By Todd Ceisner
Marty Stone is a content man.
He eases into the driver’s seat of a Bass Cat parked behind the Magnolia Bluffs Casino Hotel in Natchez, Miss. The Mississippi River is a mere few hundred yards away. Folks are pouring into town for the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race. The southern autumn sun is shining and Stone is nearing the end of yet another week on the scene at a Major League Fishing shoot.
His collared shirt still looks perfectly pressed, but he’s ready to relax for a while. The cameras aren’t rolling right now, but his presentation is still as polished as his shaved head.
A conversation begins with a quick recap of how Major League Fishing was conceptualized and the players who helped get it off the ground and eventually onto the air. He was at the center of it all – and still is despite never making a competitive cast on the series.
As Stone tells it, he was nearing the end of his Elite Series career. It was June 2010 and he was preparing to transition to life after fishing with a focus on more time at home in North Carolina with his family and a new career in the financial planning sector. He was among the angler group that formed the Professional Bass Tournament Anglers Association (PBTAA), headed up by Boyd Duckett and Gary Klein.
“We were getting nowhere,” Stone recalled. “We were spinning in circles. Gary had a great vision and Boyd had the energy, but we didn’t have the right point man.”
Enter Don Rucks, a veteran of the fishing industry with a background in marketing who’d been the general manager of B.A.S.S. and previously headed up CITGO’s involvement in bass fishing. That’s where Stone got to know Rucks and he felt Rucks could be helpful in moving the MLF concept onto the next step.
Stone reached out to Rucks and gave him an overview of the PBTAA’s vision.
“You got these 15 anglers to agree upon anything?” Stone recalls an incredulous Rucks asking in response.
“We’re not only agreeing on it, we’re incorporating,” Stone told Rucks.
“Impossible,” Rucks replied.
“It’s happening,” Stone shot back.
“Give me 20 minutes,” Rucks said.
Stone received a return call from Rucks, who said he’d be willing to meet with a group of the anglers at the Fort Gibson Elite Series along with Jim Wilburn, a former television ad sales rep from Tulsa who went on to found Winnercomm, which produced a good chunk of outdoor programming for ESPN.
The angler group, which included Stone, met with Rucks and Wilburn, and so the foundation for Major League Fishing began. Stone, Rucks and Wilburn remain the only non-competitors with an ownership interest in MLF. For Stone, it was the close of one chapter – he was retiring from the Elite Series after the 2010 season – and the start of a new journey that he didn’t see coming.
“I looked at the guys at the end of it and said, ‘Guys, I’m always going to be a part of this, but I’m done,’” Stone said. “I’d missed my son’s 8th-grade baseball season and I was completely done. I wanted to be home and not let that go by. I have no regrets, even to this day, and it worked out well.”
Six months later, Rucks phoned Stone to let him know the MLF concept “is going to fly,” Stone recalled.
“I was like, ‘Cool, I’m fishing (it),’” said Stone, who relished the thought of transitioning from the grind of the Elite Series to the occasional MLF event. Rucks had another idea for him.
In helping develop MLF for television, Rucks felt it necessary to have an astute analyst on site (possibly on the water) during competition to give viewers an expert to break down the scene and conditions. He pegged Stone for the role.
“He and I argued for four months,” Stone said. “Obviously, I lost the argument.”
Rucks sold the role to Stone by saying he’d be able to grow his personal brand more as a color analyst than he could just fishing.
“That just shows you how little my brand was in fishing, but that’s alright,” Stone joked. “I agreed to take the job, but my number one thing was I can share with the world what I see these anglers doing. If it ever gets to be about me, I quit. I wanted it to be about them. I want the stories to be told and people to see how truly good they are.”
Learning on the Fly
In the seven years since its launch, Stone has been to MLF what Troy Aikman is to Fox’s NFL game broadcasts, a former player who’s able to take the viewer inside the boat and offer an explanation of what the competitors are seeing and thinking between the lines. He speaks angler-ese and can highlight for viewers when a competitor is on a roll and when someone is struggling and tell them why.
He already had a rapport with many of the competitors from his days on the Elite Series and FLW Tour, but there was still work to do. Being in front of the camera was nothing new to Stone. He’d done countless fishing tip and product marketing videos, and had cameras in his boat during competition days, but doing on-the-water analysis of his peers during live action fishing was foreign to him.
