by Capt Chad Dufrene
Common Mistakes Made by Tournament Anglers and How to Avoid Them
Over the last 17 years of tournament fishing I have made, and seen, many mistakes that have kept myself and others from winning a major redfish tournament. Many of these mistakes were made early in my career and I have learned from them. Today, though, I still see and hear of people making the same mistakes I made. Some are young anglers just starting out but some of these folks are veterans. In this article I want to share with you a few of the most common mistakes tournament anglers make and how to avoid them. What follows is a list of critical mistakes that, if corrected, will help you finish closer to the top.
FAILURE TO PLAN
A certain percentage of anglers in every tournament field will probably never win a tournament. They are simply there to fish and have a good time. There is nothing wrong with that because these folks are usually swamped with a full-time job, kids, family and many other responsibilities that keep them from putting together a proper plan for success. But, in failing to put together a proper plan, they are essentially planning to fail. For instance, some of the things you need in planning are done long before you leave home.
You need to check all the trailer hubs for grease and check the tires for proper air pressure before you leave the house. Check all engine mounting bolts on the transom before and after every tournament. Make sure you have a spare prop and extra oil. Check all battery connections for tightness and corrosion. Make sure all livewell pumps are functioning and aerators are working. Check that the running lights on both boat and trailer are working properly. Neglecting any of these routine checks can cost you a day or several days of precious prefishing time.
FISHING OR SETTLING ON THE WRONG FISH
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard stories from anglers during prefishing about how they caught 50-100 redfish most every day. I have also noted that people get on stage after they weigh their fish and during their interview say how it was an epic day and they caught 40-70 fish. Most of the time these teams weigh in 14-15 lbs, finish deep in the field, and are happy with their performance.
The question I have in both of the above scenarios is “Why?”. Why catch 50-100 redfish during a prefishing day? Why catch 40-70 fish on tournament day? Is it because it was fun? You can go rip some lips anytime you want. This is a trap some people get caught up in that I call “CATCHING”. They love to fish and catch fish so much they cannot control themselves and they become their own worst enemy. Until you learn to control yourself and be more selective with your fish you will be hard pressed to win a tournament.
Some teams get in an area during prefishing and start seeing fish immediately in every direction they look. They get what I call googly-eyed-fish-drunk and start ripping lips. The problem is that most of the fish tend to be 4 to 7lbs. But there are so many fish in the area they won’t leave. They just keep catching and searching for better fish. Soon, they have wasted a whole day in the wrong area. But they had fun.
They start out day 2 of prefishing in a different area and find nothing through mid-morning and begin to panic. They make the mistake of going back to the same area as the day before. They keep searching for better fish only to find more of the same 4-7lb fish. Now they might have only one more day to scout before the tournament starts and are scrambling for information from other anglers and friends. In the end they wind up going on a wild goose chase on day 3 and find nothing tournament worthy. Now they are stuck with the area that has epic numbers of the wrong fish and finish near the middle of the field on gameday.
OVERFISHING YOUR FISH
I am often amazed at how many teams I run into at the dock during prefishing and hear them say “we caught 17+ lbs 3 times today”. Sometimes I get “we caught 50+ fish today and had over 18 lbs”. Again, I want to ask the question, “Why?”. What possible good can that do for you? Pump up your ego? I have asked why a couple of times and I got the same answer both times. They reply with, “There are 100’s of fish where we are fishing and you can’t hurt ‘em or mess them up”. Then on tournament day, at the weigh in, I hear some of the same teams saying, “Our fish would not eat, dammit! We had them locked down and to ourselves and they just would not eat”. They get caught up in the “Catching” trap and cannot control themselves. They become their own worst enemy and usually finish in the middle of the field.
FAILURE TO UTILIZE ELECTRONICS PROPERLY
Electronics are something that almost everyone has on their boat but most tournament anglers fail to use properly. Anglers primarily use their electronics to lay down trails and routes to get back and forth from the marina to their fishing grounds.
