the price commanded for live goggle eye can be pretty extreme in its own right. “Gogs can run $150 per dozen if they’re in short supply. Th at said, most guys are so particular about how their bait is cared for, buying bait is an absolute measure of last resort.”
Dedication to Dink Bait Fishing
In terms of style and approach, tournaments targeting Pacific sailfish and white marlin in the Atlantic are highly similar. If you plan to consistently compete in these tournaments there are a few things you’ll need. Lots and lots of mullet for the dredges and ballyhoo by the case. Brad Wachowiak, of the Katherine Anne and owner of Oceans East, understands these extremes from both sides of the cash register.
“Some guys fish triple or quadruple tiered dredges. Mullet typically run about $3.50 a piece. There can be as many as 75 mullet on a triple-tiered dredge,” crew member Justin Wilson describes. “There are some guys who will fill the dredges with islanders or dredge heads. These can run $20-$25 each. There can be three dozen islanders on each dredge. You can easily get to $500 in a dredge.” The investment in mullet or ballyhoo for the dredges is not a long-term one, either. “Some guys change them out twice per day. Others fish them as long as possible, which in most cases isn’t more than two days,” Justin describes.
If it sounds like the bait for the dredges is expensive, that is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Then there is the 24-volt LP dredge reels. These run $8,750 each. The dredge rods are another $400-500 apiece. There is also the pulleys and everything else. God forbid you catch a fish that burns you off and the whole thing is gone,” Wilson continues. “That said, if you are going to fish in a sailfish or marlin tournament, you absolutely have to dredge fish to compete.”
It is not just the bait and tackle tabs that are impressive in this style of fishing. The days of a few buddies sitting on cases of beer waiting for the rod to go off are no longer. To compete in a numbers tournament, you’ll be fishing against teams of professional mates, expert anglers, entire teams equipped with headsets for communication, eagle-eyed mates perched in the tower that stare at the spread for hours on end.
Prefishing for many top teams is no longer reserved for a couple of days before the tournament. There are teams that fish white marlin and sailfish tournaments that spend more than 100-days fishing together — white marlin tournaments in the summer and sailfish tournaments in the winter. The style of fishing is so similar, hooking sometimes finicky fish on circle hooked ballyhoo, that they feed one another. This is a central reason that teams hailing from North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland consistently place so well in the Los Sueños tournaments. After all, if you earned your stripes snagging the squirrely white marlin, hooking the ravenous Pacific sailfish comes natural.
When it’s tournament time forget about the air conditioning in the salon. All members of most teams—not just mates and captains – stay outside all day, holding rods—urinating in the scuppers, and actively fishing. This is not vacation fishing, it is dedicated and it is hard work…some might say that the fun has disappeared. Hey! Where’d all the beer go? Modern tournament fishing is not for the undedicated.
The days when the fighting chair was a pile of cases of beer that shrunk as the tournament progressed are no longer. The sight of the captain’s girlfriend sunning herself on the bow during the tournaments have been replaced by guys with headsets sitting in the tower. While the variables may be different depending on where and how you fish, tournaments are linked by the passion and commitment of those who fish them.