“I wasn’t a regular. I wasn’t even a wannabe in front of the camera,” Stone said of the role he’s been in since the inaugural MLF event was filmed at Lake Amistad in 2011.
“It’s been fun. The knowledge of what we do and how the emotion goes, that’s always been there,” he added. “To be able to get it in a format and be able to send it to TV, I was completely out of my wheelhouse and that’s why the guys from Winnercomm were smart enough to see I had some knowledge they didn’t have, but I didn’t have the it factor. That’s why they put me with a full-time camera guy and a full-time producer. I’m not allowed to take a step around here without a producer. They push me.”
An avid baseball fan, Stone said he studies other former athletes-turned-analysts to enhance his on-camera delivery.
“John Smoltz – the guy’s incredible,” Stone said when asked who he enjoys watching the most. “All sports have players now who are doing the analyst job. We haven’t had a lot of that. If you’ve never truly lived it, how do you explain it?”
Stone spends the duration of a competition day on the water, filming periodic analysis “stand-ups” while competitors are in the heat of battle. When he’s within potential earshot of an angler, he talks in hushed, but still audible tones so as to not be a distraction. His producer not only monitors the real-time Scoretracker Live, but remains in constant contact with other members of the production crew on the water and on shore to ensure Stone is positioned where the most relevant action is occurring.
Stone spends competition days on the water, observing the competitors and breaking down what he sees for the viewers.
“I’m like a bad dream,” he quipped. “You never know when I’m going to show up and how often.”
As most BassFans know, MLF differs from the Elite Series and FLW Tour in many ways, but most significantly is the business plan behind it. The venture is a partnership between a group of professional anglers and Outdoor Channel. Stone says it’s been a thrill to be involved in such a unique endeavor.
“People are always like, ‘You’re a professional fisherman,’” Stone said. “No, I was a professional hobby guy. We made a living in a hobby. A profession has a union. A profession has a 401(k). A profession has a league that’s united with no division.
“MLF is the first time anglers have ever owned anything. This is the first time the anglers had the driving directive voice in all of the operations. If we don’t get this right, it’s our own fault. The anglers have never had this kind of voice and the partner we’ve got with the Outdoor Channel. We have a brief window that if we do this right, we can do some good things.”
And he knows some of those involved didn’t need MLF as much as MLF needed them.
“The majority of these guys don’t need this for their career,” Stone added. “Their legacies are built. There’s nothing Kevin (VanDam) can do or Gary can do or Denny (Brauer) can do or (Tommy) Biffle … they don’t need this for their legacy. They’re doing this for the betterment of the next generation of anglers to come because they want to leave it better. That’s a big part of what I’m doing. If I didn’t think we were on the path to leaving it better, I’ve got a good full-time job.”
Stone checks the financial markets at least three times a day while he’s on location at MLF events. He has to in order to stay on top of the latest developments that may impact his clients, a good chunk of whom are in Texas.
His 10-day stint in Natchez was preceded by client visits and followed by more client meetings in Texas. He said the support staff at the Morgan Stanley office where he works makes it easier for him to juggle his MLF responsibilities while not falling behind on his duties as a financial advisor.
"When the branch manager hired me, I'd been recruited for five years," he said. "My son had to teach me to tie a tie. Their commitment to me has allowed me to do that. Not every place you work will allow you three or four weeks off a year to come do this. I have a support staff around me that sees the benefit of what I’m doing and they allow me to be on the road."
How much longer he sees himself doing double duty, Stone says, is a question he’s starting to wrestle with.
“I don’t know. I’m 52 going on 70,” he said. “I commit to them each year. At some point in time, this thing is going to grow big enough that they’re going to need someone with a lot more talent than what I’ve got. It’s going to need to be on a more professional level and I’m okay with that.
“When I retired from bass fishing there were two things I wanted to do,” he added. “Whatever I did next I wanted to help others and I wanted to spend more time with my family and friends. This is my way, I hope, of helping in a small way. These guys don’t need any help with fishing, but they needed someone to tell the story and hopefully, I’ve done a little bit of that.”