It’s been almost three years since I joined a bass club as a non-boater. I had been fishing for bass for about 4 years already and figured I’d taught myself all I could. I was ready to fish out of the back of a real bass boat and learn something new.
Nobody gave me a set of "Non-boater rules" when I entered my first club tourney. Although I stumbled a little as a non-boater in that first tourney, common sense got me through the day. Since then, I’ve learned by trial and error on the do’s/don’ts and etiquette of being a non-boater.
The first thing I do in the morning, before I put any of my gear in the boat, is ask the boater what the rules are for the boat. I want to immediately know what the boater wants. I want to know where I can/can’t step; where to store my rods; which compartment(s) are for my use, etc. I’ve had one boater tell me "don’t touch this livewell; this is mine and that one is yours". I found out later in the day that he had a bell on the inside of his livewell so he knew if it was being opened. He did this because a past non-boater had opened his livewell to admire his nice 5 pounder and that fish jumped out, flopped all over the back deck and ended up back in the water instead of on the scales.
Help the boater launch the boat. If you don’t feel comfortable backing someone else’s boat down a crowded ramp in the dark, say so. Before the boat goes in the water, ask the boater if the plug is in. I had one boater give me a weird look when I asked this, like no one had ever asked him before, but he appreciated the fact I was looking out for him. Ask if there is anything special about locking up the rig before you drive back up the ramp. Give the keys back as soon as you are in the boat. Although I haven’t done it, it’s my terrible fear to drop someone else’s keys in the lake.
What to bring and how much is too much? I usually bring 5 rods and one tackle bag. Anything more is probably too much. Remember, all the boater’s tackle is already stored in compartments. Anything you bring has to fit in one compartment or on the floor of the boat. If it’s on the floor, it’s in the way. I bring my food/drinks in a bag so I won’t have an ice chest in the way. Don’t forget your life jacket. Or rain gear. That’s your responsibility, not the boater’s. Don’t forget your watch. That way you’ll know how much time is left in the tourney and it is also a back up in case the boater’s watch quits on the two of you.
Since I don’t own a bass boat, I usually don’t pre-fish. I may go out in my family boat and fish a little to work the rust off but seldom do I have the opportunity to hunt for fish or find a pattern. I usually just go with what the boater wants to do. But if you have pre-fished, found fish and a pattern that works, talk it over with the boater. Share that info and have the both of you agree to a game plan for the day. Do this first thing before blast off so there are no surprises later in the day. In most tourneys, the non-boater gets half the day - that’s half the day on your spot with you having the front of the boat. That may not be practical if your fish and water are on opposite sides of the lake from the boater’s.
Even though the two of you may be competing against each other, you still need to communicate. The whole idea is to catch fish. Ask the boater if there is a special way he wants you to net the fish before he hooks into the first one. Try different lures or techniques than the boater until one of you starts catching fish. If you start catching them first, share your technique. If the boater is catching them before you, ask what he was doing when he got the hook up. I’m a non-boater to learn, so I’m going to observe and ask alot of questions. However, play the idle chit-chat by ear. There’s nothing worse than having your boater miss a bite because he was paying more attention to yacking at you than watching his line. Help the boater out in any way you can. This is not a guided tour like some non-boaters think. Be ready to get up front to hold the boat with the electric motor if your boater needs to re-tie or cull fish.
Most club tourney’s have a set non-boater fee for the day. This is to cover the gas and oil you helped burn up. In an open draw tourney, you will need to discuss this with the boater. Also remember that the boater has had to pay a launch fee. Take that cost into consideration when considering what to offer. I usually offer $25. If anything, offer more than what you think so you don’t insult the boater. The boater will tell you if it’s too much. I’ve had boaters refuse my money because we made only a short run or never caught fish.
At the end of the day, with the boat in the parking lot, offer to wipe down the boat and help clean up. You helped dirty it, so help clean it up. This is probably a good time to bring up the use of liquid scents. If you use scents on your baits, spray or pour it on the bait over the side of the boat. Most of this stuff will stain carpets and there’s nothing worse than to end the day with an upset boater finding his back deck covered in stinky smelling stuff.
I’ve probably missed a few things here, but most of this I learned by trial and error. Just remember to treat the boat with the care you would want someone to treat it if it was yours. Communicate with the boater so there are no mis-understandings. Work together to get the fish in the boat. Remember that you are a guest and not on a paid guided tour and the two of you will have a fun day on the water.