You say you enjoy fishing in tournaments (see the local upcoming events at our Chesapeake Bay Fishing Calendar), and you want to win more of ‘em? While there’s always an element of luck involved in tournament fishing, skill and effort can stack the deck in your favor. And over time, you’ll see the same names pop up again and again as top contenders, if not winners, in the same tournaments year after year. Talk to those competitive anglers and a few commonalities in their tactics will become clear. If you want to join their ranks, you’ll take note of these tips.

fish that win tournaments
Landing tournament-winning fish is no easy task, but these tips will help make it happen.
  1. Focus relentlessly on your target, from the moment of lines-in to the last minute of the tournament. If striped bass are the species being judged and you run into a once-in-a-lifetime school of gigantic bull redfish, you need to be willing to ignore them. If you hook into a beautiful cobia you need to crank down the drag and horse it to the boat or break it off. If there are Spanish mackerel leaping out of the water in all directions you need to leave and try a different spot. You aren’t trying to have fun — you’re trying to win, so stay serious about it.
  2. Build a detailed plan of attack prior to the big event. Leave the dock knowing exactly where you’ll start, where you’ll try next, where you’ll try after that, and so on. Take the time to study the tides (if applicable) and weather so you know where and when to make your strongest play and have a multilayered backup plan.
  3. Fully utilize every minute of fishing time. The start time of the tournament is when you take your first cast, not when you leave the dock, so if lines-in is 6 a.m. you need to leave the dock early enough to be sitting at your first hotspot, waiting for the starting bell, at 5:55. And don’t even think about quitting one minute before lines-out. How many tournaments have been won in the last hour of fishing? We don’t know. But an awful lot of prize-winning fish have been caught after half the fleet is already back home.
  4. Don’t waste one second on the water. There’s no sitting down to rest when a line needs to be rerigged, forget about sluicing away fish blood when a hot bite is on, and don’t spend one extra minute trying to recover a snagged jig. In the same vein, if you’re fishing live bait make sure you have it secured well in advance and never plan to burn precious tournament time catching it. Every. Second. Counts.
  5. Prep is critical and gear needs to be in 100 percent ideal condition. Before tournament day respool reels with fresh line, replace old leaders, sharpen hooks and gaffs, and check, set, and recheck drags. If you’ll need dead bait, secure it well ahead of time and rig it in advance. Also run through the boat’s systems and make sure everything is functioning properly. This is not the time to lose a trophy fish to gear failure, or worse, to lose a day to boat failure.
  6. Leave your golfing buddy Sven at home, and invite an angling sharpie instead. Setting aside kayak competitions, most fishing tournaments are team events. And you want strong team members who bring competency and knowledge to the table. Winning tournaments isn’t about taking your friends out for a day of fishing, it’s about competing, and building a strong team seriously boosts your chances of winning.
  7. Avoid social events the night before, even if they’re part of the tournament. Nothing makes you slower on your feet than staying up and drinking until the wee hours of the morning. The serious contenders will be going to bed early and getting a good night of rest so they can function at 100-percent from lines-in to lines-out.
  8. Pre-fish as much as possible. This doesn’t mean going fishing once the day before an event, it means fishing several days in a row so you can nail down patterns and locations. Yes, we know you have a real job, but do you want to win or not?
  9. Ignore all intel coming from untrusted sources, and especially ignore anything you might see on social media. Sad though it may sound, people will be putting plenty of bad info on the streets in the days before a tournament, particularly when there’s serious money involved.
  10. Study the rules. More than one tournament has been won and then hours later lost as the result of a rules infringement. Go through everything with a fine-tooth comb, twice.
measuring fish in a tournament
Study the rules carefully, and make sure you follow them.

If you’re a red-hot angler and you do all these things, will you win that next tournament? Maybe, but probably not. Remember, there is an element of luck that no one can control. But if you focus on the mission and try, try, and try again, you’ll see your rankings improve. And sooner or later, you’ll likely end up taking the prize.