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May 02, 2007

White on the Money

Keys to success in white-marlin tournaments

The staggering sums pocketed by winners of prestigious white-marlin tournaments along the East Coast grow more mind-numbing each year. In 2006, the victors of the Pirates Cove Billfish Tournament, a release event, took home $584,762; the Mid-Atlantic $500,000 paid out $803,415 for the heaviest white marlin; and the winning fish in the White Marlin Open was worth $1,552,435.

Want a piece of that million-dollar action? Better quit wanting and start working toward your goals, because it takes more than desire for any team to have a shot at the green in these highly competitive events.

Exemplary Team
Richard Benn of Fenwick Island, Delaware, began taking billfish tournaments seriously in 1995; his Anticipation team first hit pay dirt by winning the weight division in the 1999 White Marlin Open. Since then, his team - now on Wound Up, a 57-foot Spencer - has made regular appearances on the leaderboard at this event, at the Mid-Atlantic 500,000 and at Pirates Cove.

Not one to hoard the spotlight, Benn credits "a great team" for achieving success. He names such past and present key players as captains Paul Spencer and Jimmy Fields; mates Daniel Spencer, Dave "Big Wave" Warren, Scott Adams and Kevin "KP" Paul; and anglers Ben Moses and Gordon "Gig Gord" Elliot.

"We don't do anything special besides put out maximum effort at all times," Benn says. "It takes hard work, and everybody has always been willing to do what's best for the team. We check our egos at the dock. For example, Jimmy alternated between captain and mate until becoming our definitive captain in 2003. He graciously stepped from the bridge back into the pit for many tournaments."

When each person knows and does his job well, things go smoothly with no need for nervousness or shouting orders. Time on the water together, fishing for fun and competing in tournaments help anglers and crew develop and maintain that winning chemistry. I spoke to Benn and Fields to get their viewpoints concerning team members' responsibilities and tournament strategies.

Captain's Choice
According to Benn, responsibility for finding fish and putting anglers in position to catch them rests squarely and unequivocally on the skipper's shoulders. "We offer input and discuss alternatives, but it's ultimately the captain's decision," he says.

When formulating a tournament strategy, Fields relies on his experience and studies surface-temperature charts. He also depends on firsthand intelligence reports collected from buddies who fish an area extending from the northern canyons off Jersey to the southern canyons out of Virginia.

"Info is crucial, so I gather as much as possible from a variety of sources prior to a tourney," he says. But Fields doesn't simply make a few phone calls to beg GPS coordinates the day before an event. He keeps his feelers out on a permanent basis because networking actively during the entire season often yields useful info at tourney time.

Aware that the road goes two ways, Benn encourages his guys to share information with other teams. "We don't hide anything. We let others know where we're catching fish, and they return the favor," he says. "I'd much rather fish right next to my top competitors than not know where they are. I'd prefer to have us all on the fish and say, 'OK, my team against yours. Let's go!'"

Fields considers white marlin as the most temperature-sensitive member of the billfish family and usually narrows his search for whitey in 76- to 79-degree water when possible. Next he looks for availability of baitfish. "I like to fish in scattered grass because it attracts small flyers at the surface and holds suspended bait at depths of 10 to 30 fathoms," he says.

Water quality ranks as another important factor in locating fish. "Although I've caught whites in green water, I like to see clean water with a bluish tint. Off Ocean City, we rarely see purple water like off Florida or the Bahamas," Fields says. "And you need current to help the grass, bait, water and marlin converge. No current, no fish."

Once he finds a fishy spot, the captain must spot fish. "Jimmy brings an incredible set of eyes to the bridge. He's very good at spotting fish, and that gives our anglers an advantage," Benn says. "Watching a fish come in allows you to anticipate the bite, and chances of hooking up increase exponentially. Our team catches white marlin consistently because we see them."

Mate's Duties
A mate for 15 years before moving up to the bridge, Fields knows what it takes to work the cockpit. He handpicks his deckhands and expects them to maintain all tackle in top-notch condition. Good mates keep fresh baits in the spread, taking pride in their rigging and how well their baits swim. Fields insists that his mates stay away from the party scene during tournaments so they feel rested and alert when fishing.

"The mates should also network for info among their own sources, which may be different from mine, so we can pool resources. They can bring valuable input to our team meeting each morning," he says.

Attitude stands out as the number-one trait Fields values in mates on the Wound Up[[ITAL]]. "The mates must match my enthusiasm and drive," he says. "We enter a competition with the mindset that first place is the only acceptable result, and that carries over to our fishing."

Benn wants mates to pay special attention to details such as checking line and keeping proper levels on reels. "Chafed line must be removed after a day on the water, but you can't just pull line all week. Once or twice, maybe, then it's time to re-spool. We go through a lot of mono," he says. "And knots must remain compact enough to flow smoothly through rod guides in case we have to reel up and pick a fish off the teaser. It's hard to bait a white marlin 6 feet behind the transom, but sometimes we have to."

