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Tips for the "Rookie" Tournament Angler

By Dale Richardson, Sportsmen Bassmasters

Bass anglers new to tournaments often feel confused about the whole process and don't know where to find accurate information about their individual rights and responsibilities. In particular, they are apprehensive about their role as a Boater or Non-boater and what is expected of them as they fish with a stranger. This article will attempt to consolidate some of the "unwritten" rules of the game and provide guidance for the new tournament angler.

First of all, let's define the type of tournament being fished. This will determine many of the conventions of responsibility between the Boater and Non-boater.  All are very different in how things will run, but all have some fundamental issues in common.

Pro/Am Tournament - This is a very high profile money tournament that is professionally organized and involves a "professional" who makes all the decisions regarding areas to fish and has full control of the boat at all times.  The "amateur" is usually just along for the ride and has no say in where the boat goes.  He just has to do the best that he can from the back of the boat.

Partner Tournament - This is usually a money tournament at a somewhat lower level than the Pro/Am tournament.  The "partners" usually are well known to each other and have "paired" up as a team for the express purpose of fishing the tournament.  As a rule, they fish as a team and share boat control, fishing time, decisions as to where and how to fish, and all expenses.

Draw Tournaments - These usually involve a blind draw of partners for that particular tournament.  Partners are usually expected to share expenses and fishing time 50/50, but are fishing as individuals.  Each is responsible for his own catch.  This is the type tournament normally fished by the amateur club angler and will be the focus of this article's discussions.

Shared Responsibilities

Communicate!  This is number one on the list of shared responsibilities and is the one area that can make or break a successful fishing outing.  Speak up!  Don't be intimidated by a more experienced angler!  Failure to communicate with your partner is the easiest way to create hard feelings between the anglers and ruin a successful tournament.  On the other hand, good communications between the two anglers will almost always avoid most problem situations and leads to a pleasant day for all.  When we speak of communication,  we mean ADVANCE communication.  Yelling at the other person after the fact is never any help.

Be on time!  Be ready at the appointed time and place with gear packed, lures tied on, food and bathroom stops out of the way, and nothing to do but dump the boat and go fishing.  A good rule of thumb (most tournament rules require this) is to be on the water, ready to go at least 30 minutes prior to tournament start time.  This provides time for rule number one - COMMUNICATION .  Last minute strategy can be worked out while all the others are scrambling for position at the boat launch site.

Pay your fair share of the expenses.  In almost all cases, all expenses, including the tow vehicle,  should be shared equally between both anglers.    For the person new to this scene, it may be very surprising to see how much it costs to run a pro-style bass rig in tournament conditions.  A bass boat with a 150 HP motor will generally consume fuel at a rate of 3 miles per gallon at 60 MPH.  While most modern outboard engines are now oil injected, it still is a significant expense that must be considered.  A typical tournament day will consume at least one quart of TCW III oil at two to three dollars a quart.  A tow vehicle capable of towing a fiberglass bass boat usually gets about 10 miles per gallon and never more than 15.   Everything considered, a typical tournament day at the lake is going to cost around thirty to fifty dollars in gas and oil alone.  The costs of owning and insuring the boat itself are never considered and are the sole responsibility of the boater.  As all situations are different, this is one of the most critical topics in the communication processes and should be discussed ahead of time.  

Review the tournament rules ahead of time.  This protects your rights and prevents misunderstandings and disqualificatons.  If one angler commits an act which the other thinks is against the rules, talk it out together before filing a complaint.  Most of these incidents are simple misunderstandings and can be settled quietly at the time.  If it leads to a formal complaint to the tournament committee, hard feelings will probably linger forever.  Fishing, particularly tournaments at the club level, should never be the reason for a lifelong grudge against a fellow angler.

Fishing time.  In most draw tournaments, the boater and non-boater share the fishing time on a 50/50 basis.  This means that the non-boater gets to decide where to fish and has control of the boat 50% of the time. Since most tournaments are eight hours, each angler is entitled to four hours of fishing his or her water from the front of the boat. Again, communication is critical.  Some of the most common ways to split time are:

1.     4/4 split.  Control of the first four hours to one angler and the last four to the other.  This works well when the anglers have different fishing styles and their "spots" are a considerable distance apart.

