The Tournament Trail

By: Terry Tomalin

Whether you're in it to watch or win, Florida's fishing tournaments are numerous and popular.

Florida hosts hundreds of fishing tournaments every year. From neighborhood charity events to high-stakes competitions shown on cable TV, the state is the destination for serious anglers.

More world records have been set here than in any other state or country in the world. With countless freshwater lakes and thousands of miles of ocean, there is no shortage of places to fish.

Most tournaments are well-publicized; fishing fans can contact their local convention and visitors bureaus or check's event listings.

For some, fishing tournaments are a spectator sport. Large crowds attend the “weigh-ins” of the bigger events to take part in the festival atmosphere. Others follow the tournament trail in hopes of some day joining the ranks of elite anglers who make their living with a rod and reel.

The bass masters

In 2005, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS), the country's oldest and largest fishing organization, moved its headquarters from Alabama to Florida, and in 2011 relocated back to Alabama. Founded in 1968, the organization hosts what is considered by many to be the "Super Bowl of Bass Fishing," the Bassmaster Classic.

With more than 500,000 members worldwide and a new headquarters in Celebration, just outside of Orlando, BASS set the standard for tournament fishing, fresh and salt water.

Florida has always had an international reputation for big largemouth bass because the state has some of the most productive fishing lakes in the world. In January 2001, Kissimmee's Lake Tohopekaliga, a short drive from the then-BASS headquarters, served as the backdrop for one of the most memorable tournaments in freshwater fishing history.

Dean Rojas of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, set a BASS record by weighing and releasing 108 pounds of fish. During the four days of fishing, tournament anglers caught and released 21 bass that weighed 10 pounds or more.

Florida was a natural choice for BASS. Unlike the fish in most other states, Florida’s bass can grow year-round. Florida lakes have ample aquatic vegetation that provide “cover” for baitfish, which is good because a popular theory among anglers is that more plentiful the baitfish, the bigger the bass.

In 2006, Florida played host to the legendary Bassmaster Classic, which produced some of the largest fish in the tournament’s history.

Saltwater tours

Twenty five years ago, the king mackerel population in Florida’s waters was on the verge of collapse because of large-scale commercial fishing. After strict regulation and sound management, however, the stocks rebounded, and a new tournament trail was born.

King mackerel (a.k.a. kingfish) migrate south along both coasts of Florida in the fall to their wintering grounds off the Florida Keys. In the spring, the fish swim north along the same beaches, making them one of the most predictable species in the state’s waters.

In 1991, the Southern Kingfish Association (SKA) kicked off an 11-tournament schedule. Today, the trail hosts more than 50 events throughout the southeast United States. With more than $600,000 in prize money at stake, these kingfish tournaments draw weekend warriors and passionate fishermen from the Southeast United States.

This year’s season kicked off in January with a tournament in Key West. Fans can follow the teams through the spring, summer and fall at

Silver king to sailfish

Tarpon have been called “the silver king” of game fish. These chrome-bodied brutes, some weighing more than 200 pounds, have surprising athletic ability. As a result, anglers from all over the world travel to Boca Grande each spring for the chance to hook and fight one of these monsters of the deep. Peak time for tarpon fishing here is May through June.

Boca Grande has held its share of tournaments over the past 100 years, but none has ever gained as much attention the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series. The televised events, called a “combination of NASCAR racing, NFL football, and Discovery Channel’s Wild,” have a large and loyal following.

In the spring, Florida Keys’ anglers look for tarpon and bonefish, and they switch to dolphin in the summer.

But you don’t have to wait until spring to enjoy world-class fishing. The tournament season starts in December for the Florida Keys Gold Cup Sailfish Championship. Winter is the time to catch sails, and nearly every weekend, the Florida Keys hosts an event dedicated to the pursuit of these elusive billfish.

Tip: In many cases, the winner is often the angler with the best guide. Knowing how to catch fish isn’t nearly as important as knowing where to find fish. To find an experienced guide willing to take you on the tournament trail, contact the Florida Guides Association.

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