Angler Responsibility
Fields expects his anglers, like the mates, to rest at night so they can stay alert and stand by their rods from lines in to lines out. He has the boat owner's staunch support in that regard. "On the Wound Up, we don't sit around drinking beer waiting for a rod to bend," Benn says. "White marlin can get sneaky, fast and aggressive. The captain and anglers have to stay awake and see fish before they strike."

Good fishermen convert bites into hookups, and high hookup ratios only come with practice. "I billfish about 90 days a year. We travel and fish together year-round to get practice as a team. We take this game seriously and approach it professionally," Benn says.

When somebody announces a fish in the spread, each angler picks up his rod and stands ready with the reel out of gear. "Stay especially alert in the flat-line position because that's where you get the least warning," Benn advises. "A fish is likely to come off the dredge to take that bait, and it will come up fast! Hold the rod tip back, and be ready to drop it forward because there's no way you can free-spool quickly enough if a hot marlin grabs the bait."

Benn prefers a 7-foot rod for white marlin because when held with the tip above his shoulder, it represents 7 feet of line he can give a fish right now if necessary. Anglers who try pointing the rod at a fish and lifting their thumb off the spool often get in trouble because the reel can't start moving fast enough to prevent a backlash.

"I drop the rod tip while letting my thumb off the spool to give the fish a smooth feed. When all goes right, I watch it inhale the bait and start to calmly swim away. Man, there's no better feeling," he says.

When a fish comes up on a teammate's bait, Benn stands ready with his rod and watches. But he doesn't divert his attention toward the other guy's fish; he looks for more marlin because whitey rarely travels alone.

"Keep cool when you raise multiples," Benn says. "Focus on doing one thing at a time and doing it right. If you have to hook a fish and put the rod in a holder to hook the next one, do it carefully."

On several occasions, he's had to single-handedly deal with fish on the flat and 'rigger baits. While dropping back the flat line, he reached over to take the 'rigger rod out of gear and fed the fish out of the rod holder, then put the reel back in gear to hook up. "Not the ideal procedure, but it worked," he says. "When legal in a tournament, it's better to hook one fish and pass off the rod or put it in a holder before picking up another rod to hook the next fish."

Preparation and Strategy
A background in professional aviation taught Benn the saying, "Train the way you fly, fly the way you train." He follows that philosophy on the Wound Up, fishing the same way whether for fun or in tourneys. "For example, now that circle hooks have become mandatory for all tournaments, we fish them all the time," he says.

Fields wants the team to pre-fish a venue four or five days prior to an event so they can adjust to changing conditions. Preparation means they won't fish blind on the first day, like the guys who haven't been out for weeks and show up to start rigging baits the day before a tournament.

Multiple hookups obviously work to a team's advantage in release tournaments; likewise, in a kill tournament, the more fish you hook, the better the chances of hanging the big one. For these reasons, Fields puts the boat in a slow, long turn back toward the first hooked fish as his anglers try to bait more marlin. "If we get four on, I start going after the fish. When we have two or three hooked, I keep turning if the lines aren't a tangled mess," he says. "If no more bites come after a few minutes, we go after the hooked fish."

Circumstances dictate which fish Fields pursues first. In rough conditions, he usually starts after fish down-sea of the boat, and he prefers to back down on a relatively calm fish before going after another that keeps jumping wildly. He also relies on the anglers and mates to advise him when fish threaten to strip a reel or approach leadering range.

In release tournaments, the team usually employs light (50- or 60-pound) leaders and an aggressive style when backing down. Kill tourneys call for a less hurried fish-fighting approach and heavier leaders (80- to 100-pound) so anglers can apply more pressure to marlin at boat-side.

"In a kill tournament, if we hook a fish but don't get a good look at it, we keep trying to bait others," Benn explains. "But if a hooked marlin jumps and we say, 'That's a big one,' we don't think about multiples. We clear lines and go get it."

Don't put too much pressure on that fish! Fields tells his anglers to let the drag do its job. "We use fairly small hooks for white marlin so there's more risk of pulling a hook than breaking the 20- or 30-pound line. I prefer a drag setting of 4 pounds because it won't strain connections or break lines and won't pull hooks," he says.

Confidence Factor
The level of competition has been stepping up to keep pace with the increasing purses offered by white-marlin tournaments. In Benn's opinion, the 1995 tourney circuit featured about 10 teams that he would rank as very good. "Competition has become fierce over the years," he says. "Now there are at least 100 great teams out there."

Anglers and crews who fish together often enough to develop their skills, become true contenders and cultivate a winning attitude step into the cockpit with a positive yet intangible element: confidence. For some it begins with the boat itself. "I run a Spencer and feel a Carolina boat gives us an advantage. That cold-molded sound raises fish," Fields says, adding that confidence should not be confused with cocky arrogance. "We go into each tournament believing in ourselves and our team. It's contagious, and confidence in the team's abilities helps us deal with problems and get through any rough spots."

Benn feels that anglers who enter tournaments must be ready to have a good time but also put forth every effort toward winning; those who don't must resign themselves to finishing far down in the pack. "It's gotta be fun, but it's serious fun," he says. "If you don't take tournament fishing seriously, don't put your money on the table."