By Todd Ceisner
I ease my rental car into a spot between Jason Christie’s truck and a random sedan. There's a row of trees that forms a natural barrier between the parking lot and the property next door. I’m careful to not open my door into Christie’s Tundra. He owns guns.
It’s a quiet and warm Wednesday night in October just a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River and as I enter the lobby of the Magnolia Bluffs Hotel and Casino, it’s impossible to miss the two Major League Fishing banners hung from collapsible stands flanking the entrance to the lounge area. Guess I found the right place.
Aside from the desk attendant and a couple of people with their elbows resting on the lobby bar, there’s not much happening at the Bluffs on this night. I’m in Natchez, Miss., for the first time not by accident, but by invitation.
For two days last fall, I was offered an insider’s look at MLF, given a fly-on-the-wall view of how an event plays out. I knew all of the competitors, but not many of the folks behind the scenes who help make the TV series one of the most popular shows on Outdoor Channel.
Over a span of 48 hours, I was struck by how many moving parts there are. It takes a crew of roughly 90 people (anglers included) on the ground to make the operation hum.
There’s a guy whose job is to monitor the Wi-Fi signals coming from the wireless units on each competition and camera boat (he actually invented the system). That way the Scoretracker Live system can operate smoothly, even when filming in remote locations.
There’s a woman whose job is to make sure the Scoretracker system is working properly. There’s another guy who makes sure the cameramen have fully-charged batteries at the ready during the day. It’s another person’s job to arrange for a fuel truck to come by the hotel each night and top off the tanks of the boats to be used the next day. There are service techs from Nitro Boats and Power-Pole and Lowrance to address any mechanical issues that may arise.
There are people who never see the competition waters as their duties keep them at the mobile studio, which was set up right on the shores of the Mississippi in an open field on the grounds of a sprawling antebellum plantation. That’s where hosts Steven Scott and Shelli Sanders did their work during the week. Others remain at the hotel to work with anglers who aren’t involved in that day’s competition.
I’d spent a day on location at the 2013 Summit Cup at Chautauqua Lake, back when the organization was still working out the kinks. At Natchez, things ran smoothly. Everyone knew their place and role.
The production team takes its cues from Randy White, a senior producer at Winnercomm. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he’d figured out how to be in multiple places at once. He’s the orchestrator on the ground just as much as MLF Commissioner Don Rucks is the authoritarian on the rules side.
This was MLF’s first visit to Natchez, but it’s been to other communities multiple times. It’s a tricky thing when MLF comes to town for a week-long shoot. Ideally, the convoy of anglers and crew would prefer to set up shop, get the competition under way and over with without incident and escape town without much notice.
Certainly, fan interaction is not discouraged and cannot be avoided in some instances. But secrecy remains a vital element to the show’s success so if a crowd of locals starts poking around the hotel parking lot or happens to find out which launch ramp the competitors are using, it could throw a wrench into the proceedings.
Such an instance occurred at Natchez. The initial plan for the championship round was to launch at a private facility at Larto Lake, but word got back to MLF officials that the facility’s owner had alerted several of his friends to MLF’s looming arrival.
Wanting to control how many people knew the identities of the finalists – MLF participants, crew and officials are required to sign non-disclosure agreements to prevent results and other information from leaking prior to broadcast – it prompted the production crew to seek another launch ramp that could accommodate the event’s at-the-lake operation, which includes up to a dozen trucks and trailers along with support vehicles.
Another facility was located and the day went on as planned, but it illustrated the balance that needs to be struck when trying to finish off the week and keep the event mostly under wraps.
Sudden Death: Round 1
It’s my first full day in Natchez and I’m up at 4:30 a.m. and by 5, I’m in the parking lot waiting to meet up with MLF utility man Rob Newell and camera operator Dan Larson, with whom I’ll spend the next two days in the boat. I’m told that Newell, who writes content for MLF’s website and does some behind-the-scenes video work, will connect me with all the important people either prior to departing or after arriving at the lake being that he’s been affiliated with MLF on the media side since its inception.
Larson, a veteran of the outdoor TV business, has been assigned to get boat-to-boat video footage and also film the field departing from and arriving at the rendezvous point at the beginning and end of each period of competition.
