MLF pro Jeff Sprague will return to Table Rock Lake as the leader in the Bass Pro Tour Points Race. Photo by Garrick Dixon

BRANSON, Mo. – Table Rock Lake, you were so good, let’s do it again.

All the while that the MLF Bass Pro Tour field was shattering catch records and showing off the astoundingly productive bass fishery at Table Rock Lake during the recent Stage Six event in Branson, Mo., MLF managers were keeping their eyes on a body of water 120 miles to the west: Grand Lake, Oklahoma, site of Stage Seven.

In the weeks prior to Stage Six, spring storms had pushed the water levels of Grand out of its banks, and as another series of storms brought tornadoes and deluges of rain through Oklahoma the past several days, it became apparent that Grand would not be fishable for the May 31-June 5 competition dates. So even as Aaron Martens was putting the finishing touches on his win on Wednesday, MLF leadership was in conference between Missouri and Oklahoma, weighing factors that ranged from safety to Internet connectivity.

After exploring multiple other options – including postponing the event until mid-July, or moving it to another lake – the answer was literally right in front of MLF’s face: Table Rock Lake.

As announced Thursday, the 80-angler Bass Pro Tour field will return to the Ozark Mountains in a week to begin practice for the new Stage Seven: Table Rock Lake, Part 2. All of the league- and season-related factors that would’ve come in to play on Grand Lake – the race for REDCREST qualification, the competition for the Points Champioship, etc. – will be in play at Table Rock, but with a few twists.

“We want to go to Grand Lake, and I promise you we WILL go there, but they have a very bad situation that’s gotten much bigger than bass fishing,” said MLF co-founder Boyd Duckett. “Out of respect for the problems they have right now in Grove, Oklahoma, we don’t need to be trying to hold a bass tournament there. If anything, we ought to all go help those people. We’re a sport, and they have some real-life challenges to deal with. We have thoughts and prayers for Grove, Oklahoma.”

Working Toward a Solution

Duckett was one of the members of the MLF executive-management team that spent the better part of three days – the final Elimination Round, Knockout Round and Championship Round on Table Rock – working the phones between Branson, Grove, and the MLF home office in Tulsa, monitoring the escalating conditions on Grand Lake and searching for alternative plans for Stage Seven.

As reports came in from the Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA) that Grand was more than 21 feet above its target elevation for late May, with more rain coming, Duckett, MLF co-founder Gary Klein, MLF Executive Vice President and General Manager Don Rucks, MLF Senior Director of Operations Todd Walker and a handful of others sorted through the logistics of moving the event to another lake within drivable distance from Tulsa, or of postponing the competition.

Because of the Bass Pro Tour’s unique competition structure and media requirements, it quickly became apparent that a shift to another date, fishery and host city wasn’t feasible. Postponing the event to July would be problematic because of schedule conflicts for the 50- to 60-man roster of MLF officials, and simply moving to another lake was out of the question because of ramp space, Internet connectivity and infrastructure to host a major event of this scope (among other things).

“We heard all kinds of suggestions about where we could go – Lake Fork, the Tennessee River – but while those fisheries are fishing really good right now and would be fun places to have a bass tournament, they just wouldn’t work for our game and our product,” Duckett said. “It’s not just that we’re putting on a bass tournament – we’re bringing a live television show that demands a certain level of connectivity that we just couldn’t guarantee on such a short turn-around. That’s something we have to have in order for us to deliver the live product that our fans deserve. And because we were just at Table Rock, we know the fishing there is outstanding, and that we can showcase a live-stream product. It became the most obvious option for us.”

Aaron Martens and the Bass Pro Tour field will face different conditions when they return to Table Rock, including new competition times. Photo by Josh Gassmann

Different Hours, More MLF NOW! Coverage

One major adjustment to the Stage Seven competition was a change in the hours of competition. Instead of the usual 6:30 a.m. start time, the field will fish from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. the first five days, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the Championship Round. All three periods of daily competition will be shown live on the MLF NOW! live stream: Steven “Lurch” Scott and Rob Newell will host the “First Cast” commentary during Period 1, and the MLF broadcast crew (Chad McKee, JT Kenney, Marty Stone and Natalie Dillon) will pick up on-the-water coverage at the start of Period 2.

In all, MLF NOW! will provide over eight hours of daily live-streamed coverage daily (a total of nearly 50 hours of MLF NOW! content over six days, the most ever live-streamed during a bass-fishing competition).

“We have all the talent and people in place to pull off the undertaking of eight hours of live coverage for six days in a row,” said Randy White, MLF’s Vice President for Broadcast Production. “I’m excited about the idea of a full day of coverage and covering evening fishing. It’ll be a unique, completely new event with new challenges.”