2.     Two hour splits.  This is another version of the 4/4 option and is popular with some anglers as it prevents a person from being discouraged when they haven't been particularly successful during their period. There still is a chance for catch up during the second two hour period.  This only works when there isn't a great distance between the anglers "spots" and time won't be wasted running back and forth across the lake.

3.     One hour splits.  This can be a very effective way to share the time when the same tactics and methods are used and "spots" are not a factor.  An example of this is fishing docks or well defined weedlines.

4.     "I fish my spots and you fish yours".  This method is used when the "spots" are generally in the same areas and the "plan" has shown that it is a more efficient use of time to cover the area rather than race back and forth across the lake. Keep in mind, however, that time allocations may not work out equally with this method.

5.     "You run the boat and I'll fish"  Some non-boaters prefer to avoid the distraction of running an unfamiliar boat.  If this is the case, the boater is allowed to control the front all day. Keep in mind though, that just because the non-boater relinquishes the front, he still has the right to determine the "spots" during his four hours.

6.     Any combination of the above is acceptable as long as the anglers discuss it in advance and both agree that it is a fair and equitable plan.  As each situation is different, the "plan" should account for each angler's experience and knowledge of the lake and current fishing conditions.  It makes no sense for an angler who has never been on the water before to insist on wandering aimlessly during his/her four hour period when the other angler has been "living" on the lake forever and knows where all the fish are.  If you draw a partner who insists on his "right" to wander all over the place, grit your teeth and bear it.  Who knows, you just might stumble on a great new honey hole that no one else has ever found.

In the absence of a "plan" ahead of time, it is generally assumed that the boater has the first four hours and the non-boater the last four hours.

Handling of the fish.  Handling fish is the sole responsibility of the angler who caught them.  Don't try to be a good guy and "help" the other angler with fish unless specifically asked.  Generally speaking, only bad things happen if you handle the other person's fish without permission.  For example, if you attempt to "lip" the fish for the other person and accidentally drop it back into the water, both of you are going to feel extremely bad and hard feelings will result.  For this reason, many tournaments prohibit any handling of the fish by anyone other than the angler who caught them.

On the other hand, be ready to net the fish (if allowed by the rules) if the other person requests it.  This can be tricky.  Everyone has his own ideas about the best way to net a fish and tensions can mount rapidly if you aren't doing it the way the other person thinks it should be done.  This is another good item to discuss before the situation arises on the water.

Use good fishing courtesy.  Generally speaking, the person in the front of the boat gets the first cast at the prime structure.  The person in the back should never cast across the line of the person in front to reach a prime target (and vice versa) unless it has been discussed ahead of time.  Some people are sticklers for details and get upset if the imaginary line (usually 90 degrees out from the center of the boat) is crossed by the other angler.  Again, good communication will sort this out before the fishing ever starts.  A good rule of thumb to follow is for the angler in the back to wait for the angler in the front to cast, then cast somewhere behind.  If this is done, no one will ever complain.

Although technically not required, good sportsmanship suggests that the front seater leave a portion of the structure untouched so that the back seater has a reasonable chance at a fish. 

In waters that are obviously unsuitable for fishing from the back, such as flipping and pitching narrow channels or creek arms, it is common courtesy to invite the other angler up front if space on the deck allows.

Be good ambassadors for the sport of Bass Fishing.  Never do anything that will bring discredit upon yourself and  boating partner and/or other Bass Anglers.  Examples of this are:

1.     Approach the bank from a 90 degree angle and come off plane far enough away  to prevent any wake damage to shoreline property.

2.     Don't fish the immediate area where people are gathered and having their own fun.  This includes docks where people are swimming, sitting, sunbathing, fishing, or just generally hanging out.

3.     Don't encroach on other people's fishing area.  If they got to the "spot" first, swallow your disappointment and go somewhere else.  This includes the general public as well as other tournament competitors.     Most tournaments have well established rules as to how close you can come to a fellow competitor.  Know the rules and don't be afraid to tell the other boat if you feel they are encroaching on your territory.  Don't jump in front of another fisherman who is running a weedline or line of docks, even if you are "technically" not within the defined area of exclusion from the other boat.  If there is any doubt about what direction they are working, ask them.