There’s a coolness in the air, but it’s not crisp like I’m used to in October in western New York. There’s no breeze and there are two stray dogs wandering around the hotel parking lot. Uninterested in the activity that’s picking up behind the hotel, they head off in the other direction.
After grabbing some breakfast grub for the trip to the lake from the makeshift (yet ample) spread arranged on one of the crew member’s tailgates, I meet a couple boat officials – it sounds like they'd been warned about my arrival – before heading over to Newell’s panel van, which will tow a Kubota-wrapped Nitro Z-18 chase boat to the landing.
It’s roughly an hour-long journey across the massive Natchez-Vidalia Bridge and then north through the flat and rural Louisiana wilderness to Lake Bruin State Park, a cozy spot tucked away in the southeastern corner of the oxbow lake. Spanish moss hangs from the trees, reminding me we’re in Cajun country. It’s not quite daybreak when the rest of the cavalcade arrives a few minutes after us. Newell obliges after he is told he needs to park his rig elsewhere.
Cypress trees were a dominant theme during the Sudden Death rounds of the 2018 Challenge Cup.
Lake Bruin, the nine competitors will soon learn, is a 3,000-acre lake that makes nearly a complete circle and resembles the venue used in the elimination rounds.
The anglers and assembled crew and officials are mostly quiet as initial preparations are made. The camera guys start loading their gear into the boats they’ve been assigned to. I quickly note the vibe at an MLF shoot is way different than the atmosphere at the launch prior to an FLW Tour or Elite Series event. Not better or worse. Just different. Maybe it’s the smaller field of competitors or lack of publicity and buzz since the day’s outcome won’t be broadcast to the world for nearly e8ght months.
It’s still early mornings and late nights sprinkled with uncertainty, especially for the competitors, who don’t know where they’re going until they pull into the launch facility each morning. Once they’ve all arrived at the ramp, they’re handed a color printout of the lake map with the launch ramp location highlighted and approximate surface acreage along with any water that’s off limits.
They’re given a few minutes to get tackle prepped and digest the day’s venue while being outfitted with a wireless mic and peppered with questions from Newell, whose job it will be to compose a preview article for the MLF website prior to each episode’s airing.
“Hey, where’s my map,” barks Mike McClelland, who finished 6th on day 2 of the Elimination Round.
A few moments later, Boyd Duckett hands him a copy, but McClelland quickly realizes how similar Bruin is to the Black River/Cocodrie complex used in the earlier rounds. Before long, McClelland is doing some stretching with his right shoulder as he tries to get loose.
At this point, the only audible noise is the din from the street light perched 20 feet up on a telephone pole.
The red lights on the cameras are on, which means today’s shoot is under way. Anglers scurry to arrange rods on the front deck while off to the side, Gary Klein, one of the day’s competitors, can be overheard talking on the phone, telling whoever’s on the other end “it’s a cool little lake.”
Competitors are told the weight needed to punch their ticket to the championship round will be 22 pounds. The first four to do so will move on. Some nod in agreement. Some respond with a quizzical look.
“I think it’ll take 10 to 12 fish to get to the cut weight and that’s my goal,” says Bobby Lane.
McClelland thinks it should be a good buzzbait lake. Nearby, Aaron Martens chuckles in response. The two continue their exchange before Martens adds, “It should be a good dropshot lake.”
“C’mon, Aaron,” McClelland chirps.
Just then, the trucks start to head over to the ramp to start the launch procession before the anglers begin their ride-through session, which gives them a quick preview of how the lake lays out. McClelland continues to talk to the camera in his boat as he heads that way.
By 6:45, daybreak has arrived and the birds are starting to chirp. Whatever clouds that are around don’t seem to have corrupt intentions. Looks like it’ll be a nice day. For many competing in Natchez, this will be the last meaningful bass fishing competition on the 2017 calendar.
It’s another hour before Newell, Larson and I ease away from the dock, but with first casts not scheduled until 8 a.m., we’re in good shape.
By 8:06, however, as we’re watching Lane work behind boat docks and around cypress trees, a STOP FISHING order is sent out. Word is Ish Monroe has a trolling motor issue and needs to return to the ramp to have it examined. The length of the stoppage will be added to the end of the day, if necessary.
Jacob Wheeler made quick work of the 22-pound target weight during the second round of Sudden Death.
