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Fishing on a Lake for the First Time:  Tournament Preparation


To be successful at professional level tournament angling, a fisherman must be versatile and able to compete well wherever the tournament trail may lead him.  The skills that are necessary to do well in a tournament on a body of water that you may never have been to before, are skills that also can work well for the average weekend angler going to a new lake for the first time on vacation.  While every angler has their favorite home waters and their favorite patterns, the real challenge is going somewhere new and catching a boatload.

The first key to doing well on new water takes place long before I put my Ranger Boat in the water.  Doing your homework involves a lot of research.  The first thing I do when going to a new lake is finding some good maps of the water.  You can get commercial maps such as Fishing Hot Spots, official maps like those by the Army Corps of Engineers, and now the new GPS system maps as well. Aerial photos may be useful as well.   Each of these types of maps may show things a little differently, so it is best to use a few different sources and pay attention to the date it was comprised.  Especially flowages and river systems may change over time, so you will want to find the most current maps to study.

Once I have my maps, I target key spots depending on the time of year and the type of water. Early in the spring, I generally look for spawning areas with staging locations nearby.  Bass prefer to spawn on hard bottom surfaces such as rocky or sand flats with cover.  They may be found in stump fields, shallow wood, or lily roots.  The larger females only come to the spawn area for about a day, so they spend most of their time staging in nearby deeper water and sharp breaks.  Post spawn, look for deeper weed lines outside spawning areas, and secondary points.  In the hot summer, target deeper main lake points, humps, slop and current.  Come fall, you need to find baitfish locations such as in backs of creeks, flats and coves. If you are fortunate enough to fish on open water in the winter, look for deep vertical drop points.  By locating a few key spots, you can narrow down your target areas quite a bit.

Jim Jones

An important aspect to researching new water is looking on the internet or in magazines for more extensive information on the lake.  The more information you gain during this period the better prepared you will be when you get on the water. You may want to use an internet search engine and see what it may bring.  Local message boards and local bass clubs may post great sources of information on their sites.  You can find great articles written on that lake in fishing magazines or fishing websites. Look for previous tournament results posted on that body of water for that time of year.  Result postings can give you a good idea of what size bag you can expect to win the tournament.  Knowing what weight you will need can be important when you come up with your final game plan.   You may want to visit the weigh-ins of other prior tournaments.  Listen to other anglers talking around the ramp, and pay attention to the fish being caught.  By observing if people are catching largemouth or smallmouth, and even looking at the size and color of the fish can sometimes tell you a lot about where they came from. 

It is also important to have a good network of fellow anglers to get information and discuss your plans with.  The more tournaments a person fishes the larger his network of friends becomes.  Chances are you might know someone who lives near that lake or has done well there in the past.  Pick their brain for general information, but be sure to always treat those people with respect.  One of the most cardinal rules in tournament fishing is not to pass on another personís information or spots to someone else.  If they told you a true secret, keep it to yourself and donít use it against them in the future.  Remember that sharing information is a two way street, and you should be willing to repay the favor someday.  Those people who abuse that trust will quickly get a bad reputation and wonít be successful for long.

Seeking other sources of local information closer to your arrival is also important.  Some people choose to hire a local guide who specializes in bass fishing, although that often is not allowed in tournament competition and its usefulness depends greatly on the strengths of the guide.   If it is a big enough tournament, some people even choose to hire a pilot to take them on a fly over the water.  This can really help to give you the big picture of large bodies of water, and help you to see water you may never have known existed by water navigation or map reading.  Although I rarely do this myself, it can also be helpful to call local tackle shops, marinas and boat rentals to get current water conditions.  You can find out general information such as water level, temperature, clarity, what stage the fish are in, and key baits or baitfish they may see working for the local anglers.  By applying this information in very general terms, it can help give you a starting point to look for patterns. Many sporting goods stores, such as my local Sportsmanís Warehouse, even have display boards where they post current fishing reports.  All the large rivers and many large reservoirs also have web access to the most up to date Army Corps of Engineers information on water level, flow at the dams, water temperature, and even weather, wind speed and direction.  This is the information I rely on most when researching for a tournament.