4.     Keep your trash in the boat with you and get rid of it later in the proper manner.  If possible, pick up any trash you find, both on the water and around the boat ramp.  Try to leave the environment cleaner after you have gone than it was when you arrived.

5.     If you damage someone's property, stop and talk to the owner and offer to pay for whatever it costs to fix it.  If the owner is not at home, leave a note.  Make sure to retrieve any snagged hooks, lures, or tangled line and take them with you.

6.     Be familiar with and obey all the laws and regulations applicable to the local body of water.  This includes the laws that give you the right to fish around and under docks and other "private" property.

7.     Treat the fish gently and do everything possible to insure their continued survival.

Probably the best possible advice in this area is:  Think back to all the incidents that you have witnessed in the past that you thought were stupid, senseless, dangerous, irritated you, or just plain made you mad, then DON'T REPEAT THEM! 

Boater's Responsibilities

While most boaters tend to be more experienced at the tournament scene, it happens sometimes that a person's first time at this is with a boat.  Just because a person can afford a nice rocket ship that will do 70 MPH, it doesn't mean that they have been blessed with the wisdom and experience of the ages.  In many cases, an inexperienced boater can cause more problems than anyone else. 

Make sure the boat is mechanically sound and ready to go.  This means that it is full of gas and oil, the batteries are fully charged, and all the equipment is functional.  Examples of this are:  live wells clean, aerators functional, trolling motor in good shape, depth finders working, functional kill switch,  sufficient life preservers, fire extinguishers, and other safety equipment on board, etc.

A common mistake seen at all tournament levels is the failure of the boater to provide a   life preserver for the non-boater.  Sometimes assumptions are made that the non-boater will bring his/her own favorite device.  Granted, this is more often the mistake of an experienced tournament boater who is just trying to minimize the amount of "junk" in the boat, but legally, it is the boater's responsibility.  Keep in mind that this is grounds for disqualification from the tournament for BOTH anglers.  Again, good advance communication with the non-boater will avoid any problems in this area.

Follow the rules.  Any tickets or citations for expired licenses, missing or malfunctioning safety equipment, or exotic vegetation on the boat and/or trailer is the responsibility of the boater.  A ticket for speeding or running a slow zone is usually grounds for automatic disqualification from the tournament for both anglers.

Give the non-boater a "check out" of the boat ahead of time.  If possible, during pre-fishing, get the non-boater up front so they can become familiar with the handling characteristics of the trolling motor and depth finders.  This will avoid problems during the tournament when time is critical.

Expenses.  While this is a shared responsibility, most non-boaters will expect the boater to initiate the discussion on expenses.  Start this discussion early in the planning process and be fair with the non-boater. Don't try to get them to make your boat payment or insurance costs for you. If you make a habit out of  "gouging" the non-boaters, the word will get out quickly about what a cheapskate you are.  On the other hand, don't try to do it all yourself.  Non-boaters have certain responsibilities and need to pay their fair share. Keep a written record of the gas and oil expenses for both the tow vehicle and the boat and split the cost down the middle. Keep it up front and fair and it will be a non-issue.

Don't be a "cowboy".   Don't operate the boat in a manner that is dangerous or makes the non-boater uncomfortable.  Always keep in mind that they are sitting in the other seat, totally helpless as you are skipping the top of three foot waves with the throttle wide open.  What seems perfectly fine to you may be scaring the non-boater out of his wits.

Leave plenty of time for the return run.  Only you know how much time it takes to get back across the lake in your boat.  Remember that it will always take more time to get back in the afternoon than it took early in the morning when you were the only boat on the lake.  With the afternoon boat traffic in slow zones, water skiers, sail boat regattas, wind whipped waves, dead batteries, and other things too numerous and scary to name,  there is always the probability that something will go wrong to make you late for the weigh-in. 

Non-boater's Responsibilities

99% of the time, the angler's first experience in a tournament situation is as a non boater.  While on the surface it may seem like all that needs to be done is to show up and enjoy the day, there is much to consider.  If the non boater is not prepared and is not aware of the basics, this first experience may very well turn out so bad that it will be the last time he ever tries it.

