A Guide to Tournament Pre-Fishing

Pre-fishing can be one of the most overwhelming aspects in all of tournament fishing. Of the myriad of questions that can arise during pre-fishing most can be answered by establishment or elimination. When entering into a tournament it is imperative to prepare a gameplan. Some can take literally hundreds of hours to create, others only a few minutes. Here are some points you may want to consider when putting together your next gameplan.

Establish and understand your goal. While many of us think, ‘I’m gonna win this tournament.’, we must realize that is not necessarily a realistic goal. Not that you can’t win, but that there is a lot more involved with winning a tournament than just saying you’re going to win. Start with the tournament itself. You need to gain as much knowledge as possible about the tournament. There is an untold amount of information accessible to you via the internet. Check archieved results of past tournaments held the same time of the year. Many times you will find winning patterns or baits listed in interviews. Some interviews will list different areas of the lake where fish were caught. You will learn the average size of the tournament field which will help determine the amount of pressure that may be put on the lake. It can be somewhat intimidating to jump from fishing 10-12 boat club tournaments to 150-200 boat opens.

Research archieved weather conditions of your tournament area, then compare them to the current weather trends. If last years weather was cold and wet and this years weather is warm and dry you obviously will need to dig further into the archieves. What are the current water levels and conditions compared to those of the archieved tournaments. Is there water being drawn from the lake on a routine basis? Has there been a recent influx or reduction in the water level? Or has recent storm activity changed water clarity? Answers to these questions can help you determine where fish can be located. You will also need to stay abreast of current weather forecasts. Keep track of forecasted storm fronts moving into your area, monitor barometric pressure changes, wind direction and velocity, and imminent temperature changes. All of these will have direct impacts on the behavior of your fish.

You should already know that research of the tournament waters themselves is a must. This cannot be done without a quality topographic map. If topo maps of the surrounding land masses are available, they too, should be studied. Purchase maps of your tournament waters from more than one manufacturer, some will show details that others overlook. Be especially aware of where channels are marked on all of your maps. Once quality maps are obtained you can use them to divide the lake into manageable areas. Study each section to locate fish attracting areas such as channel bends, bluff walls, cliffs, points, secondary points, flats, underwater humps, roadways, or submerged buildings and bridges. Follow ridge lines from land mass maps into the lake maps. This gives you a good indication as to whether or not a point is long and tapering, if it is a steep drop, or if it has a sharp drop off to one side or the other. You can also trace closed or abandoned roadways through the lake, feeder creeks that may have submerged bridges on them, flooded ponds, or even abandoned buildings and cemetaries. Keep in mind that topo maps will show the lake at full pool, check for current water levels and adjust accordingly.

Here again, the internet can provide invaluable information. Satellite photos can show recent devopement to your tournament waters. Marinas, new boat ramps, docks, swim beaches, all can effect the structure of your water and most will not be shown on a map. If you have access to recent aerial photographs or an aerial view of the lake just prior to your tournament that is even better.

You will want to measure the distance from your launch ramp to the areas where you believe you will find fish. Estimate your travel time both to and from the ramp. When figuring your travel time, try to include as many variables as possible. Consider that recreational boat traffic will be higher during midday than at safe light when you launch. Is there storm activity due to arrive later in the day that will effect wind direction and velocity? It is not uncommon to run on glass smooth water at launch only to have to run back in 3 or 4 footers at the end of the day. Keep in mind your boat performance, your boat will generally run faster in cooler air and cooler water temps, but these normally will rise throughout the day. Your boat will also run slower when you add a co-angler, his gear, and fill your livewells with fish. Do not believe that the fuel load you burn off will compensate for filling your livewells.

You will need to familiarize yourself with what tournament species the lake holds. You will also need to be able to identify each species allowed at the weigh-in. Many tournaments have different legal length limits for different species, this makes knowing the difference between a largemouth, a spot, and a smallmouth of utmost importance. Each of these fish have different habits and preferences in cover, structure, and preferred forage.

Determining the main forage base in the lake can be critical. You need to know the differences in shad types and other baitfish. Research the availibiity of forage, whether it be shad, minnows, small gamefish, or crayfish. You also need to know the benefit the fish receive from each type of forage. Generally bass want the biggest bang for their buck. They eat to survive, and will generally try to ingest as much as they can while expending the least amount of energy possible.

Method selection is where you will determine how you will catch your fish during the tournament. You need to utilize every tool that you have available to you. Included in those tools are your electronics. First you need to learn how to operate them, then how to read them, and finally to trust in the information they are conveying to you. Your electronics are your underwater eyes, with todays’ technology some models can literally deliver to you photographic quality details of the bottom. However, it does you absolutely no good to have state of the art electronics in your boat if you neither know how to use them or don’t trust the information they provide.