Once you have done all your homework, it is time to go fishing!  A thorough prefishing period is vital for tournament success.  While people do get lucky once in a while just by showing up they most often just donate their entry fees.  Putting your time on the water is proven to be your best path to a high finish.  Obviously it is best to prefish in similar conditions as the tournament will be.  All too often an angler may spend days on the water prefishing, and then a few weeks later everything is changed. 

When you are prefishing for a tournament, speed is crucial.  My Minn Kota trolling motor gets a real work out running on high speed all day.  You have a limited amount of time to try as many different things as possible.  Test out lots of different options to see what works.  Fish different depth ranges, different cover, use different lures and colors.  Once you start to catch a few fish, try to establish a pattern and test out your theory.  Look for similar situations in other areas.  Donít spend much time in any one area when you are prefishing.  If you catch one fish there, it is likely there are more and you donít want to stick your fish before the tournament.  I usually even bend the hooks on my prefishing baits to prevent landing the fish.  I use fast moving baits when prefishing to cover as much water as quickly as possible.  By using lures such as crankbaits, spinnerbaits, Carolina rigs and jigs, I can cover a large area quickly and get an idea of bottom conditions and structure.  My personal favorite lures for this are the Brovarney Baits ľoz swimjig and the ISG Dream Tube.

The time initially put into navigating the water can be equally as important to time with your rod in hand.  Be observant and look around.  See where the locals are fishing, chat with people on the water and look for areas of fishing pressure.  While you may not want to sit in the crowd with all the locals, it can tell you a lot about your pattern.  Good marine electronics and top of the line polarized sunglasses are essential tools during navigation.  These help you to identify structure which can be key to locating fish.  I often use my locator to find structure that can hold large schools of fish such as drop offs and humps.  Just idling around and visually looking at the bottom for types of weeds, baitfish, and other structure can also be useful to establishing a pattern.  Having a reliable GPS unit to mark your findings is crucial on large bodies of water.  At the very least, keep your map handy to mark your areas.  

Once you have found that ďhot spotĒ during prefishing, spend time looking for other nearby areas that can be productive.  Having a few back up plans during a tournament is extremely important.  Often anglers do great prefishing the day before, only to find they cannot get any bites on tournament day.  You may need to try to find another spot that fits your pattern, or you may have to try a different pattern all together.  Either way, you donít want to waste all your tournament hours driving around to look for new fish.  Try to locate clusters of spots within a few minutes of each other.

Finally, it is almost time for the tournament.  There are still a few important details to be sure you are totally prepared.  First of all, be sure you get to the pre-tournament meeting in plenty of time and listen to other peopleís questions.  Especially if this is a new body of water for you, you may get some important information you didnít know before.  Then the night before the tournament, I take a great deal of time preparing my equipment.  This is a step many anglers make the mistake of skipping.  Be sure to check your boat over and make sure everything is in working order, including the live wells.  Check your rods for any stress cracks or loose guides, check that your reel seats are tight, and lube your reels if needed.  Always take the time to re-tie all your rods, and even replace the line if you need to.  A good tournament angler will usually have at least 6-8 rods rigged up in their boat with different lures they expect to use.  It takes much less time to switch rods on the water than to tie on different lures during critical tournament time.  Take the time to organize your tackle storage and clean up your boat.   Get all the garbage out and check all your compartments.  Be sure all your safety equipment, net, rule, scale, lifejacket, raingear and everything else is where it belongs.  I have seen many a disappointed angler get disqualified because he forgot a can of beer in the cooler or brought in a short fish because he forgot his rule.  Wasted time looking for things during the tournament could cost you fish and money.

Most importantly, you have to prepare yourself mentally for tournament success.  Fishing a tournament is a hard dayís work, extremely different than the casual vacation fisherman.  You have to be confident in your plan and your skills.  Finalize your plans and go over it in your mind.  Lastly, there is nothing more important than having a clear head and a good nightís sleep on the night before a tournament.