Have you ever fished in a salmon fishing tournament? It is an amazing experience, requiring organization and preparation, strategy, mid-course adjustments, skill, and of course, some luck. Throughout the course of a tournament, you will probably experience almost every emotion, high and low…anticipation, competitiveness, relief, despair, satisfaction, disappointment and excitement.
The tournament experience begins with pre-fishing…fishing the same waters that you will fish during the tournament to try and locate the fish. In pre-fishing, you do a lot of experimenting. You try areas that you may not be familiar with…as much to eliminate water as to find productive areas, you try lures and techniques that you might not regularly use, you talk to people to get information, and generally try to figure out what might work during the tourney. Pre-fishing is especially important if you are fishing a port or waters that you aren’t too familiar with. We try to spend at least a couple of days pre-fishing for every tournament…and more if we can.
After pre-fishing, comes the strategizing…where are we going to fish? North? South? Straight out? Deep? Shallow? What direction of troll? What kinds of baits are we going to run? What combination of rods and presentations will we use? What are weather and wave conditions going to be and how does that affect our decision-making? We try to answer all those questions based on the information we have gathered during pre-fishing and our talking with other anglers who have been fishing the same area.
Then there is the Captain’s Meeting…usually held the night before the tourney starts. Registration, raffles and prizes, a few adult beverages, catching up with all your buddies and fellow competitors, a review of the rules, the observer swap (more on this later) and then everyone heads off to prepare.
The night before the tournament is spent getting everything ready to go. We pick our baits and rods…sharpen hooks…tie up new leaders…cut off and retie our terminal tackle…and check, check and re-check everything. No one wants to lose a vital fish because there was a nick in the line, or a hook was dull. Tie our tournament flag to the radio antenna, and then try to get a few hours of sleep. Usually the anticipation and strategizing keep us up until the wee hours…like kids before Christmas.
Tournament morning comes mighty early. We are usually up at 5:00…get the boat cleaned up, take care of the body’s needs, do a little last minute chatting with our dock neighbors and generally get ourselves ready to fish. Since we fish in the Pro division, we generally need to have an observer on board…and we have to supply an observer to another boat. Observers are swapped at the Captain’s Meeting, so you know which boat you are swapping with. Then tourney morning, we have to make sure our observer gets to the other boat early enough (usually around 5:45) and that our assigned observer gets to us by then too. Observers can be really fun, or really duds…and everything in between…we’ve had all kinds. I highly recommend it as a learning experience. It’s a great way to get onto a top notch boat and really see what the anglers are doing.
Once we have our observers dealt with and everyone is ready to go, we crank up the engines and warm ‘em up. Turn on the nav lights and cast off the mooring lines…here we go! There is no sight more awesome than a parade of a hundred (or more) boats all heading out of the channel at the same time. We slowly motor down the channel to the pierheads and take up position in the tournament containment area. Most tournaments want to you to stay within 500 yards of the pierheads before the start. We sit out there, engines idling, waiting with anticipation. It looks like a small city out on the water, with all the nav lights glowing in the pre-dawn hour. Monitoring the designated tournament radio channel, we listen to the banter of our fellow anglers, hear some last-minute questions, and the inevitable side bets that are arranged. A few minutes before the start time, an invocation is given asking for safe and productive fishing for the tournament…then the countdown to the shotgun start…10, 9, 8…3,2,1…GO!
Throttles mashed down, boats take off heading in every direction…a chunk of the pack goes North…a bunch go South…some head straight out. Wakes are building and crisscrossing everywhere and you have to really be alert so that you don’t get tossed around or have a collision. I’ve seen boats that weren’t paying attention almost capsize during tournament starts. We’ve picked our intended direction and depth during our strategy sessions, so that’s where we head. Once we get to our destination, we set down and get ready to fish.
