SEBRING Back in October, Major League Fishing anglers moved from the Western New York hills to film at Lake Istokpoga as the 2013 GEICO Challenge Cup began.
At 9 p.m. Thursday, Episode One of the seven-week series aired on the Outdoor Channel.
“We just came off an event on Chautauqua Lake in New York, where our anglers showed their dock-fishing skills and were confined to some tight quarters,” said Major League Fishing Commissioner Don Rucks. “The contrast our anglers find on Lake Istokpoga couldn’t be more evident.”
In April, May and June, when 72.5 hours of Major League Fishing are broadcast and rebroadcast, 3 million people will have seen Lake Istokpoga on TV, estimated former ESPN president Roger Werner, now co-chair Outdoor Channel’s parent company.
Istokpoga was a week of autumn fishing, unspoiled natural scenery, dark and tannic water, hydrilla, changing weather (Hurricane Sandy was on her way), and unexpected visits from other species.
“In the first show, one of our anglers gets tangled with a gator. And he lives to tell about it,” Rucks said. “Our anglers get a full dose of Florida fishing on an absolute gem of a lake. Istokpoga was a lot of fun, and I promise you that every episode is highly entertaining.”
“This is not just one of the best bass lakes in Florida,” said Don Hatcher, a Lorida fishing guide who helped Major League Fishing seven months ago, “this is one of the best in the United States.”
After seeing the pros on TV, Hatcher hoped amateurs will admire Lake Istokpoga Marina's placid canal, log cabins and gorgeous moss-covered trees, nudge their wives and say, "Let's go there."
Episode One includes Boyd Duckett, Edwin Evers, Shaw Grigsby, Greg Hackney, Kelly Jordon, Bobby Lane, Ish Monroe and Jason Quinn.
“We have two Florida guys in the field, and part of the drama in this first episode is to see if Shaw and Bobby can hold serve on their home court, so to speak,” Rucks said.
Rucks hopes Major League Fishing will be to anglers what Dancing with the Stars is to ballroom. Instead of a fishing show with one star, Challenge Cup assembles 24 of the world’s best-known – the rod-and-reel trade’s major leaguers. Like top jocks, some are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to endorse products.
In addition to not being able to practice, anglers couldn’t use fish-finders, and were required to stay in designated sections. Unlike other fishing shows, Major Leaguers couldn’t share information, and were forbidden to talk with guides like Hatcher. “They put into the lake dead cold," Rucks said.
More rules: the angler hands his catch to the referee, who weighs it. They agree on weight and it's entered on an iPad, a portable, real-time leader board which flashes to other anglers, who are furnished $35,000 boats and motors.
“If somebody's caught ten pounds, and you only have two pounds, that puts a lot of pressure on you,” Hatcher said.
Eight anglers compete on the first three days. Twelve are eliminated: 12 advance. Six compete on the first Sudden Death day, the remaining six the next day. Three advance each Sudden Death day, setting up a Championship Final Round with the top six.
Boat judges – zebra-striped officials – accompany anglers and administer penalties: Major League is fish-friendly, so refs deduct points if a catch touches the boat deck, or if they aren't gently replaced in the water. The point is to catch and immediately release, before human hands or carpet fibers communicate disease or scrape off the slimy, protective mitosis layer.
“The rules are a little tougher,” Rucks said. “There's even a penalty if a fish breaks the fishing line.
That surprised Hatcher, especially because many anglers were just using 20- to 30-pound test nylon. Istokpoga bass hang around the bulrushes, so lake vets use a fused, braided 60-pound test line.
How did Major League Fishing ever find Lake Placid? A Florida Fish and Wildlife employee watch a first-season show and called Rucks, said Highlands County Tourism Director John Scherlacher: "The pros have fished the bigger lakes, like Okeechobee, but they've never been to this one before.”
More information about the new game and new rules: www.majorleaguefishing.com.