CHINA — The biggest names in fishing, and the roughly 100-person-strong television production team that follows their every move and later broadcasts the action on national cable and network television, plied the waters of central Maine for bass over the last several days.
“Major League Fishing” brought 30 of the nation’s elite competitive anglers to the area to fish Long Pond, Great Pond, Messalonskee Lake and China Lake. However, in the league’s unique format, none of the anglers knew what bodies of water they were fishing until the morning of each day, so they wouldn’t have time to research the best places to fish.
The several days of competition were recorded by television crews for broadcast that will begin in January, when they will make up the next season of “Major League Fishing,” a program broadcast on the Outdoor Channel cable station. The championships probably will be shown on network television, as the previous two championships were shown on CBS, officials said.
Augusta resident Corey Vose, himself a professional fisherman and an organizer of an unrelated bass fishing series in the region, said the anglers, who stayed in a Waterville hotel during their week or so of fishing and filming, are the best of the best, an invitation-only group culled from the nation’s elite fishing tournaments.
“They’re the Tom Bradys of the fishing world,” Vose said. “They are the elite anglers and they’re here fishing on our waters, which has never happened before.”
Vose said he heard that one of the fishermen, Aaron Martens of Alabama, caught more than 100 fish while competing on Long Pond.
Martens reeled in a couple of bass Saturday morning off the tip of an island on China Lake while a cameraman in the back of the boat stood on a cooler, a large video camera on his shoulder, recording the action. Joining Martens and the cameraman in the boat was an official wearing a shirt with sleeves striped in black and white like a referee’s. As soon as the fish were reeled in and taken off the hook, the official weighed them and added those weights to Martens’ total catch for the day on an iPad equipped with the Scoretracker Live system, which tracks and shares each competitor’s fish as it is caught and weighed.
Randy Coleman, of West Virginia, communications director for “Major League Fishing,” which is owned by the anglers themselves and the Outdoor Channel, said the instant return of caught fish to the water and the nearly instantaneous sharing of each angler’s catch information with the other anglers are part of what makes the competition different from other major fishing competitions.
Marty Stone, of North Carolina, an on-air analyst for the television series who retired after 23 years of professional fishing, said the group has found the fishing in central Maine to be “very, very good,” and said when anglers across the country see the shows shot in Maine, many of them will want to come fish in the area themselves.
“I’m putting it on my bucket list, to come back here with my family,” Stone said with a Southern twang. “Y’all have done a nice job of keeping your fishery pristine. You’re going to get a lot of people with accents like mine when guys see this on TV.”
That’s just what Kim Lindlof, president and CEO of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, said she and other chamber leaders hope for, and why they agreed to help bring the event here by investing up to $10,000 of chamber money.
Lindlof said the chamber is providing the group with meals and other amenities; it helped secure hundreds of hotel rooms at Best Western Plus in Waterville for the anglers, event organizers and production crews; and it assisted in getting the groups’ many boats, which are all provided by the league and are all equipped equally, registered to operate in Maine waters.
“We chose to invest in helping bring ‘Major League Fishing’ here for the national exposure it will provide, in an upscale way,” Lindlof said Saturday morning as wind whipped up waves on the north end of China Lake. “To show the rest of the country what a beautiful region we have here.”
Lindlof said the series broadcast will include a two-minute segment highlighting the region. She said the segment shot in the Waterville area was hosted by “Sasquatch,” a character used in series sponsor Jack Link’s Beef Jerky’s television commercials.
Don Rucks, commissioner of the 4-year-old Oklahoma-based league, said they came to Maine because their research showed there were good bodies of water to fish for bass, many of which were largely unknown to the professional anglers, and because the anglers were in the northern part of the country for other fishing tournaments and thus able to compete in between other major events.
He said the Mainers they’ve worked with and encountered on the trip have been great people, and the fishing has been excellent.
He described the anglers as at the same level as Sprint Cup drivers who compete at the highest level of NASCAR racing.
Coleman said the league and its unique format were formed with the goal of making fishing a more popular spectator sport.
The officials in each boat watch for rules violations by anglers, who can be penalized by having to sit, and not fish or even move their boats other than to keep them in safe waters, for a period of time. Rules include not allowing the fish to touch the inside of the boat, or anglers’ bodies other than their hands, and a requirement that the fish be immediately, and gently, released back into the water after their weight is recorded.
“If they’re penalized, they have to sit and do nothing, which these guys find almost as bad as death,” Coleman said.
Jeff Philips, of Oklahoma, photographer and editor for “Major League Fishing” and content manager for www.outdoorchannel.com, said the footage shot in Maine over the week will be used in seven episodes of the series, with each day making up a show.
Coleman estimated that between the cable and network broadcasts and repeats of the episodes, some 4.5 million viewers will see the programs. Footage is also viewable at www.majorleaguefishing.com.
Most of the professional anglers’ boats had one or two spectator boats nearby Saturday, as word spread among local anglers and fans that some of the country’s elite fishermen were in the area.
New Jersey angler Mike Iaconelli fished off another China Lake island Saturday morning, deftly launching his lure toward the shoreline with his fishing rod while a cameraman and official looked on.
The action also is recorded by GoPro cameras mounted on officials, fishermen and boats.
Jeff Rhoton, who is in charge of social media for the league, said the small cameras allow for unique angles as fish are hauled in, weighed and released.
Vose had heard the league was in the area Friday, so he took his son Caleb, 9, and daughter Abby, 6, to Long Pond to meet some of the pros.
“When we were pulling in, Caleb saw Mike Iaconelli and screamed “Iaconelli, Iaconelli!” Vose said.
Iaconelli then invited both children to board his boat and gave each of them a signed rod.
Vose said Caleb is a huge fan, and the family records show episodes regularly.
Vose, who oversees the Maine Man vs. Bass Trail competition, which hosts five tournaments in central Maine and has its championship event Oct. 18 on Messalonskee Lake, said the “Major League Fishing” event should be good for the area’s economy. He estimated the financial impact of the anglers and crews following them for the week at $150,000. Plus, he noted, people who see the show also might decide to come to central Maine to check out its fishing for themselves.
Many locals involved with the event had to sign nondisclosure agreements to protect its secrecy. Coleman said he was stunned at how many people in Maine know the anglers, who include Kevin VanDam of Michigan, whom Coleman described as one of the world’s best-known anglers and whose website says he is the biggest money-winner in the Bassmaster Tournament series, earning more than $5 million in fishing prize money. The event’s secrecy is meant to provide a more level playing field.
“They don’t get to practice. They don’t get a chance to talk to locals. They don’t even know where they’re fishing until that morning,” Coleman said. “It’s the purest form of competition you have. You find out who are the real pure anglers.”