Living in an Off-Limits World

Years ago, nearly every tournament organization had some type of an off-limits period prior to their tournaments. No one ever questioned why, nor did anyone ever complain about it. It was just part of the deal – period. For team tournament organizations, the off-limits was usually the Monday through Friday prior to their Saturday tournaments. This worked out well, as it allowed competitors to pre-fish the weekend before. Occasionally, some of the tournament organizations got a little creative and would allow guys to pre-fish on the Monday prior if it fell on a National Holiday. The theory behind this was that everyone had the National Holidays off. Unfortunately, this was not always the case, especially for those with public safety jobs such as police officers and firefighters, of which there are quite a few that fish tournaments on every level.

In those early days, there were only two or three major team tournament organizations in business and, for the most part, these organizations got along well with one another. Because of this, the off-limits period usually caused very little conflict between the organizations or their anglers. In fact, it actually created a rather fun relationship between them. There would be a Monday through Friday off-limits period for one organization’s Saturday tournament, and then many of the anglers would spend Sunday at the lake where the other organization was having a tournament the following weekend. This created a lot of fun times between the anglers before and after each tournament and during the pre-fishing outings.

Even though everyone knew full well that an off-limits period was virtually impossible to enforce by tournament organizers, the off-limits rule stood unchallenged for several decades. After all, bass fishing was a gentleman’s sport like golf, right? Nobody in their right mind would ever consider violating the off-limits rule. Or would they?

During the late eighties and into the nineties, stories of anglers cheating began to surface, some of which were later substantiated. Rumors of tournament anglers going on the water during the off-limits period in borrowed or even rental boats were being spread. To make matters worse, several cages were found with fish in them by non-tournament anglers (or anglers who fished a different circuit) during the off-limits period. A few of these cheaters were caught and their names circulated among the other organizations. Some were prosecuted and most, if not all, have been banned from tournament competition for life.

At about this same time, a flood of new tournament organizations began popping up across California, both north and south. Team tournaments which had traditionally been held only on Saturdays were now being held on Sundays, as well. After all, there are only 52 Saturdays in a year, with a few of these removed from the equation because of major holidays. (Have you ever fished a major tournament during the Memorial Day or Labor Day weekend? Yikes!). As a result of the increasing number of tournament organizations and the decreasing number of available tournament dates, one by one, tournament organizations began dropping their off-limits period to allow their team tournament anglers to compete in other tournament circuits (or risk losing them to the other circuits). Thus, the off-limits rule became a thing of the past.

Let’s fast-forward now to present time. At the 2006 California Department of Fish and Game annual Southern Jamboree, where tournament organizations gathered to apply for their 2007 tournament permits, there were twelve major tournament organizations applying for permits. Some of these organizations have as many as ten or twelve regions, with a couple of them applying for tournaments nearly every weekend of the entire year. Fortunately, most of the organizations were able to work out date and lake conflicts – but not all of them.

During all of this, a poll popped up on the Southwest forum asking if the off-limits period should be reinstated. In what became the largest poll (to date) in’s history, the majority of responses favored bringing back the off-limits period. The number one reason cited was that were more anglers who had to work Monday through Friday and, as such, were unable to pre-fish during the week than there were anglers with weekdays off who could pre-fish during the week, thus giving them an advantage. Another argument was that the same guys always seemed to be winning most of the tournaments and that an off-limits period would “level the playing field”. And yet another reason was that an off-limits period would take pressure off of the lake and would improve the quantity and quality of the fish on tournament day. Although the poll numbers significantly supported reinstating an off-limits period, there were a lot of votes cast by non-tournament anglers and it was possible to vote as many times as you wanted to. This created some suspicions as to the accuracy of the final poll numbers.

Regardless, as a result of the poll, nearly every tournament organization in Southern California elected to reinstate a Monday through Friday off-limits period before their tournaments. Some have clauses in them to allow for anglers to be on the water on the Saturday before their own Sunday tournament so that anglers can fish another organization’s Saturday tournament on the same lake. So far, this “exception to the rule” has been received favorability by most tournament organizations and anglers, but I suspect that there are those who do not like it, such as those anglers fishing the Saturday tournament, but not the Sunday tournament.

A few weeks ago, an unforeseen backlash to the reinstated off-limits period reared its ugly head. The concessionaire at one of Southern California’s newest and most popular tournament lakes complained that the Monday through Friday off-limits was costing him hundreds of dollars in lost revenue every week. (By the way, there are nearly seventy DFG Event Permits issued for this lake for calendar year 2007). As a result, this concessionaire threatened to begin charging tournament organizations a $750 per tournament fee to hold their tournaments there. This fee (which was nothing short of extortion) was immediately challenged by the tournament organizations and has since been withdrawn when it was pointed out that tournament anglers actually purchased very little from him anyway, and that he was making these allegations during the slowest time of the year at this lake. However, one tournament organization that had already announced that it would implement a Monday through Friday off-limits period within this region, dropped their off-limits period because of the threat and controversy.

