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This is the first story of a five-part series, a behind-the-scenes look at life in Alpena during Major League Fishing’s visit to the Northern Michigan city.
Jack Link’s Major League Fishing rolled into Alpena, Michigan, during the third week of August to begin filming the General Tire Summit Cup. First came members of the operations team, followed closely by the production crew. Most of the anglers hit town a day before the official start of the event. The following is the first story of a five-part series, a behind-the-scenes look at life in Alpena during Major League Fishing’s visit to the Northern Michigan city.
I went to Detroit on Friday, August 18, three days before Major League Fishing began filming its Summit Cup event in Alpena, Michigan. It was a four-and-half-hour drive one way from Alpena to Detroit: long for a Friday afternoon trip, short compared to the 20- and 30-hour treks pro anglers take too often.
I went to Detroit as a function of my job as Major League Fishing’s communication director. I had taken a similar trek a year before, almost to the day, to Oneida Lake near Syracuse, New York. At Oneida, I handed MLF anglers an envelope that told them to report to the campus of Chautauqua Institution in New York. They would be fishing their next event - in two-and-a-half days - on Chautauqua Lake.
In Detroit, where B.A.S.S. Elite Series anglers were finishing cut-day of their final regular-season event, the MLF anglers knew I’d be there to hand them another envelope. All the anglers would be on hand except FLW pro Brent Ehrler. Ehrler would get a phone call.
This time, however, the information the anglers received was even skimpier than what they received at Oneida. The envelope in Detroit basically said: Report to the Sanctuary Inn, Alpena, Michigan.
MLF competitor Edwin Evers was the first to ask. “Alpena, Michigan? Where is that? ... And what lake are we fishing?”
I told Edwin I was sorry, but all I was able to offer him was a hotel destination.
“Edwin, it’s like this,” I said. “There are a bunch of lakes around Alpena, and you aren’t going to know where you’re fishing until about 20 minutes before you launch your boat.”
By this time, several other MLF anglers had circled around with open ears.
“We won’t know until the morning we fish?” asked Shaw Grigsby, who, after a short pause added, “This is great. I love it."
Standing among the group, Ish Monroe chimed in with a comment of his own.
“This really is great, actually,” Monroe said. “I was born in Ann Arbor. I know all about the lakes in Alpena.”
Grigsby, giving him a skeptical look, said, “It doesn't sound like Alpena is anywhere near Ann Arbor. So you're kidding, right?”
Monroe: “Yes, I am kidding. I don’t even know where Alpena is. I hope my GPS works.”
“I hadn't been in the office long enough to know how to transfer a phone call, but I knew that great bass fishing and Alpena are one and the same.”
–Mary Beth Stutzman, Alpena CVB Director
Double back a little more than six months. Major League Fishing discovered Alpena in February 2013.
I say discovered because almost no one in the MLF camp had ever heard of the place. And, we would soon find, the Alpena Convention and Visitors Bureau wasn’t exactly familiar with us, either.
Later we would find that MLF and Alpena were a good match from the first phone call to the final interview. But in the beginning, that first contact was almost impulsive. It originated with an e-mail MLF Commissioner Don Rucks sent to Alpena’s Holiday Inn (the largest hotel in town, later to undergo a name change to the Sanctuary Inn), inquiring whether the facility could accommodate a group of 80 to 120 visitors in late August.
The hotel contacted Alpena CVB Director Mary Beth Stutzman, who had been in her job for less than one month. She called Rucks and basically asked, “What’s up?”
“We had been looking in another direction, to be honest. We were focusing more to the west, on the Lake Michigan side of the state. That part of the state is beautiful and the fishing is usually great where we first looked. Unfortunately, our event was scheduled right in a time window that made us concerned about the quality and quantity of fish we were going to find,” Rucks said.
“But according to what we were reading and hearing, that was not going to be a concern around Alpena. So I talked to Mary Beth to see if they might be interested in having us come into their community to film.”
The answer was “well sure … maybe.”
Stutzman said, “Because I had never heard of MLF, we thought it might be one of those ‘we'll make a great 30 second commercial about your city and air it on an obscure channel at 3 a.m. for the low, low price of $27,000!’ kinds of things.
“But I called the Chautauqua CVB and Chamber representatives that were listed in the email, and they verified that yes indeed, MLF was a legitimate endeavor,” she said. “Then I called Don back to ask him about it, and when he mentioned bass fishing and said they were looking at some other communities.
Stutzman said she then started checking with some Alpena residents.
“I started asking people I knew if they were familiar with the show and after the ninth or tenth "Man, I LOVE that show!" I knew this was serious business and I had to do whatever I could to make it work.” She said. “I hadn't been in the office long enough to know how to transfer a phone call, but I knew that great bass fishing and Alpena are one and the same.”
Another of the hats I wear with Major League Fishing is that of community liaison. MLF Production Director Randy White, Technical Director Mike Williams and I, long prior to filming week, all spend significant time talking with folks in the communities where we film.
We also do site visits. I look after logistics issues, White sets up and monitors production sites and needs, and Williams establishes arguably the most important aspect of any MLF broadcast: technical communication. If we can’t communicate from boat to boat, and boats to shore, there will be no MLF broadcast.
So we all got involved. After a lot of phone calls, I was the first to visit Alpena. I was there from March 19-21. During my three days in town, the low temperature was 11 degrees, the high 27. It snowed a lot.
“We got into the high twenties. Not bad at all,” said Stutzman.
“No, not bad,” I said.
This is just one of the many shipwrecks that are scattered along the bottom of Thunder Bay.
Alpena is a small city, roughly a population of 12,000, in the far north, on the shores of Lake Huron. When you get to Alpena, you’re not in the Upper Peninsula, but you’re darned close.
Alpena, as Stutzman freely admits, is a community in the process of reinventing itself. It’s not quite a tourist town, but it’s not full-scale blue collar, either. It’s a healthy mixture of both.
The "re-branding," as we say in the public relations industry, involves tying the phrase “Sanctuary of the Great Lakes” to Alpena. Stutzman and local officials want “Sanctuary of the Great Lakes” to be part of the local, regional and state lexicon.
Alpena offers a beautiful Lake Huron shoreline, a bay that offers some impressive history. A tremendous marine sanctuary protects hundreds of shipwrecks. The city itself, though unpretentious, features several top-tier restaurants, and Alpena’s people came across in a friendly and accommodating manner. These features made Alpena a good sponsor destination as well as filming venue.
The primary selling point for Major League Fishing, however, was not the city or the marine sanctuary. It was the bass-filled lakes. There are many fishable bodies of water in the region, but four lakes, all within a half-hour of Alpena, caught Major League Fishing’s attention: Hubbard to the south, Fletcher’s Pond to the west, and Long and Grand lakes to the north.
One conversation might have sealed the deal for us.
While in Alpena, Stutzman arranged a meeting with a local competitive angler and businessman, Joe Zolnierek. I asked Joe a simple question: What will the fishing be like in late August?
Zolnierek said, “Well, it will be pretty good.”
I asked, “What does that mean on a 1-10 scale?”
“I can give you a scale ranking. That's not a problem,” Zolneirek said. “But let me just say this. I know the guys you have in Major League Fishing.
“In late August, right before Labor Day," he said, "those guys are going to absolutely smash them.”
(END OF PART 1)
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