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One thing we've found in the brief history of Jack Link’s Major League Fishing is that anything can happen on the water. When you put 24 of the best anglers in the world on a body of water - any body of water - there will be surprises.
With the location for the 2013 Geico Challenge Cup announced on Florida’s Lake Istokpoga, we can begin to examine the body of water and try and decide who we think might be the most likely to come away with a victory in this event. But, as we've seen in the previous two events, being able to select that winner is not an easy task.
In order to have a chance, we must first examine Lake Istokpoga and how it fishes. Like its larger cousin to the south, Lake Okeechobee, Lake Istokpoga is a typical Florida lake that features mainly shallow water with an abundance of vegetation on the shoreline as well as in open water. Istokpoga is known for being one of the premier trophy bass lakes in the state, with more double-digit bass coming from these waters than any other lake in the state each year.
Along with the visible vegetation and overhanging shoreline cover, Istokpoga does have several canals and marinas that should give anglers a chance to explore many shallow options regardless of the zone they are competing in for the day.
With that in mind, one with any knowledge of these anglers would have to give a distinct advantage to those who are shallow water specialists. Of course the skill level of these anglers makes them all proficient at multiple types of fishing, however, there are those who live shallow, and those will likely be the group to perform the best.
Before we get into the anglers with technical strengths that will likely serve them well at Istokpoga, we really should take a look at two anglers because of where they live, and that would be Bobby Lane of nearby Lakeland, Fla., and Shaw Grigsby of Gainesville, Fla. Bass fishing in the Sunshine State can be completely hit or miss, and having some extended experience on the types of waterways Florida has can be an advantage, and Lane and Grigsby should be threats to go far.
Outside of those two, anglers that excel with a flippin' stick should have the mindset to perform at their best at Istokpoga. Those anglers that make a living with the long rod that we should expect to see in the late rounds are Ish Monroe, Greg Hackney, Kelly Jordon, Gary Klein, Denny Brauer, Takahiro Omori and Tommy Biffle. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising at all to see that list and the based Florida anglers in the Sudden Death Semifinal rounds.
The reason for that assumption is because no matter the time of the year, Florida's bass thrive in mixtures of grasses and clean water. The aforementioned group of anglers have spent much of their career on tour reading that type of cover anyway, and with that as an expectation, they could excel.
The next group that could do well at Istokpoga are the generalists. These are the type of anglers who have earned a reputation for being extremely versatile on the water, and are able to many things very well, without having been completely identified with one or two techniques over their career.
The first name on that list would have to be Kevin VanDam, his ability to catch the right kind of fish on any body of water is legendary, so it wouldn't be surprising to see him do well. Following VanDam on that list would be Skeet Reese, Mike Iaconelli, Edwin Evers, Alton Jones, Brent Ehrler, Jason Quinn, Boyd Duckett and guest anglers Randy Howell and Brent Chapman.
Of those anglers, Reese, Evers, Jones, Quinn and Duckett have exceptional skills with a flippin' rod, so while they don't utilize that technique as much as one of the specialists, they could certainly list flippin' and pitching amongst their strong suits, and therefore should be considered for their ability to grind it out, or move around and cover a lot of water quickly.
Ehrler is the defending 2012 Challenge Cup Champion, and while Florida has never been particularly kind to him, he seems to rise to the occasion in Major League Fishing competition. Chapman and Howell are major threats because both are fishing at perhaps the highest levels in their careers. Chapman having just won the Bassmaster Angler of the Year title, and Howell giving the points standings a run for the money throughout much of the season as well, both could be standing tall in the end.
Then we get to the wild cards, those anglers who on paper have the type of skillsets that may leave some to second guess their ability to compete at Istokpoga. Anglers like Timmy Horton, Aaron Martens, Jeff Kriet, Mike McClelland and Byron Velvick don't appear to have much of a shot on paper until you realize that Velvick, Horton and McClelland have all won events in Florida. Kriet and Martens are some of the scrappiest anglers on tour, so we cannot expect them to ride quietly into the sunset an let the others have all the fun.
So, when asked to make a final selection of which group will make the strongest showing at Istokpoga, we'd have to lean heavily on the Flippers. We would expect that group to dominate the standings heavily, followed by the generalists with strong leanings towards the power fishing techniques.
Florida can house scary and inconsistent fisheries, and the anglers who find a way to grind out the right kinds of bites are going to be the ones who really do put the challenge into the Challenge Cup on Lake Istokpoga.
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