America's best anglers try their luck at Istokpoga
Gary Pinnell | Highlands TodayLAKE PLACID – In April 2013, when 72.5 hours of Major League Fishing is broadcast and rebroadcast, about 3 million people will see Lake Istokpoga on TV.
Published: October 26, 2012
Published: October 26, 2012
That's according to former ESPN president Roger Werner, now co-chair of the company that owns Outdoor Channel.
What is Major League Fishing? Commissioner Don Rucks hopes it will be to anglers what Dancing with the Stars is to ballroom.
Instead of a fishing show with one star, Rucks has assembled 24 all-stars – yes, the major leaguers of the rod-and-reel trade. Like top athletes, some are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to endorse products.
They're provided with $35,000 boats and motors, and make no mistake about it, says Lake Istokpoga fishing guide Don Hatcher, these fishermen must stay in top physical condition to cast lures relentlessly, three or four times every minute.
"They're fishing fast. This is power fishing. When they feel a nibble, they'll go down, and then they'll set the hook." Hatcher reared back as if the pole was in his hands.
Major League anglers will be on Istokpoga for seven days if Hurricane Sandy doesn't interfere. At noon Thursday, Weather Underground was predicting that Sandy would pass the Bahamas and be at the same longitude as Sebring by 2 a.m. Saturday.
Unlike other fishing shows, Major Leaguers are forbidden to talk with guides like Hatcher, they can't share information, they can't practice, they can't even scout the lake in advance.
"They put into the lake dead cold," Rucks said. Anglers are assigned to fish one of six zones; they don't know which until the night before.
There are even penalties: Major League is fish-friendly, so a referee – yes, there's a zebra-striped official in every boat – deducts points from fishermen if a fish touches the boat deck, if fish aren't gently replaced in the water. The point is to catch and immediately release fish, before human hands or carpet fibers can communicate a disease or scrape off the slimy, protective layer of mitosis.
"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 have learned to use a fused, braided 60-pound test line.
Istokpoga's water is dark and tannic because of all the hydrilla and vegetation. In clear-water lakes, fish can see the line, even clear nylon.
The angler hands his catch to the referee, who weighs it. They agree on the weight and it's entered on an iPad, which functions as a portable scoreboard. The catch immediately flashes to other anglers.
"If somebody's caught ten pounds, and you only have two pounds, that puts a lot of pressure on you," Hatcher said.
Just like pro football, baseball and basketball, cameras are everywhere. The fold-down wall of a semi-truck trailer provide a studio for three reporters, who build tension. More reporters chat with and profile the anglers every morning, report each catch. Reel legend Marty Stone interviews and comments from his own boat.
One of those reporters is a woman, a purposeful intent to lure female viewers. In fact, Werner wouldn't be surprised if the competitive nature of Major League Fishing attracts a 60-40 male-female audience.
"We're trying to make the sport have a much broader appeal," Rucks said.
How did Major League Fishing discover Lake Istokpoga?
A Florida Fish and Wildlife employee caught 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," Scherlacher said.
"This is not just one of best bass lakes in Florida, this is one of the best in the United States," Hatcher said. After seeing the pros on TV, he's hoping 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."
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