Permitted use provided by: MajorLeagueFishing.com
When Jack Link's Major League Fishing brought the 2014 General Tire Summit Cup to the Thunder Bay region of northeastern Michigan, they did so with perhaps the most innovative fishing tournament format to ever hit the bass fishing world.
An audacious claim?
Perhaps. But not really when you consider the throngs of fishing fans tuning into Outdoor Channel each week, fans eager to see the latest round of MLF action as the pressure mounts and an on-the-water train-wreck threatens to occur while the pros battle each other.
With no previous intelligence or scouting; the presence of a real-time leaderboard in each boat; penalties after rules infractions; and the weighing of every single legal fish caught during a day's three periods, the on-the-water tension is high.
With that backdrop - and with two previous years of fine-tuned MLF events already in the books - MLF Commissioner Don Rucks and company came to Pure Michigan with an almost certain winning hand.
Sounds like the perfect time to mix things up a bit, right?
That's exactly what MLF has done in Alpena, introducing a couple of game-changing curveballs that the 24 pros traveling into the region had no idea about.
The first new wrinkle was that the anglers would have no inkling where they were fishing until the morning of their particular day to compete, literally not until they actually pulled up into the boat ramp parking lot.
“You'd think that you can pick something up from the first round that can help you even though we're on a different lake.”
The second wrinkle was that once a certain round had been completed on one lake, the next round would move on to another area water body.
So after three days of Elimination Round action on Hubbard Lake, the MLF game moves on to Long Lake, a new venue where two days of the Sudden Death Semifinal Round will occur.
Situated northwest of Alpena, Long Lake is a gorgeous 5,625-acre aquatic gem filled with smallmouth bass as it sits straddling the borders of Alpena County and Presque Isle County.
But its tranquil beauty is beguiling since it's also just another level for the pressure to get ratcheted up on the MLF anglers.
Long Lake: 5,625 acres, 7.5 miles long, 1.5 miles wide, 23 miles of shoreline
Will this new wrinkle in an already intense angling game cause someone's lid to blow?
Gonzalez, Louisiana, pro Greg Hackney hopes not.
"You'd think that you can pick something up from the first round that can help you even though we're on a different lake," said Hack Attack in an interview just a few moments before the first day of Sudden Death began on Long Lake.
"I mean we're 20 miles, 30 miles, whatever from the first lake, so you'd think that realistically, they should have some similarities."
Jere Johnston, a 51-year-old Michigan man who has spent much of his life fishing the various waters around the Alpena area, agrees.
"Hubbard is one of the premiere smallmouth lakes in the area, but the others near Alpena, like Long Lake, are pretty good too," said Johnston.
It should be given the fact that the bottom is littered with rock piles, boulders, wood, grass and other forms of vegetation on the lake's shallow flats.
Notice something different in that description as compared to Hubbard?
That's right; there's no mention above of deep ledges and humps. While there are some of those features on Long, they are simply more limited than on Hubbard.
Another difference between Hubbard and Long is the forage base. While there are crawfish in the lake, the lake bottom doesn't literally "crawl" as it does on nearby Hubbard.
But there is plenty of baitfish in the lake for bass to chew. Much like Hubbard, Long Lake harbors good numbers of small yellow perch, bluegill, crappie, small fingerling walleye and green shiners that make up the bulk of the lake’s menu.
A final difference between Hubbard and Long is that the former might be a better producer of quality fish while the latter might be a better quantity producer.
"Long has some quality fish in it for sure," said Johnston, who grew up in the Alpena area and returns to hunt and fish with friends every chance he gets. "But it may be a better numbers lake."
What kind of lures does the current Shelbyville, Mich., resident think will be important at Long Lake?
His list of preferred lures includes a crawdad imitating Sweet Beaver, a Nichols spinnerbait in several colors, a Strike King jerkbait or crankbait, an Xtreme tube, a Wacky rig and topwaters ranging from a Pop-R to a walk-the-dog bait like a Zara Spook.
What colors does Johnston choose?
"I tend to stay with the natural green and brown shades that match the crawdads and yellow perch," he said. "But I also like to throw a white or a white/chartreuse spinnerbait with colored blades that mimic some of the other baitfish in the lake."
If the wind gets up during the day at Long, Johnston thinks that spinnerbaits will become very important for the MLF pros. Especially once they key in on several variables that will help them figure out the bite.
"I think the key thing that you've got to do with a spinnerbait is you've got to find out what direction does the fish want to see it from," said Johnston.
"Are you going to fish it towards the deep water? Are you going to fish it towards the shallow water? And (what's) the wind direction, which way do they want it thrown - into the wind or maybe downwind and brought up to them."
“They have enough room to move around and when they get them figured out, it could be lights out.”
Johnston says that the MLF pros fishing Long might want to pay attention to the retrieve speed of their spinnerbaits and the bait's position in the water column.
"Smallmouths up here generally like to see spinnerbaits burned," said Johnston. "But I've also found that you can slow it down a bit and get it a couple of feet lower under the surface, maybe two and half or three feet."
Some days, the smallies at Long want it fast. Other days, they want it slow. But that first bite or two will tell an angler volumes about the mood that the lake's fish are in on a particular day."You've got to find out the retrieve speed they want," said Johnston. "Maybe one day they don't want it as fast. Other times, if it is a flat water day with just a little bit of ripple on top, I like (to fish it) fast and I want to burn it across the top of the water."
Another key for the pros competing here will be the real estate that they pull up to and choose to fish.
"I think location will be a key (for this event)," said Johnston. "I've got spots that have typically been loyal to me (in the past and they just aren't very productive right now).
"I think it's going to be (important) that somebody (finds a group of fish) and figures out how to trigger that bite."
Given the intimate knowledge and the years of experience that Johnston has on the lakes in and around Alpena, I asked him if this is a good area for the MLF format.
He smiled a really big Pure Michigan smile and nodded his head affirmatively.
"I think it's an excellent format for (these) lakes," said Johnston. "I think the guys will do well on (all) of them. They have enough room to move around and when they get them figured out, it could be lights out."
Which helps to explain why the 12 pros competing in Sudden Death are known around the country as some of the sport's best.
Because they are Major League Fishermen, competing in one of the sport's biggest pressure cookers.
All while the heat continues to get turned up a bit in the angling kitchen.
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