Be prepared.  If you have never been on the lake before, do your homework.  Invest in a good quality map and study it well in advance of the first time on the water.  Solicit advice from your friends who may have fished the water before and talk to the local experts. Bait shop owners and tackle store salespersons are good references.  Have a game plan in mind and discuss it with the boater.  If you show up expecting to be "guided" by the boater, he/she will most likely ignore you for the entire day and you both will be upset and angry  with each other.

Expenses.  If the boater has not already brought the subject up, YOU DO IT!  Some boaters are reluctant to talk about this and will assume that you will do the fair thing after the day is complete.  While this works out OK most of the time, eventually hard feelings will result.  It is always better to talk about this before the trip starts.  ALWAYS make sure that you have sufficient money (in cash) to cover more than your expected share of the costs.  Treat this like a fancy dinner at a great restaurant.  When in doubt, be prepared to pay for the entire evening and be pleasantly surprised when the bill comes in at half of what is expected.  Above all, don't quibble over nickels and dimes.  If you figure the bill for gas and oil to be exactly $13.86, give the boater  $15.00 and walk away smiling.  When in doubt, or if it hasn't been discussed earlier, the non boater's share of a day on the  water in a full sized bass boat is about $20.00.

Don't try to take the entire tackle store with you.  Nothing frustrates a boater more than to see the non-boater show up with  a dozen rods, a half dozen  tackle boxes, three or four plastic shopping bags, and enough food and drink to feed you both for several days.  Most boats have just enough storage space for the boater's gear to be stowed in the built-in compartments.  This means that the floor space is all that is left for your gear.  Plan ahead for what you might need and take only what you think is necessary for that particular day on the lake.  Usually, six to eight rods are sufficient and all necessary tackle should fit into one medium-to-large athletic duffel bag.  In addition to this, a small "six pack" size cooler with your lunch, a couple of soft drinks, plus a rain gear package is acceptable.  A rule of thumb here is "If you can't carry it all in one trip, it is probably too much".

Most boaters will gladly share whatever they have with you if it turns out that the fish are biting something that you didn't bring.   Most, however, will draw the line at lending you one of their six dollar crankbaits if you have already lost all yours to hungry northern pike using four pound test line.  Keep in mind that this is a two way street and you should be willing to share your "hot" bait with the boater if the situation is reversed.  If you do "borrow" an expensive piece of gear and then lose it, make sure to replace it or reimburse the other person for the full value. 

Help with the launch/recovery.  Generally speaking, the boater will expect you to back the rig into the water while he/she backs the boat off the trailer.  You will then be expected to drive the rig to the parking lot and secure it for the day.  After the day is done, you will be expected to hike up to the parking lot, get the rig and back it into the water to load the boat.  If you don't know how to do any of this, SPEAK UP.  The last thing the boater wants is some rookie tearing up the equipment.  Some things to look out for are: 

1.     NEVER ASSUME ANYTHING!  This is a very dangerous situation and people and equipment can be seriously hurt if you move the vehicle before everything is ready to go.

2.     Keep the keys in your pocket.  Don't toss them from one boat to another or from the dock to the boat.  If you have them in your hand and slip getting into or out of the boat, they most likely will go flying into the water and will never be seen again.  If the boater is smart, he/she will have an extra set stashed in the boat, but many people seem to forget this critical item.

3.     If the tow vehicle is equipped with a clutch, it is extremely easy to "smoke" it when pulling the boat out of the water.  If you have any doubts about your ability to handle this, have the boater do it.  They will be familiar with the quirks and personality of the tow vehicle and can get it done without damaging the equipment. 

Be careful with the boat. Treat it as if it were your Father's and remember he'd have your butt if you messed it up. 

1.     Most bass boats cost as much or more than the average new car and are the pride and joy of the boater.

2.     If you are a smoker, ask before lighting up.  Most boaters understand and will give permission.  Even with permission, make sure not to flip the ashes on the seat covers or grind the butts into the carpet.  Don't throw the butts overboard.  Douse them thoroughly and stash them in your tackle box. 

3.     Wipe your feet before you climb into the boat.  No one likes to look at goose and duck droppings on his carpet for eight hours. 

Especially important are the seats.  Treat them as if  they were the brand new living room sofa that your mother has been saving up for all of her adult life. 