Thorough knowledge of your rods, reels, line and lures should be obvious, still at every tournament you will find anglers with mismatched rods and reels, line sizes not compatible to lures, lures tied onto inadequate or unappropriate rods, improper hook sizes, the list is endless. Your equipment should be appropriately matched in order to produce optimum results. The setup you are using needs to work like a well oiled machine, from the hook to the body of the lure, the line, rod, reel, and ultimately you.

Familiarity with your tackle will go hand in hand with presentations of baits. Every tournament angler has one or two styles of presentation that they excell in. But every successful tournament angler is proficient in all of them. This is achieved through hours and hours of practice. The easiest way to make your weakest presentation stronger is to remove your “strong suit” from the boat. The more you force yourself to develope a weaker presentation, the stronger that presentation will become.

An often overlooked piece of equipment that needs to be in premium operating condition is your boat. Upkeep on a tournament boat may appear to be endless at times, however, that boat is your vital link between you, your fish, and your paycheck. Allowing it to fall into a state of disrepair should be simply unacceptable to any tournament fisherman. Routine maintainence on a boat is no different than routine maintainence on your tow vehicle. Not only is it a matter of performance, it is, more importantly, a matter of safety.

Know your boats’ capabilities. Modern bass boats are designed to withstand an incredible amount of punishment. Still, each one of them has its’ limits. Know these limits and operate your boat within them. No one was born knowing how to drive a bass boat. It takes a great deal of seat time to learn to drive one, and each one drives differently. Know and admit your own limits and capabilities and keep yourself within them as well. Use your safety equipment, religiously. Most tournaments require the use of a PFD and an operating kill switch during the tournament. Make using your safety equipment part of your regular routine. I recommend wearing a helmet as well. A helmet gives you a clear view of the water ahead, you can hear the sound of your engine without all the wind noise, and it offers you protection from rain, insects or other debris. Most importantly, should you be ejected from your boat it could easily save your life.

In developing your gameplan during pre-fish you must remember that your use of time is critical. Determine where on the lake you are going to start your tournament, then minimize your travel time to other spots. The more time you spend with the big motor running the less time you will spend fishing. Be prepared to cover the water column from top to bottom in each area you are going to fish. Rods should be pre-rigged with top water baits, a spinnerbait, a shallow, medium, and deep crankbait, as well as a worm and or jig. When rigging these rods keep color in mind. Certain colors are going to be more effective in certain types of water, and during different times of the day. Don’t tie everything on in the same color, and don’t kid yourself, it happens. Throughout the day if you decide to make a change in baits, make that change in your mind while your bait is in the water. Standing on the deck of your boat looking through different rods or digging through your tackle box looking for a different bait is costing you precious time, know what bait you’re going to move to before you make the move. If you have to retie a bait onto the same rod you’re using fine, but know what bait you’ll be tying on before you make the change. This is where you can also eliminate unnecessary tackle. Establish the types and colors of baits that are producing fish and eliminate the rest. You are not only reducing the amount of weight and clutter in your boat, but more so, you are reducing the opportunity to stray from your gameplan. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be open-minded about changing baits. More than one angler has lost confidence in what they’re doing by having too many unproven baits to choose from. Indecision can be devastating in a tournament. Make a decision, go with it, if it doesn’t produce, make another decision. Knowing how long to give a bait to produce is the key answer. When you can consistently answer that question your name will be all over the leaderboards.

Execution and exploitation are the final steps to your gameplan. Consistency now becomes your most viable tool. You know what lures and presentations produced your fish. You know when and where those fish were active. You know how long it takes to get from point A to point B. All that is required is to duplicate exactly what produced those fish, all the while keeping a watchful eye for changing conditions. Change in conditions can cause changes in fish behavior. Changes in fish behavior require changes in your presentations. Does this mean your gameplan is out the window? Absolutely not, it means that you need to change or adjust with the fish. Make your adjustments accordingly and exploit the fish using the knowledge gained through your research.

During a tournament an angler needs to focus his concentration on catching fish. Studies have shown that most people can only remain intently focused on an object for a few minutes, you need to focus for several hours. Do not make wasted casts, have a specific target and cast directly to it. Expect to get bit on every cast you make. Check your equipment periodically, run your line between your thumb and forefinger a couple feet above your lure, if you feel a nick or abrasion, retie your lure. Watch your electronics and maps, be sure that you are fishing where you think you are. Your boat can easily drift off your spot while retying a bait or placing a fish in the livewell. Do not allow yourself to be sidetracked. Keep yourself hydrated and nourished. Dehydration can effect you without you knowing it, it makes focusing more difficult and slows your thought processes.

Most importantly, use each tournament as a learning experience. You’re going to lose a lot more tournaments than you will ever win, keep in mind that in baseball a .300 hitter fails 70% of the time. Learn how to lose graciously and how to win humbly.

Ron Mayer

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