VHF Contest School — Being a Smarter Operator

   When VHF contesting, expect lots of weak signals.  Embrace them.   The weak one may very well be a station in a distant grid.  Try to work everyone you can hear.  Expect to be asked for repeats.  Don’t worry about it.  Take your time.  Speak clearly, use standard phonetics and get the Q in the log.  If someone seems a bit impatient, explain to them that you are just getting started.  After a few contests, it all makes sense anyway.  Gotta start somewhere.       January contest is a good one to get your start in.

   Use headphones.  You’re going to need them to hear the weak ones.  Cans make a big difference.  You should see me crossing two sets on my head, while I listen on 144 in one ear, and 6 meters in the other.  Friends have, and they just smile and walk away.

  Turn your squelch down.  You want to hear the light ones thru the hiss.  Also, if you have your squelch too high, you may not hear light stations working each other, and then you may QRM them when you call CQ Contest.  This happens anyway in a contest and hey, we all make honest mistakes.  Nobody should jump down your throat over it.  If it seems like maybe you made a boo-boo, don’t stress over it.  Just chalk it up to experience and move on.
   I know it’s harder than heck for a new operator to feel comfortable calling CQ Contest into a dead band.  But try it out anyway.  Even if you feel foolish calling 3, 5, 8 times in a row and nobody comes back to you —  keep calling CQ.  Sure you want to tune around and respond to the ones you hear calling CQ.  (They call that Search and Pounce)  But when you hit a lull, that’s a good time to put YOUR call out there.

    To find contacts, start on 144(SSB/CW)/146 (FM) MHz.   Also call CQ on 50(SSB/CW)/52 (FM) MHz as well.   And you can even squirt out a few calls on 222/223.   But don’t bother calling CQ on 432.100/446.000.  I’ll explain why.
   In VHF contests, you find folks for an initial contact on the most popular bands, where everyone’s hanging out. That’s 2 meters and 6 meters.  Once you’ve found a station, you then want to work them on as many bands as you have in common.  This is called “running the bands”.  The more bands you work them on, the more contacts and points you score.  Always ask a station if they have any other bands you can work them on.
    Say you hear me calling on 144 and you respond with your callsign.  I give my grid square, you give yours, we roger the info, put the time in our logs, and then I ask you if you have any other bands.  You say you have 6 meters.  I look at my 6 meter rig and try to find a frequency that is empty.  I say to you, “OK, let’s meet on 50.140 on 6 meters. If we have a problem, we’ll come back right here where we are on 2, OK?”
   So off we go to 50.140.  If we make contact there, we exchange our calls and grids again, enter them in the log and I ask you again if you have any other bands.  You say you have 222 or 432.   We check 222.100 SSB/CW or 223.500 FM to see if anyone’s busy there, and it’s open.  We make contact on 223.5, enter the info in our logs, and then agree to meet on say 432.100 or 446.00, depending on your rigs and antennas.  At this point, we’ve run 4 bands and I thank you very much and say 73, good luck in the contest, blahblah.  You probably don’t have 900 or 1296 MHz because those aren’t beginner bands.   
   Then I go back to 2 meters or 6 meters and start looking for new contacts.  I don’t start calling for new ones on 432.  It is a good idea to ask if anyone else has followed us up to 432.  That happens sometimes and it’s a neat coincidence when it does.  You can work anyone on any band, in any order.  That’s fine.  But…the custom with VHF contesting is to call CQ for initial contacts on 2 meters or 6 meters.  If you spend all your time calling up on 70 cm or 223, you’re going to be missing most of the action.   

    A few more comments.   I’ve only been V/UHF contesting since Sept. 2003.   Most have been doing it far longer so I’m not an expert.   But I do care — more than most.   I knew that after my first year or two.   Somewhere on the internet, I hope there are others like me who are sharing their experience to help make contesting more popular.  If you know of links to anything like this, please share them with me.   It makes me feel better when I see hams talking up V/UHF. 