There are many other features that can be utilized with the newer model gps units. For instance, Humminbird makes a mapping card called the Louisiana Lakemaster Delta that is an aerial photo of the entire Louisiana coastal marsh similar to google earth. Anglers that have only the generic basemaps in their units are missing out on the advantages of this detailed mapping feature. Units equipped with aerial photography mapping can help anglers navigate quickly, safely, and more accurately through the marsh.
The Humminbird Helix unit provides anglers the ability to pan around the Lakemaster map and zoom in and out quickly. You can clearly see if there is a pond, creek, ditch, or potential fishing spot without pulling out the old fold up map in windy conditions.
The newer units even allow you to search google earth via a laptop or pc and then transfer data, routes, and waypoints straight to the units. All these features may be intimidating and the seeming complexity may keep anglers from employing the power of these electronics. But I always thought of the new technology this way - a man of average intelligence will be able to work it or it would not sell.
The key to learning these features is to go fishing more often and use the product.
NOT BEING TOTALLY COMMITTED TO WINNING
Being totally committed to winning means you have a plan for everything. I often see people leave the dock with reels spooled half full of braided line that looks too old and frayed to be fishing with in a money tournament. I see knots and leaders from the previous day or trip that have not been changed or retied. I have seen some anglers getting to the dock at 10 am to go out and some returning to the dock at 1pm to call it a day. I know several people who never, ever, check their measuring device against the measuring device used by the bump man. Don’t assume all Check it Sticks are the same!
I have seen teams scouting areas and know for a fact they did not look at the weather forecast. Because, in the end, that particular bank they are looking at will be blown up by the 20 +mph winds that will blow right into that bank on tournament day and the school of studs they were catching is gone. They think they have winning fish but what they fail to realize is - that spot is going to be a mudhole with whitecaps by tournament day. Some teams just don’t plan for the weather and adjust their prefishing to areas that are fishable on tournament day.
I have also seen some teams come off the water early and then stay out all night drinking. Then they roll into the dock at 6 am to go prefishing. How can they focus and put in a long day in that condition. That kind of stuff would not sit well with me if my partner pulled that stunt. You are either committed to winning or just being a donor to the pot – it’s your choice.
HOW TO AVOID THE MISTAKES OTHER ANGLERS MAKE
Now I will tell you how to avoid and correct the pitfalls and mistakes I have discussed above. Avoiding or correcting these mistakes will save you precious prefishing time, allow you to cover more water, put your team in the right place by tournament day, and help you finish higher in the field.
PUT TOGETHER A PLAN
A plan starts well before the tournament and continues throughout your prefishing and into tournament day. Study the tides and pay attention to what the fish are doing each day according to the tides. Look at the long range forecast and determine what kind of weather you might have on tournament day. This will give you an idea of the wind direction so you can use Google Earth and decide what areas will be protected and fishable with those winds. Also look for, and make a list of, other places to check in case the weather changes.
Have a checklist of what to do and check before you leave the house. Things like check tires and hubs, running lights on boat and trailer, livewells working, measuring board, spare prop and oil, rainsuit, lifejackets, etc. Make sure batteries are fully charged and all connections are tight and free of corrosion. A blown tire or hub on the highway, dead battery, or a bad connection can delay your trip and cost you a day of prefishing or fishing time on tournament day. Think of everything you need and everything that can go wrong or has gone wrong and make a list. Remember that you are dealing with a boat and a trailer and it can be a love/hate relationship.
HOW TO AVOID FISHING OR SETTLING ON THE WRONG FISH
This may be the hardest thing for most anglers to avoid. Many anglers come from areas where fish are ultra spooky and you need to be very quiet and make 50-60 yard cast to even have a chance at a bite. Then they arrive in Louisiana where they can pitch 10-30 feet to big golden marsh donkeys over and over. It can be so good that sometimes I think the fish actually think it’s Mardi Gras and are saying “throw me something Mr. Fisherman”. Fish are everywhere, and many anglers get what I like to call “catch drunk”. They lose focus on what they are there for and just start ripping lips. Remember, you are not just looking for redfish you are looking for winning fish. Every location a tournament is held has a certain weight that usually wins. For example, in South Carolina 4 ¾-5lb fish are winners, in North Carolina 7-7 ½lb fish are winners, in Florida 7-7 ½lb fish are winners, and in Louisiana 8 ¼-9lb are winners. These numbers are not exact, but they are something I usually use based on what location I fish.
