True World Championship
By Capt. Peter B. Wright--Described by many as the “Olympics of Sportfishing,” the IGFA Offshore Championship tournament earned this lofty accolade by presenting a successful worldwide format. You can’t just show up, plop your money down and compete in the IGFA Offshore Championship; you have to win one of the more than 110 qualifying tournaments in 35 countries to get an invitation to this dance. No matter what you choose to call it, in just six short years the IGFA Championship tournament took on a life of its own, becoming one of the most prestigious blue-water fishing competitions in the world.
During last May’s competition in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, the event hosted 31 teams from foreign countries or territories and a total of 70 teams overall. The international fleet set a new tournament record in the four-day event releasing 503 marlin and 14 sails. (For a bit of comparison, during its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament, once known as the most prestigious international event, fielded around 20 international teams and might catch around 100 billfish in a good year.)
Around the United States, and all over the world, anglers compete in hundreds of tournaments with nearly as many formats as there are competitions. Tournament rules range from “jungle rules” where almost anything goes (including line so strong the IGFA does not even keep records for fish caught on it) to others that demand adherence to strict rules and more sportsmanlike standards.
In the IGFA Championship, participants must conform to even stricter standards than those required by the IGFA when applying for a world record. Tournament anglers must release all billfish, and the heaviest line allowed is IGFA-rated 30-pound-test. The tournament put these rules into effect to assure a level playing field for all contestants and to avoid potential conflicts.
Anglers must cast their own live baits and hook and fight their own fish unaided. And if you choose to use live or dead baits, you must rig them with nonoffset circle hooks.
A Successful No-Kill Format
Mike Leech, former president and current ambassador-at-large for the IGFA, was the driving force behind starting the competition (see “History,” page 63). “We wanted to show that a tournament could be successful without having to kill fish and hang them up on a scale in order to determine a winner,” says Leech. “All our major prizes, including Rolex watches for the winning team, are primarily based on the total points scored for billfish released. Dolphin, tuna and wahoo weighing over the minimum limit of 25 pounds also score on a 1-point-per-pound basis and are donated to local charities. This year a 42-pound tuna made the difference in the point score between the first- and second-place teams.
“We also wanted to show that sportsmanship and camaraderie could be the driving force and that huge monetary prizes were not an essential ingredient in a great fishing tournament,” says Leech. “We do require contestants in the championship event to be members of the IGFA. One reason we started both the Inshore and Offshore championships was to reach out to new members, particularly targeting tournament anglers. This way we are able to get new members from a worldwide group of avid fishermen and women who have participated in qualifying tournaments with what are sometimes much-less-sportsmanlike rules. And while none of these tournaments are ever really anticonservation, due to some of their rule structures, quite often they are not a positive force for conserving the target species. Many of our new members wind up going back to their home country or hometown in the U.S. and educating their friends and fellow anglers as to how successful and how much fun our conservation-oriented format can be. In several cases they have actually started their own release-only, no-money tournaments.”
Here Comes the Judge
Part of my job as judge for the tournament involves familiarizing participants with how to fish according to the IGFA rules, which were drawn up not to disqualify captures, but to try to guarantee a fair and sporting contest between angler and fish. The original IGFA rules form the basis for many other clubs and national associations around the world.
For a variety of reasons, sometimes including language barriers, even experienced and sportsmanlike anglers do not always fully understand these rules. Still, in recent championship events, less than a handful of fish have had to be disqualified.
These few exceptions were mostly due to either a mistake in the conversion of a metric measurement (regarding length of leader and double line) or an oversight in measuring a Mexican crew’s trace leader. I did have to disqualify one fish this year because of the use of an off-brand circle hook that was slightly offset. I’ve never seen a deliberate attempt to cheat, and, as Leech likes to point out, the tournament does not use observers or require photographs as proof of a release.
Most other tournaments, including some qualifying events for the IGFA Championship, are often structured in such a way that sheer luck predominates, negating the crews’ skill factor almost entirely. Angling and boat-handling skills don’t count for much if the target species can’t break the line you are using.
In some of these events, including most East Coast billfish tournaments, only sheer incompetence or extremely bad luck causes an angler to lose a well-hooked fish.
To emphasize angling skill and to try to provide a level playing field, the IGFA Championship has, since its inception, required angling teams to change boats daily, based on a random draw. No angling team enjoys the advantage of having the best professional crew throughout the entire event.
Still, an unlucky draw on a hot fishing day or a boat breakdown can catapult one team over another equally skilled group of anglers. (Anglers rate the four boats and crews they draw in order to allow a constant improvement of boats and crews in following years’ events.) So luck still plays a role.
When the fishing is good during a tournament based on numbers of fish caught and released, a skilled team and boat crew is more likely to win. Because when fish are plentiful, a more experienced team will catch their fish faster, set back up quickly for more shots and therefore catch more fish over the course of a tournament.
Cream Rises to the Top
As judge at the IGFA Championship, I also inspected the rod, reel, line, double line, leader, lure (if one was used), and hook or hooks used in the capture of every billfish. By examining all these elements, I could quickly gauge the skill level of the various teams. I could commiserate with skillful but unlucky teams, but I also noted that all the top-scoring groups were better prepared and came with more tricks up their sleeves than the majority of the lower-scoring teams.
All the better anglers, at least those I privately and personally identified as skilled, brought their own meticulously prepared and maintained tackle. I can’t remember a top-scoring team in the past four years that did not use at least some of their own tackle. Some teams even bought rods and reels in Cabo after seeing how important it could be to have casting gear.
Some anglers feel that competitive fishing, or fishing for records, is somehow less pure than fishing just for fun. However, thousands of others enjoy both the social and competitive aspects of fishing tournaments. And they have no problem trying their hardest to win and not begrudge one of their friends who catches more or bigger fish than they do. The camaraderie overcomes the competition.
While the contestants in the IGFA Championship still enjoy the competitive spirit, they also enjoy meeting new friends and hearing stories about the fishing in other countries. Since the IGFA boasts representatives in over 90 countries and members in over 125, there is still a lot of room for growth in both the number of qualifying events and the number of teams that can eventually compete in the championship. In its favor, Cabo provides plenty of hotel rooms and hosts what is probably the world’s largest fleet of charter boats at reasonable rates.
It is also worth noting that men, women and even junior anglers compete on an equal footing in this tournament. This year, 12-year-old Martini Arostegui, from Coral Gables, Florida, won the high-scoring-angler award. He took the angler’s race with 3,300 points on 11 marlin releases. Arostegui teamed up with his father to represent the Miami Beach Rod and Reel Club Tournament, and they finished tied for 10th place overall.
Like all the previous winners, the Arosteguis have won the angling equivalent of the revered green jacket sported by winners of the Masters golf tournament. Their shiny new Rolex watches tell the world they have a lifetime invitation to future IGFA championships and that they’ve beaten some of the best anglers on a level playing field.