At 8:33, lines are back in the water. Lane is targeting shade lines as the sun is already climbing against a perfect blue backdrop.
At 8:43, I take my first look at the live leaderboard and see Keith Poche and Jeff Kriet are the only competitors with fish so far (by the way, having reliable WiFi on a bass boat is pretty darn cool). Two minutes later, Andy Montgomery's name pops on with a 1-13.
A few minutes before 9, we find Montgomery skipping docks. It’s like watching Ken Griffey Jr. swing a baseball bat, the ease with which Montgomery puts a bait in places he intends to, but can’t even see. As he fishes, there are two dogs going berserk on the dock, clearly annoyed by his presence and unimpressed by his skipping ability. I’m surprised they didn’t try to jump in his boat and maul him. Undeterred, Montgomery keeps going.
At Bruin, the docks are enormous and numerous. Some have witty names like “Camp Chaos.” The amount of lumber devoted to the construction of some could build a nice lakeside cabin.
We spot Kriet creeping through an area similar to where Lane had been fishing. He slings a square-bill along the outside of a dock and catches a 1-03 moments after saying he’d missed a couple and was considering switching colors.
I find myself constantly refreshing the live leaderboard, but also trying to keep my attention on the angler(s) we’re posted up on. It’s a constant juggling routine for the crew, especially Newell and Larson, who needs to capture useful footage of each competitor.
It’s nearly 10 a.m. and Duckett and McClelland are fishing the same island clump of cypress trees. Duckett leaves while McClelland stays. Crop dusters are now soaring overhead in between downward sweeps to fertilize neighboring fields.
After his trolling motor issue, Monroe goes on a tear, catching 21-06 in the first period alone. With a 2-06 keeper early in period 2, he’s the first competitor to reach the 22-pound mark. His day on the water is done.
We come upon Klein in a stand of cypress trees, but he’s not standing near the trolling motor. Rather, he’s lying flat on his chest trying to retrieve a bait.
Meanwhile, a glance at the leaderboard shows action has picked up around the lake. We find Martens right after he lands his third fish – a 3-12 brute, which is an above-average fish it seems – and he starts lamenting how he spent the first period.
“I’d been fishing docks like a dummy,” he says, making no mention of whether he was using a dropshot.
Thirty minutes later, he lands a 3-13 focusing on the trees near bulkheads in between docks. While Martens has finally cracked the 10-pound mark, Montgomery joins Monroe in the 22-pound club with his 12th fish at 12:24 p.m.
With two spots remaining, Kriet (18-01) and Martens (14-04) are the next closest to the day’s benchmark weight. The intensity is evident watching on the water as the anglers get updates from their boat official. With so many targets to pick over (dock piers, countless cypress trees, shade lines), it’d be easy to get in a hurry, but each seems set now on what is working best – Kriet is cranking while Martens is swimming a jig.
It’s 12:59 and a 1-12 decides to eat Kriet’s balsa crankbait, getting him to 19-13, just 2-03 shy of the qualifying mark. He adds a 1-02 at 1:27 to push his total to 20-15. He’s one fish away from a berth in the finals.
Meanwhile, Klein is beginning to make a charge and by the end of the second period, it’s a three-man race between Kriet, Martens (19-02) and Klein (17-12). It’s lunch time so Newell pulls the boat into a soft bank in the shade back at the ramp after we deposit Larson on a pier for a better camera view of the competitors coming and going.
Jason Christie fell 1 pound, 12 ounces short of qualifying for the championship round at the Challenge Cup.
Pre-packed lunches from a local eatery are distributed to the anglers, officials and crew.
The final period begins at 2 p.m. and Klein catches three fish in the first 20 minutes to get to 21-04 while Martens adds a 2-00 to get 21-02. Kriet is feeling the pressure.
“Why is it so hard to catch a 1-pounder,” he grunts as he continues to sling a square-bill around docks.
Within a matter of minutes, it’s over. Klein catches a 1-01 off a dock with a soft-plastic worm, then Martens punctuates the day with a 4-04 kicker to close the round at 2:25 p.m.
Newell and Larson, both veterans of this grind, quietly rejoice, not in Kriet's misfortune, but because the early conclusion means a more manageable evening sorting through what else needs to get done so preparations for tomorrow can begin.