     Here’s a practical tip to stir up more activity when you’ve hit a dead spell in a contest.    I think it makes a lot of sense, if done properly.   Find someone fairly local to you that you can hear, no matter which way your beams are pointed.   If you have both hit a dead spell, do this:   Start a very short ragchew with your buddy.   Frequent pauses.   Make sure to say you’re both contesting and looking for callers.  Do this while your yagis are turned away from each other, in varying directions.  
    I do this with W9GA in EN53.   I’ve learned more about V/UHF contesting from W9GA than from any other person.   W9FZ and N9DG would be a close #2 and #3.   If K2DRH in EN41 were close enough where I could hear him all the time, I’d learn a lot from him, too.   I’d be tuning around, and hearing what Bob does and how he does it.   Can learn a lot that way.  
     But back to what W9GA and I do to find new business… he may point S toward IL.   I may point E toward Detroit or Cleveland.   If that doesn’t work, I may point N, while he points W.   Main idea is that two signals going in different directions is twice as good as one.  Often, within a few minutes, we find someone and then everyone’s happy.   W9GA and I get new contacts, and the caller gets a two-fer, since I’m EN63 and Ken’s EN53.   We then like to gab a bit with the caller just in case there are others in his area who are wondering what’s going on.    Of course, we ask if he has any other bands, too.   I would not do this during a busy time in a contest.   I wouldn’t do it on the call frequency.    But it’s a good way to relieve a little boredom and get a new run going.   
     I don’t know how anyone else feels about this, but when I snag a unusual, distant grid (unless it’s a big, busy opening) I will try to say that person’s grid multiple times.   Why?   Because I know there are plenty of guys local to me who are tuning around, wondering what I’m working.   I’m the same way.   They may not hear that EN56 is who I’m working, unless I broadcast it a little bit.   Since it’s lonely doing a V/UHF contest from EN56, I want him to get all the business he can, so he stays interested and happy.   I want the guys down here to hear “EN56” and start swinging their antennas north.  
      You also want to do this with rovers.   When we know a rover is going to be out, we’re always interested in when they arrive in a new grid.   When they get in a new grid, that’s something I want to broadcast a little bit, too.   Not too much because rovers get busy and you let them do their thing.   But it never hurts to say, “Well OK, N9WU/Rover in your new grid EN54…” 

      If you want to work more grids in a contest, you need to point those yagis in unusual,  unpopulated directions.   You may feel you’re not making much of a rate, looking toward N WI or the UP of MI.    Yes, it’s logical that you’ll spend more time working toward populated areas.   That happens naturally.   But really — do make a point of calling CQ in different directions frequently.   And when you find those ops in distant grids, if they’re not busy, maybe take a little time to say hello.    They don’t hear signals very often and it can get really discouraging.    If I could do one single thing to improve VHF/UHF at any time, I’d mandate two good stations and operator in every grid square, and then I’d make sure they had enough activity to stay interested.    It would do SO much for VHF/UHF.   I am a dreamer…

     Some of you may be wondering when the best times to operate are.   Well since I’m an obsessive, I’ll joke and say, “All hours of the contest, obviously!”   But even I sleep 4-6 hours in most contests.   I can think of only 2 all-nighters in 6 seasons, off the top of my head.   
     The start of the contest is busy.   Real busy, usually.   It can die down after several hours; no hard and fast rule.   It seems like evenings (after dinner) have a rise in activity for several hours.   Most “normal” guys/gals are pulling the switch by about 10-11pm local time.  But I usually hear some folks until midnight-1am.    There can be nice surprises in there.    
      You’re missing out, if you pull the plug before 10-11pm in the warmer months.   The prop usually improves as  night wears on — this effect seems to be enhanced near the Great Lakes.    So you waste a lot of good propagation by going to sleep too early.   I would encourage everyone to do a short afternoon nap and find a way to operate until midnight-2am in the warmer months.   It’ll never happen, but if it did, scores would be higher all around.      
     Come Sunday morning, there’s people waking up by 6-6:30am local time.   By 7:30-8am, it’s busy again.  I can remember a lot of good Sunday mornings, but plenty of that is because propagation is often best in the early/mid-morning hours.   Sunday afternoons can vary, but you definitely see another peak toward evening.    Lots of guys seem to show up for the start and end of a contest.  

      To be thorough, I want to  add that during the overnight hours, a lot of stations (especially multiops) run skeds on the digital modes.   WSJT, JT65, I don’t know what all is out these days.   These take time, putting Rigblasters to work getting distant grid squares they wouldn’t get any other way.   Talking 800-1500 miles.   I’m not a digital modes enthusiast, so I’m a poor one to provide details.   But I know that many enjoy it, so be aware of the option.   This is increasing in popularity, and if you want more info, I can think of guys who would help you get going.

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