Regardless of your personal opinions regarding the off-limits period, it is currently in the rules for most Southern California tournament organizations and we simply have to live with it and work within the guidelines. In doing so, there are a number of very important things that you can do to get the most out of your limited amount of pre-fishing time. Here are a few of the things that my partners and I did years ago when we had an off-limits period before our tournaments:

Get on the water

Spend as much time on the water as possible prior to the off-limits period, especially on the weekend prior to the lake going off-limits. If both team members have a boat, I strongly recommend that they each bring their boat and pre-fish separately. Doing so will allow you to cover twice as much water than if you pre-fish together. If you have this option, DO NOT follow each other around. Doing so would be no different than pre-fishing together in the same boat. What I do recommend is that you meet up every two or three hours (or call each other on your cell phones) to compare notes. This will help you focus on the successful patterns or techniques that you have found and to eliminate those that are not successful. If one team member has found a specific pattern, bait, or color that it producing well, share this information with you partner to see if it works well elsewhere on the lake.

Spilt your time wisely

If you and your partner cannot spend both weekend days on the water (a common occurrence with the number of tournaments held every weekend), try to have one team member pre-fish on Saturday and the other on Sunday. Even though you will not be able to cover as much water as you would if both anglers were pre-fishing both days, it is still better than pre-fishing only one day. This may also help keep things peaceful on the home front, if you know what I mean.

Watch the weather

We all know that there is nothing that changes fishing conditions more so than the weather. If there is a drastic change in the weather during the off-limits period, you can bet the farm that your successful pre-fishing patterns, techniques, or baits will probably change, too (especially during the pre-spawn). Although it is extremely important that you and your partner understand that this will happen, it is even more important that you do not panic because of it. With experience, you will find that the fish that you found during your pre-fishing will usually still be in the “neighborhood” on tournament day, even after a significant weather change. However, chances are that you will have to adjust your tactics to get them to bite. These adjustments could include time of day, depth (within a few feet), different baits or colors, change in presentation (slower or faster), and boat position (fishing uphill, downhill, or parallel).

Even though a change in temperature or the arrival or departure of a storm(s) can have a major affect on your fish, the wind is, by far, the single most important element to pay attention to during the off-limits period before your tournament. We all know that the direction of the wind tells us where the baitfish will be and positions the bass. If there has been a significant change in the wind patterns during the off-limits period, you will undoubtedly have to adjust your tactics. As I just mentioned, your fish will probably still be in the same general area, but they have probably moved to the wind-blown side of the structure (following the baitfish) or they are have sought shelter behind the nearest wind generated current break when in the non-feeding mode. It is times like this that we must accept that age-old phase and “Just go fishing”. I cannot tell you how many times I have witnessed guys panic and completely “spin out” because of weather changes before tournament day. Those teams that stay grounded and keep their wits about them are those that consistently do well, in spite of major weather changes.

Used water? No problem. Or is it?

Speaking of spinning out, what is the first thing that goes through your mind as you round the final point to your intended starting spot only to find a recreational fisherman (or worse – a competitor) sitting right on your spot? (Please don’t answer this question out loud – this is a family website). I can honestly say that this situation happens to EVERYONE and successfully takes more guys out of the game than anything else – If you let it.

Our lakes, especially those here in Southern California, fish VERY small. There is no such thing as new or unused water. To this I say “Get over it”. If there is a boat (or boats) on your intended starting area, go to your number two area, or your number three area. You do have more than one area, don’t you? You sure as hell better have. After all, this is why you pre-fished, isn’t it? To find as many patterns and areas as possible, right? If not, you wasted your valuable pre-fishing time. My partners and I have had our best successes fishing a “milk run” pattern. Rather than fishing only one area or trying to fish the entire lake, we picked the four or five areas where we had our best success during our pre-fishing and we kept hitting them throughout tournament day. I think that you will find that those consistently successful teams also do this, as well.

Dock Talk is Cheap

Some tournament organizations have very specific rules regarding soliciting information during the off-limits period, others do not. For those that do not, talking with anglers who have been on the lake during the off-limits period that are not fishing the upcoming tournament may be perfectly legal, but it can also be a fatal error. It is, at best, a double-edged sword. While you may get fresh information from these anglers (if they are telling you the truth, that is), I learned long ago that it is almost impossible to catch another man’s fish. If you accept the information as gospel and completely disregard your pre-fishing efforts, you have wasted your time and money, along with that of your partner.

If you are receiving information from non-tournament anglers, you need to ask yourself a few questions: How well do you know them (and vice versa)? Are they helping others fishing in the same tournament? How many other tournament anglers have they shared this information with? Are they feeding you a line of crap to throw you off? I am not suggesting these things to you to cause problems between you and your friends; I am merely mentioning them to you so that you may take their information with that proverbial grain of salt. If you absolutely trust those who are providing you with the information, then run with it. If it proves to be good information and because of it you have a great tournament, I recommend that you acknowledge those who helped you at the awards ceremony. I should also mention that sharing information with those who you trust is a two-way street. If you are the one always getting the information and you do not reciprocate, your well of information will probably run dry, and fast.

Although the future of the off-limits period is uncertain, it is here now and is something that we must deal with. Hopefully, I have given you some ideas on how to live within the off-limits world, while still enjoying the thrill and excitement of team tournament competition.

Thanks for your time and always remember: “The shortest distance between two points is a reef!”