Changing the Landscape

Takahiro Omori of Jack Link's Major League Fishing

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Jack Link’s Major League Fishing has concluded the television run of its third event, the 2013 GEICO Challenge Cup from Florida’s Lake Istokpoga, and by all accounts the event itself and the resulting Outdoor Channel production were extremely successful.

The Challenge Cup was certainly a hit with Highlands County’s tourism officials.

“A great event. I’ve heard nothing but excellent reviews, and we’re looking forward to seeing how the recognition we received will help this part of Florida in the future. We are seeing results already,” said John Scherlacher, Highland’s County director of tourism.

From its outset, one of Major League Fishing’s goals has been to “give back” to host communities by offering a production that highlights focal points at the event sites. But in Florida, a highly significant second tier of "giving back" is taking place. According to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officials, Major League Fishing – with its catch-and-immediate-release approach to competition and its web-based instant scoring system - took an important step toward “changing the landscape of competitive fishing” in Florida.

“It won’t be an easy sell, and it might take a few years, but Major League Fishing implements ideas that are good for our fisheries and, I think, good for tournament fishing. Clubs around our state have now seen the Major League Fishing guys doing something new and different that works,” said Allen Martin, a regional fisheries administrator for FWC.

“And we could do ‘e-tournaments’ here. We could have catch-and-release tournaments and we believe the day is coming when tournaments will utilize the MLF format. That's a worthy goal. And we have certainly seen how it works flawlessly with Major League Fishing.”

Bill Pouter, who also is a regional administrator, was one involved in some of the preparation of the Istokpoga event and attended several days of competition. Like Martin, he said he has seen an attitude change with many Florida anglers.

“I’ve got to tell you, we got really good feedback about Major League Fishing. People were excited, and the whole process was good. When I watched the competition, I couldn’t help but believe that seeing anglers getting penalties for mishandling fish sent the right message,” Pouter said.

“The other thing that came out of this is that we work with a large group of stakeholders. Some of the people down here, all they seem to want to do is complain about anglers on Istokpoga. They don’t like that they’re out there catching the fish. But they went from an anti-fishing tournament stance to saying, ‘You know, this (MLF) is really good.”

Pouter agreed with Martin that changing the mindset of bass clubs in Florida won’t be a quick sell. But he holds hope that Major League Fishing is setting the bar for the future.

“I think the Major League Fishing model has got some legs. It’s hard to change the way people think. These guys are wrapped up in bringing in the fish and showing them off at a weigh-in, and that’s understandable,” Pouter said.

“But it’s the pros that will have to help us change the mindset. The biggest hurdle we have is the money (involved in local tournaments). If we do an immediate catch-and-release, people will need to feel comfortable that other people won’t cheat.”

Tom Champeau, director of the FWC’s Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management, recently wrote a note to Major League Fishing’s staff. Champeau said the following: “Your format is outstanding, with the live leader board affecting the anglers with true emotion and drama. … I especially commend your high regard for fish health and boater safety. Seeing an angler get a four-minute penalty for forgetting to fasten their PFD buckle may have saved some lives.”

Champeau added: “The carpet penalty, below-the-gunnel release requirement, and quick weighing process using the gripper conveyed a very strong conservation message that I hope the entire industry notices. … Needless to say I think you guys are great and your format rocks!”

The Lake Istokpoga event fell on the heels of Major League Fishing’s filming of the 2013 General Tire Summit Cup, which took place on New York’s Chautauqua Lake.

Craig Robbins, a regional tournament organizer and Chautauqua Lake guide, served as a coordinator for the event. Robbins said that the reaction to Major League Fishing’s production and, specifically, its competition format have been almost overwhelming.

Robbins said the reaction around Chautauqua has been similar to what occurred in Florida.“I believe the Major League Fishing format is the future of not only bass fishing tournaments but of all fishing tournaments,” Robbins said.

“I’ve gotten feedback from the local bass club and from visiting anglers. And every piece of feedback I’ve gotten has been overwhelming in favor of the format. The on-the-water weigh-ins are outstanding. MLF is changing the way people think.”

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