Hatterascal was often the only boat pulling out of the marina not equipped with 130-pound-class big-game tackle. Typically, Stansel outfitted the boat with mostly 30s and one or two 50s equipped with pitch baits in the event that a home-run fish turned up in the spread.
"Everybody in the marina would look at us like we were crazy," says Stansel. "But you couldn't argue with our results."
Even though the crew on Hatterascal wasn't in the running for the big purses from the side bets, they earned some decent cash prizes and trophies by targeting more abundant, smaller billfish. A productive day of catch-and-release was as good as catching one large blue marlin. Sometimes, it was better.
The downsizing tactics paid off with a win in the Bahamas White Marlin Open (Abaco, Bahamas): first place for most releases in the Bertram-Hatteras Shootout, most releases in the first leg of the Bahamas Billfish Championship (south Abaco) and a third-place-overall finish in the second leg of the BBC (Spanish Cay).
"My biggest regret was that we didn't fish the full season with the same strategy," says Stansel. "We were really on to something."
Other captains and crews began adopting similar small-ball techniques by the following season, including Capt. Robbie Moore, skipper of the Fa La Me in Stuart, Florida.
Moore is familiar with downsizing strategies but believes that a fishing team needs a certain level of competence and experience to utilize it effectively.
"We had been using lighter tackle and smaller baits while fishing recreationally," says Moore, who was part of the team that won the 2008 Sea Horse Fishing Club Billfish Tournament in Bermuda using a downsizing strategy. "When my boat owner became more proficient as an angler, we started trying it in tournaments."
Tournaments are increasing the visibility of their catch-and-release divisions by boosting the incentives. Events such as the Big Rock award daily payouts totaling thousands of dollars for most release points, first billfish released and 51st released fish of the tournament. The Bahamas Billfish Championship awards a 700-point Grand Slam bonus for a team that catches a sailfish, white marlin (or spearfish) and blue marlin during the tournament.