Even though recent fleets have been dominated by private sport-fishing yachts, owning a Viking or Hatteras is certainly not required to compete in the Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic. On the contrary. If your bucket list includes going Mano y Mano with a giant blue 100 miles offshore and winning a six-figure payout in the process, you’re in luck. Booking an experienced charter boat is definitely a viable option to get in the game. To maximize the odds for success though, it’s important to do some research beforehand and make the right choice.

“I’d recommend starting your search with a boat that’s based in the local area,” says Capt. Gary Jarvis, a well-regarded tourney pro and skipper of the Destin-based Backdown2, a 57 Miller. “If not, you’re looking at the added expense of travel in addition to the other costs. You can check with the local marinas, on-line or ask the tournament director for suggestions of experienced blue-water crews. Once you have a few names, you can call them up to find out more information.”

Jarvis has been an ECBC competitor for several years and tournament fishing in the Gulf since the 1980s. This will be the third year in a row fishing the same team during the Sandestin contest.

“Once you establish credentials and experience, the biggest thing to consider are the costs,” Jarvis adds. “Almost everyone wants an all-inclusive price. They want to know upfront what the trip is going to cost without any surprises. That includes the charter fee, tips, any fuel surcharges, etcetera. If you lay it out beforehand, there won’t be any hurt feelings or upset clients. On my bookings I charge a three-day charter fee and we also get 25 percent of any prize money before expenses. I split that with my crew and it helps compensate for all the hard work, lack of sleep and extra fuel associated with tournament fishing. Plus it gives an added incentive to put the team on winning fish.”

Jarvis says it’s also important to iron out other details well before leaving the dock. Food and provisions, what to bring, expected sea conditions and the tournament game plan are all items to discuss in advance. For example, Backdown2 provides bed linens and quality tackle for its guests. Some captains prefer that clients leave their tackle at home while others don’t mind if it’s brought along. If personal tackle is used, the mates will usually check it to make sure it’s up to the task.

Knowing the style of fishing and tactics before the trip is another way to avoid headaches offshore. The initial discussions should address whether the boat does stand-up fishing or uses a fighting chair. If you want to strictly live bait, make sure the captain and crew are versed in that technique and agree to it long before clearing Destin Pass.

“Before you make the final decision to book for a tournament, it’s probably a good idea to do a day trip first,” Jarvis says. “That way you can check out the captain and crew, see how they operate and if you all are compatible. If you establish a relationship before you’re stuck together for three long days on the water, you’re going to have a better time.”

That’s what Scott Harris did. He fished with Jarvis previously before booking him the last two years for the ECBC. He’s currently putting his team together for the latest round aboard Backdown2.

“I trust Capt. Jarvis for his knowledge of the water and experience. He’s put us on some money fish so I rely on his expertise. My buddies and I will have a little internal calcutta and competition. But our top priority is to have fun and catch fish. Booking a proven charter boat allows us to do that.”