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Billfish Tournament Ethics

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“Mayday, mayday, mayday!” Those exact words echoed over the VHF during the Grand Slam Tournament in Venezuela in the late 1990s. A vessel in distress called in needing assistance with lives possibly in danger. Capt. Bubba Carter and his crew on Tijereta decided to do the right thing. The crew reeled the lines in, during tournament hours, and went to assist the vessel. Carter and his team put their standing in the tournament aside to help a fellow boater in a time of need.

“The call for help was a hoax — a lie! A dirty move to get ahead at any cost.”

On many levels, today’s tournaments attract the best crews in the sport and therefore are extremely competitive. Competition pushes crews to up their game, make some changes and innovate. In that regard, tournaments bring out the best in fishermen. Every team pushes the limits to get an extra bite and make the most of every bite they get. Unfortunately, competition can also bring out the worst in people who want to win at any cost. If you take the sportsmanship out of the game, what’s the point in playing?

I’m the first one to admit that I count how many flags everyone else has up in the riggers when I get back to the dock. And I want to have the most! To me, every day is a tournament. That is what drives me.

Billfish Tournament Ethics

More tournaments have made adjustments to their rules to even the playing field. Still, some rules are open to interpretation, and how they are enforced by the tournament committee can change the outcome of the event. With the amount of money involved in these tournaments, many teams push the intent of the rules to take the most advantage of the opportunity available to them. With that said, it’s inevitable that some teams will complain and protest on how a rule is written, interpreted or enforced.

In 1996, while fishing a sailfish tournament out of Palm Beach, Florida, we ran more than 50 miles to the north where we’d found a body of fish. We ran 50 miles each way for two days straight and it paid off. We won two dailies and the overall top team award in the tournament. Some folks complained that fishing from a fast boat gave us an unfair advantage since we could get to far-off fishing grounds quicker, losing less fishing time.

Some tournaments use boundaries and time restrictions to make sure the entire fleet leaves at the same time, with a deadline to be back. This helps cut down on the long runs and evens the playing field some, but someone is always going to complain about wanting to go a little farther. How many miles should the fleet be allowed to cover? Fifty miles? That’s 100 miles of fishing ground from one end to another. In some places 50 miles may not be enough to get you to the fishing grounds. Whatever the boundaries are, always pay attention to your location. It sounds simple, but when the bite goes off, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in the action. Watching a fish swim out of the boundary area and you can’t go after it — that could drive you to madness.

In other events, imaginary lines are not the limit but time. After lines out you may have just two hours to get back to the inlet or harbor and that can be extended if you are fighting a fish after lines out. If your boat cruises at 20 knots and mine cruises at 35 knots does that seem unfair? What if your boat becomes disabled and you can’t make it back by the allotted time? How about coming across a vessel in distress? How are the rules read in these cases? Who makes the decisions? When there is $500,000 on the line, it’s not uncommon for crews to find a new way to interpret the rules. Should you be penalized if you miss the cutoff because you stopped to help a boat in distress? These scenarios should be spelled out in the tournament rules.

Many tourneys limit the number of lines and teasers you may use fish, trying again to keep the event fair. Sometimes you are only allowed one line per angler. Some tournaments allow only four lines while others are unlimited. Should you be limited in the number of lines that you have out in the water? If you can comfortably fish more lines, should you be allowed to take the chance and fish more? Sometimes more is not better. Size of tackle is another factor. Blue marlin tournaments may be a 50- or 80-pound tackle tournament, where sailfish tournaments may be 20- or 16-pound.

There is also the question of what constitutes a catch. Some events say a catch occurs when the mate grabs the leader. In other events, the knot or swivel must hit the top guide for the catch to count. Make sure to read the rules in every tournament because no two are exactly the same.

Most of the time rules are based upon the guidelines set forth by the International Game Fish Association. This set of angling rules was really written for world-record fishing, not tournaments, but it provides a worldwide benchmark that keeps all anglers on a similar playing field.

One of the most controversial rules in today’s tournaments is how an event defines the term “professional angler.” Many tournaments do not define who can compete as an angler and teams can stack their angler rotation with ringers who make their living catching fish. Other events have rules about using professional anglers.

“How do you define a professional angler?”

Sometimes it’s based on whether or not that person makes a living fishing, or has in the past. Other tournaments state that you can’t be paid to fish that particular event. But if you win the event and take home a nice chunk of money does that make you a professional? There are so many ways to interpret this term.

Tournaments use their angling rules to try and equal the playing field, and that’s fine. But keeping the rules open to interpretation is not.

“Rules are rules, and there should be no gray area.”

Always attend the captain’s meeting before a tournament and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

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Known by most on the docks as “Fly,” you can pretty much expect to see Robert "Fly" Navarro at the sport's largest tournaments and hot spots. Fly began the life of a traveling deckhand in his early 20's. He took a childhood passion and turned it into a career that took him around the world working on the top offshore fishing boats. Then he leveraged his reputation as a mate to launch a magazine (In the Bite), a marketing agency (Fly Zone Fishing) and several tournaments (The Sailfish Tournament, King of the Hill, and the Gulf Cup Blue Marlin Shootout). He was also recently named the new Tournament Director for the World Cup Blue Marlin Championship. In 2016 he was appointed to the National Marine Fisheries Highly Migratory Species Advisory Panel in DC. Fly is an open book. Catch him on Instagram – @thefly100 or @flyzonefishing, Facebook – @flynavarro or on Twitter – @flynavarro. Feel welcome to reach out and ask questions.