For all of the diehard marlin crews in California, the month of September means tournament time. The California Billfish Series consists of the top three striped marlin tournament in Southern California — the Zane Grey Invitational, Catalina Classic and the Avalon Billfish Classic. These are the biggest events on the West Coast, with the largest cash prizes available. They also attract some of the top crews around, but that doesn’t mean the weekend warriors can’t win. It just takes a dedicated crew, good tackle and a bit of know-how to finish in the money. A little luck doesn’t hurt either.
Capt. Mike “The Beak” Hurt is one of the patriarchs of the West Coast marlin fleet. He’s been at it a long time and fished the very first Catalina Classic nearly 20 years ago. He’s also finished in the money several times and nearly took home the top prize in 2011. Beak and his team aboard the 54-foot Bertram Chiqelin were hooked up to the winning fish, but unfortunately the fish came loose just after they set the hook on it.
Sometimes luck isn’t on your side but the reason good teams win more than others has little to do with luck and much more to do with preparation.
When it comes to fishing the California Billfish Series, there are five key components to winning — using the best baits, fishing in the right location, flawless tackle, a good crew and a dialed-in vessel.
Beak offered up these tips to help you prepare for the upcoming tournaments:
When fishing a tournament, your bait is your ammo. You never want to go to war with bad ammo, or worse yet, not enough.
The top crews cure their baits to make sure they’re healthy and feisty come tournament time.
“Making sure you have good bait is key,” says Beak. “We have two receivers in the water right now. They’re basically big barrels. You can make your own or buy them. We have 100 pieces of bait in there and I feed them every time I head down to the boat.”
Warm water in the harbor can kill the baits in the receiver, but other than that, you can keep mackerel indefinitely. Cured baits will be more aggressive and swim better.
“Be careful though, cured baits can get really slimy,” says Beak. “Make sure you have a towel next to the bait tank that an angler can use to wipe off his hands. I’ve seen a few rods follow the bait and head for the horizon.”
While cured baits in the tank offer up a bit of insurance, Beak suggests you catch local baits whenever you can.
“Every day we try to catch fresh local bait,” he says. “Sometimes fresh-caught bait is better. If possible, you want to have both on hand.”
Crews do the majority of their casting from the bow, so you want to keep the best baits up in the bow tank.
“To pick out the best baits, drop some food in the tank,” Beak says. “The most aggressive baits will come up first. Put those baits in a bucket and take them to the bow. But don’t crowd them. Just two or three baits in a bucket.”
And, when in doubt, have some ballyhoo in the freezer. You just never know. Dragging natural baits will definitely get bit, especially when the sleepers and tailers are no where to be found.
Location, Location, Location
Beak says he’ll spend a half day figuring out the best spot to fish. Sea-surface temperature (SST) charts and chlorophyll imagery help crews find the best water to target.
“The most effective way to use SST and chlorophyll charts is to get a history and watch how the water is moving,” Beak says. “You want to watch it for a few days to see if it’s an anomaly or a steady development.”
If you can find warm water with an abundance of bait, that’s where you want to be. “Don’t focus on the hottest water in town. Look for pockets, and don’t be afraid to fish for stripeys in off-color water.”
Get on the horn and collect as much info as you can. Websites such as FishDope are a great resource. Talk to all of your buddies who’ve been out on the water and gather the most intel you can. It’s a game of give and take though, so make sure to help other teams out as well.
If something is going to go wrong, odds are it will be the tackle. Don’t wait until tournament time to make sure everything — and we mean everything — is up to snuff.
“One of the things I do is to go through all the reels ahead of time but I don’t change the line until the day before the tournament,” Beak says. “We’ll pre-fish the tournament with the used line and then strip all of that off and put fresh line on right before the event.”
In IGFA tournaments, you want to make sure every leader is premeasured. You’re allowed 30 feet of leader, but Beak suggests using nothing more than 24 feet to accommodate for any stretch in the mono.
Keep your tackle as organized as possible so you don’t waste time looking for anything. Rig leaders and place them in marked bags or bins. Label them so the crew knows what’s what.
Make sure each reel is working and each guide on the rod is free from any knicks that might cause a cut off. Sharpen the hooks and change out any lure leaders that look old, chaffed or yellow. To learn more aobut changing the leaders on your lures check out the article How to Rig Marlin Lures.
Go through the boat from bow to stern and address any and all maintenance issues. Change oil, filters and any other routine system changes. Carry spares of what you can (especially if you’re heading out of the country), and don’t leave the dock until everything is in proper working order.
In addition to engine systems, the boat checklist should include safety equipment, electronics, bait tanks, anchor and line, windlass, generator, binoculars or gyros, the head, galley, the boat tender and all pumps.
“Everyone is going to be looking forward to fishing the tournament so you don’t want to break down. More so than any other time, make sure you’re ready to go,” Beak says.
Many of the top crews have fished together for years and each guy knows his job. But you don’t have to be a seasoned crew to win big in the California Billfish Series.
“The key is try to have at least a couple of guys that are used to working together if you can,” Beak says. “They’ll be the core. Then get out and do some fishing and nail down the rest of the crew.”
Each team member needs to know their job and communication is key. The drop-back guy needs to know when to get a bait in the water. The gyro guys need to know how to spot fish and talk to the captain. One guy should focus on gear and rigging. The anglers should be able to accurately cast a bait.
“Whoever is team captain needs to coordinate and organize the team,” says Beak. “Everyone must know their job and if you can, go out and practice. Practice casting and practice your drop-back. If you can’t practice, have a meeting and go over it.”
A lot of times, buck fever prevails, so try to keep calm out there, do your job and get that fish to the boat. There’s big money and even bigger bragging rights up for grabs, so you don’t want to miss out.
For more information on the California Billfish Series, visit www.catalinaclassic.com.