Throttles down to idle, trolling bag in the water (to slow the boat down even more), one engine shut off…we will troll on just one engine. Get the speed and direction set while lines are going in. Deploy the leadcore and copper on planer boards, put out the divers, drop those riggers down…we are finally fishing! Most tournaments have a 9 rod limit…much less than we would normally run when fun fishing, so that makes our presentation choices even more critical. Watch those rods like a hawk, waiting for the rod twitch or reel clicker that tells you, FISH ON…reel ‘em in quickly but carefully and then get the net. That’s one in the box!
For most tourneys, we will need to weigh in with somewhere between 9 and 12 fish. Some tournaments let you sort your fish (catch more than you need to weigh and just weigh in the biggest ones), and some don’t. Since tournament hours are typically from 6:45 or so to 2:00, that means we need to catch at least a couple of fish per hour to stay on target. If all goes well, we are in the fish early. There is nothing better than landing a couple of fish while you are setting lines, or in the first 30 minutes of trolling. When we do, life is good…when we don’t, we start to think about how to change our strategy…move to a new spot, try some new lures, change our speed or direction of troll, etc. These mid-day adjustments really force you to be a better fisherman…making decisions on the fly and trying to improve your situation while on the clock…that is what tournament fishing is all about.
I should mention that some tournaments require that you catch some “off-species” that aren’t salmon…usually lake trout, brown trout or steelhead…as part of your day’s catch. And some tournaments offer extra bonus points for those off-species fish. That can really alter your strategy as you have to adjust your fishing techniques and location to target those species. Sometimes we concentrate on getting our salmon early and then go hunting for trout…sometimes we are confident we can catch our salmon as needed so we go looking for the trout first.
Hopefully we have caught our fish early and are back at the dock with plenty of time for breakfast…yeah right…well, it does happen sometimes. More likely, we are still trying for that last fish or two, looking for our off-species fish, or looking for a bigger one in those tournaments where we can sort fish, as time is winding down. Keeping a close eye on the clock, and constantly monitoring the distance to the pierheads, we calculate exactly when we will have to pull our lines to get back in by the deadline. Since you are penalized (or disqualified) if you are late, we never want that to happen.
Time’s up…time to pull lines…start the other engine, pull the trolling bag in, make sure the cannonballs are in the boat, the riggers up, all the rods stowed…and then hit it! The race is on back to the pierheads All the boats that haven’t gotten their limits or their off-species, the ones that were fishing really far away, or those that were hoping for some last-minute magic, are on their way in. Since you have so many boats trying to get to the same small space at the same time, sometimes it gets pretty chaotic…the channel fills up with boats and tempers can flare. Once in the channel, everyone is lining up to get to the drop off dock where they drop off their cooler of fish, their tournament log sheet with all their fish recorded on it, one of their teammates, and their observer (if they have one). Then it’s back to your slip to tie up, clean up the boat a little and head over to the scoring area to find out how you did.
As the boxes of fish get weighed, weights are recorded and displayed…sometimes on a whiteboard, sometimes electronically. Everyone watches eagerly to see where they placed…hoping to maintain their position, often sliding down as new, heavier coolers get weighed.
Once all the boats have weighed in…then it’s time for some liquid refreshment and dinner as the bragging, strategizing and discussions begin in earnest in preparation for Day Two. Depending on how Day One went for your team, you are either planning a return trip to the same waters, considering trying something totally new, focusing on a way to find some big fish, or just trying to maintain your great Day One position. Adjustments are the name of the game, and a lot of decisions have to be made that will make or break you on Day Two.
Day Two…do it all over again and hope things worked out the way you planned. Nothing beats having your plan come together and catching the fish that you knew were there waiting. Then head to the weigh-in and wait anxiously to see where you end up!
Tournament fishing is a great experience! It rewards patience, organization, strategy, quick-thinking, and good decision-making…and sometimes risk-taking and luck play a prominent role too. It’s a great way to hone your fishing skills…fishing against some of the best on the water. And of course, it’s a heck of a lot of fun too…so get out there and give it a try!