How Does a Fishing Tournament Work?


Brandon Fritz

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Fishing is my favorite way to relax and enjoy nature. After a successful day on the water, perhaps you’ve also let this thought cross your mind: what if I tried a tournament?

Believe it or not, there’s far more out there than just bass tournaments, including: walleye, catfish, crappie, ice fishing, and much more.

If you enjoy the thrill of competition, tournaments are a great way to take your fishing to a new level. Here’s what you need to know about the tournament process to get you started on the right track.

Basic Tournament Format

Man in green hat holding largemouth bass
Image by Brandon Fritz

The majority of tournaments offer competition between individuals or two-person teams. I personally enjoy two-person tournament fishing because you can work with your teammate to locate fish, plus, it’s nice to have a buddy to talk with when you’re spending a whole day on the water.

Nearly all tournaments will have a monetary entry fee for you or your team. Most tournaments offer cash prizes to the top three finishers. In addition, there is often a bonus for the largest fish of the tournament. In some cases, top finishers can earn qualification for higher level tournaments in the future.

Tournaments are typically geared towards a single fish species like largemouth bass or walleye. However, some tournaments allow you to catch multiple species from a certain class (i.e. largemouth AND smallmouth bass count). Smaller “just for fun” tournaments will sometimes also allow teams to compete for all species found in the body of water.

Most tournaments are won based on the highest overall weight of your livewell. You or your team will have a limited amount of time to get the job done (typically between 6-10 hours). There is a number of fish that each boat is allowed and that total weight is like your ‘score’. In bass tournaments, for example, the standard limit is 5 fish and they must measure at least 12 inches.

As tournament anglers catch larger fish, they cull the smallest one in their livewell and release it back into the lake. This is why a scale is critical equipment because you can’t always eyeball the weight of a fish too well. Tournaments have become increasingly concerned with fish welfare, so make sure all of your fish are alive and well at weigh-in or you could be penalized.

What Tournament Day Looks Like

Black mercury outboard motor making wake on lake
Photo by Max Andrey on Unsplash

A typical tournament kicks off in the early morning hours (5-6 AM) with some exceptions (notably catfish tournaments are often nighttime competitions). This means you’ll be up very early getting prepped and pounding coffee or energy drinks.

Once you arrive to the marina and check in, boats are often assigned numbers via lottery to determine the order in which they head out on the lake. Anglers must be prepared to have a list of priority spots in mind because depending on where they fall in line, certain spots may already be taken.

This is also why seasoned tournament anglers have massive engines on their boats (200+ HP) to help them get to their favorite spots as fast as possible. Once your number is called, you are free to begin fishing. You will have a fish limit to keep in mind as the day progresses and an official report time to return to the marina for weigh-in.

It’s always a thrill to walk into the weigh-in atmosphere, that is, if you’ve had a solid day on the lake. A crowd of friends, family, and local enthusiasts will likely be surrounding the official scale, anxiously awaiting the the tournament coordinator’s reading through a bullhorn. Competitors and spectators alike will keep close tabs on the leaderboard.

This competitive energy can be addictive for some and all it takes is one tournament to get hooked.

How to Prepare

Fishing rod with lure at wooded lake
Photo by Andrey Trusov on Unsplash


The best way to prepare for your first tournament is to fish that body of water as frequently as you can. Study depth charts, search for submerged structure and drop offs with a depth finder, and most importantly, study fish patterns.

The bulk of your tournament fishing will occur in the morning hours. Learn the most successful lures and presentations during these early hours. Pay attention to how fish move as the day progresses. This will increase your chances of success in the afternoon hours as fish become more hesitant to bite and hunker down during this typically high traffic time.

Be Quick and Adaptive

Due to the time limit in a tournament, speed is always key. Tournament anglers can’t waste time at unproductive spots. Usually, fast moving and noisy lures, like buzzbaits or rattling crankbaits, are the initial go-to to locate aggressive fish that you can quickly get into your livewell.

As the day moves on and fish move into a more lazy midday pattern, slower lures such as jigs and worms are good choices. Figure out which fast and slow lures seem to do the trick on your body of water.

Practice this high-speed strategy, making sure to move on to other spots quickly when the bite is slow. Sometimes a spot you had great luck with a week before is unproductive and you need to move on. Staying hung-up on a previous ‘honey hole’ only wastes your time and allows other competitors more opportunities to get into productive waters.

A results-oriented mindset will help you adapt to the specific conditions of tournament day and will be your greatest strength as a new tournament angler.

Observe Other Tournaments

Go check out some other local tournaments. Not all anglers will happy to give up their strategies, but some will likely be open to talking about their lure choices or challenges they faced out on the water.

Some may even be willing to offer some of their own tips for someone new to the tournament scene. Chances are, they have fished the specific body of water you are scouting and may have a few pointers. You’ll also get a sense of who you are up against and where the bar is to be a top competitor.

It’s not likely you’ll be a top finisher in your first fishing tournament and don’t let that get you down. You are there to learn about what worked and what didn’t. You’ll also now officially be a tournament angler, so get yourself into the social scene. This is where you can learn a lot from some of the most successful anglers in the area.

Thinking about fishing your first tournament and have some questions? Have a lot of tournament experience and advice to offer? Leave a comment below.

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