How to avoid “catch drunk”? Here is how I approach my prefishing and decide where I will fish on tournament day. I usually fish a prospective area for a few minutes and if I don’t see fish or catch fish I move a couple of times in that area. I can usually tell within the first ½ hour if this is area has potential. I am very selective about which fish I catch. I pass on all fish under 24 inches and obvious over-slot fish. In Louisiana if I catch an upper slot fish and it measures between 26 and 27 inches and does not weigh at least 8lbs then I will fish a little longer to try to catch another upper slot fish. When I catch another upper slot fish in that area if it does not weigh 8lbs, I will leave for a new area. I don’t care if there are 100’s of fish in that area I refuse to stay if they are skinny.
Once I catch an upper slot fish in an area that is under 27 inches and over 8lbs I am done catching fish in that area. I will look at the fish in the area and try to determine if they are the same body style and see what coves, points, and grass lines the majority of the fish are holding on. Then I will start working out in a circular pattern from that area for one square mile and check every cove, pocket, flat and grass mat to see which ones are holding fish.
If I get away from the original area I might check another upper slot fish to see if it has some weight. But, under no circumstance will I catch more than 2-3 quality fish during prefishing.
When you do find the area you want to fish, try to determine what the fish are feeding on. The ideal forage would be menhaden or pogies, small crabs, shrimp or mullet, minnows or crawfish. One way to determine what they are feeding on is to catch and keep a couple smaller 20 to 23 inch fish and see what is inside their stomachs. Once you have determined what they are feeding on you can adjust the bait and color to mimic what is in the area.
HOW TO AVOID OVERFISHING YOUR FISH
This mistake is very easy to avoid, but it is the mistake that some anglers have the hardest time avoiding. Many anglers, once they find what they think are winning fish, tend to go back to these fish every day and catch a couple just to make sure they are there and heavy. These are the guys that catch 17+ lbs every day up until the tournament. By tournament day their fish have been caught and molested every day and the fish will not eat. The fix is easy - once you find winning fish, leave them alone! Give them a break and let them rest until you need them.
BE 100% COMMITTED TO WINNING
Any team can get lucky one time in their tournament career and win a tournament only to never crack the top 10 again. To consistently finish near the top you have to be 100% committed to winning. Being totally committed means you leave no stone unturned. You study maps and weather and tides and then create your tournament plan based on a combination of all that information.
Have a checklist and make sure you use it before you leave home. Prefish hard and spend many hours on the water each day. I rarely ever find winning fish after 3pm during a scouting day. This could be because the light is poor, winds may be up by then, or the tide is wrong etc. he extra hours late in the day when the light is low might allow you to find an area that looks absolutely right, but void of fish. I never dismiss these areas and usually start there first thing the next morning. Sometimes an area that was devoid of fish the day before is now teeming with the right fish. Maybe the tide was wrong and the fish are there on high water, or they are only there with a certain wind, or maybe this is their morning dining spot. The point is, if it looks right sometimes you just have to go with your gut and check it again on a different tide and wind.
Make sure all your line is fresh and leaders, knots, and hooks are retied before each day on the water. Your line, leader, and hooks are the only thing that connect you to your fish and neglecting them will cost you.
Based on your prefishing, plan what areas you will go to and in what order. Plan how you will approach and fish them based on the weather, tide, and winds. Make sure you are on a level playing field when it comes to measuring fish. Talk to the bump man about how he will measure fish and ask him to check your measuring board against the tournament board. I have seen in some instances where the tournament director said they would measure fish one way and the bump man was not on the same page. How this can happen is mind boggling, but I have seen it. Fish measurement is probably the single most important thing you need to get clarified. It is critical to know that what you are doing in the boat is the same thing that will take place at the measuring tent on tournament day. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the tournament director or bump man. You are their customer and paying a lot of money to compete and you need to know exactly how your fish will be measured.
There are many more mistakes that I could have written about in this article. But the mistakes, and the solutions, I have mentioned here are the most important (and most common) aspects that keep anglers from excelling in this sport.
Good Luck. See ya on the water.