Back at the ramp, Lane and McClelland are trading stories about the day. Lane fell short of his goal, catching just nine fish, while McClelland had the toughest day of the bunch with only two keepers.
Kriet arrives with a sullen look on his face. McClelland prods him with a question about how many fish he lost that would’ve clinched it. Kriet doesn’t answer.
Sudden Death: Round 2
The second round of Sudden Death is back at Lake Bruin the following day, but it’s a different nine-man group, and by different I mean “1927 Yankees” different.
How’s this for a lineup? Christie. Ehrler. Evers. Hackney. Jordon. Omori. Reese. VanDam. Wheeler.
Aside from more than $27 million in tournament winnings they’ve earned collectively, this crew has amassed seven Bassmaster Classic wins, three Forrest Wood Cup wins, 10 B.A.S.S. or FLW Tour Angler of the Year titles to go with nine MLF Cup victories (as of today). They know what’s at stake. Heck, there should be a trophy for winning this round alone.
The general reaction at the ramp after they all arrived was low key. “Heh, an oxbow lake,” was the vibe. They seemed unimpressed. Talk amongst the crew was that this could be a short day, meaning it wouldn’t take long for four of these titans to reach the 22-pound mark.
Wheeler says it’s the stoutest group he’s competed against in his time with MLF. Indeed, this could be a treat to watch. The pre-launch atmosphere is a little quieter than the previous day and there’s not much chatter as the competitors prep tackle. Only Christie, Hackney and Omori haven’t won MLF Cup events.
While others work, Reese is standing in his boat, hands in his pockets. VanDam is growing restless as daylight arrives.
“Let’s go man,” he says in a harried tone. “We can’t get back to the house if we can’t get in the water.”
The weather is a carbon copy of the previous day with a tad more wind. The anglers seem to be following the same formula that worked for the first Sudden Death group – target docks and cypress trees. With 20 minutes left in the first period, Wheeler eclipses the 22-pound mark with 10 fish, all but two of which weigh 2 pounds or better.
By the end of the first, excitement builds as Omori, Christie, Reese, VanDam and Evers are grouped between 13-11 and 16-10 on the leaderboard. Surely, the second period will be brief.
Omori joins Wheeler after reaching the 22-pound mark with a 1-01 dink at 12:07 p.m. Omori needed 13 fish to get there, including eight in a row under 2 pounds to close the deal.
It’s 12:35 and Evers, Christie and VanDam all have 18-09 or better. The end is near, but fishing is slower than anticipated.
Christie’s 1-08 on a vibrating jig at 12:56 pushes his total to 20-04. He’s basically one keeper away, maybe two. Ten minutes later, Evers punches his ticket with a 1-03 spotted bass that ate a worm. His relief was evident in the beaming smile he unleashed after releasing the fish.
It’s down to Christie with 20-04 and VanDam with 18-09. It’s after 1 p.m. and the sun is starting to beat down. In the matter of seven minutes, VanDam pulls it out with two catches on a crankbait and the final one on a swimbait at 1:17. Christie falls 1-12 short.
The field for the championship round is set with Monroe, Montgomery, Klein and Martens joined by Wheeler, Omori, Evers and VanDam.
In the corner of the parking lot behind the hotel that night, Vicki and Gerald Mitchell, who run the Brisket House in Jena, La., have set up their mobile kitchen, which is basically a souped-up, open-air flat-bed utility trailer equipped with fryers, smokers, grills and a corrugated metal roof. The MLF crew is treated to a fried catfish dinner with all the fixings (fries, hush puppies, beans, etc.).
When the call goes out that dinner’s ready, it’s not long before the line is 10, 12 people deep. Some go back for seconds and thirds, all the while rehashing the day or the week or delving into other non-fishing topics. It’s evident these folks are tight-knit. It’s a relaxed atmosphere after a grueling week. The finish line arrives tomorrow for most, then it's back to Tulsa, Okla., where MLF is headquartered, or back home for the competitors. I’m anxious to get home and see my family the next day, meaning I’ll miss seeing the championship round play out.
I depart Natchez the next morning with a keener understanding of what it takes to make an MLF event happen. Christie’s truck is no longer there.
Man, I hope I didn’t ding his door.
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