1.     DON'T WALK ON THE SEATS!  Even if the boater does it, ask permission first. 

2.     If you are one of those who likes to strap sharp things to your belt  such as scissors, nail clippers, keys, or anything else that will rip a gash in the upholstery as you sit down, get rid of it.  Buy a pair of those pants with pockets all up and down the legs if you need to keep tools handy. 

Be assertive.  If you want to try a particular area or technique, let your wishes be known.  It is not the boaters responsibility to be a mind reader and try to guess what you are thinking.  If he is running the trolling motor too fast or slow for your style, talk to him.  When it is your time to control the boat and it is looking like the boater has conveniently "forgotten" to look at his/her watch, speak up. Unfair as it may seem, there are some boaters who will intentionally  camp out at the front of the boat and ignore you as long as you are timid enough to let them get away with it.

Boat control.  When it is your turn at the front, always keep in mind that a boat doesn't handle like a car.  When going slowly, the boat will pivot around the big motor (it is acting like a big rudder). If you forget this, you will bang the back of the boat into the corner of the dock as you make the turn.  Wind makes matters worse.  It always seems to be blowing in the direction that will put you into the rocks if you let your mind wander for just a second.

When you are in the back, keep an eye out for these hazards and be prepared speak up and/or use your hands and feet to keep the boat out of trouble if the boater has a mental lapse.

If you break it, you pay for it.  This applies to broken trolling motor props and steering cables, rods that you step on, or tackle boxes that you kick overboard.  A couple of the common mistakes are: 

1.     Running the troll motor into the rocks.  This will snap a prop blade off in a split second.  Hopefully, the boater will have a spare on board and the worst harm that is done is 10 minutes fishing time lost and $20 out of your pocket for the new one.  If there isn't a spare, the day is basically ruined.

2.     Snapping a troll motor steering cable.  This happens when the motor gets tangled up in the weeds and the operator "forces" a turn.  The only safe way to clear the prop is to pull the motor up and clean the mess off by hand.  If you do bust the cable, it means the motor is done for the day and it will probably cost you at least $100 to get it fixed.  Needless to say, this is one sure way to get on the bad side of the boater (probably for life). 

Pay attention to where you are.  The non-boater should be the navigator.  Keep the map handy (but don't let it blow overboard), watch for landmarks, and point out the upcoming turns.  It is easy to get disoriented on the lake and sometimes the boater can loose track of just exactly where you are.  You can be a big help if you can direct him/her back in the right direction without stopping and getting the map out.  Also, keep an eye out for any hazards on the lake such as reefs, sand bars, logs, stumps, rocks, or anything else that can rip the lower unit off the boat.  Don't assume the boater sees the same things that you do.  It is much better to point out the hazard and steer clear than to hit it in ignorance and loose the entire day of fishing waiting for the rescue squad to show up (if you are lucky).  Along this same line, keep the boater advised of any slow zones or speed limit areas coming up.  If you blow through one, you are disqualified right along with the boater. 

Follow the rules.  In most cases, you can get yourself and the boater disqualified by doing something stupid like taking your life jacket off  or standing up while the big motor is still running.  Make sure you get the jacket on and your butt in the seat when its time to run to the next spot.  The boater isn't supposed to engage the big motor until this is done.  You can really get him mad in a hurry if you take your sweet time getting settled.  Remember, you only have a limited amount of time during the tournament.  Any time spent screwing around when you are not either fishing or running wide open is wasted time for both of you. 

When the boater says it's time to run, stop fishing and get ready to go. The boater knows how much time it takes to get back (or should) and doesn't need an argument from you at this time. If you insist on "just a couple more casts", you could put both of you in jeopardy of disqualification by arriving late for weigh-in. 

Help with the cleanup.   After you have pulled the boat out of the water, the boater will be busy tying it down and getting things ready to tow.  You need to spend this time cleaning up the trash, making sure the boat and trailer are free of weeds, and insuring that your gear is secured. 

Summary.  Those new to the tournament scene have a lot to think about as they prepare for their first outing with a new partner.  By following a few common sense guidelines, both anglers will have a lot more fun and the chance for success is greatly increased.  By no means is this a "rule" book that must followed exactly.  Probably a better description of this is simply a collection of "expectations" that, if followed, may make the experience more enjoyable for all concerned.

If you follow rule number one and  COMMUNICATE with your fishing partner, it will most likely turn out to be a pleasant and enjoyable day on the water.

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