The CatMasters Tennessee River Challenge — Live Stream Catfishing
by Ron Presley
The CatMasters Major League Tour Tennessee River Challenge invited several anglers to be part of an exhibition tournament to help develop and introduce this new format to catfish tournaments.
Most anglers are familiar with a televised form of bass fishing that features one angler fishing for a specified period of time while being videoed and monitored by a cameraman/marshal as the second person in the boat. This is the basic idea that the CatMasters crew is working with as they develop the CatMasters Major League Tour (MLT).
This format adds the excitement of real-time catfishing action to what previously occurred at the weigh-in. The marshals’ job is to weigh, record, and assist with the release of all fish over 5 pounds. In the interest of catfish conservation, a penalty of 5 pounds was applied to any dropped fish. The winner is determined by the total weight of all catfish over 5 pounds counting toward the final weight.
Instead of waiting for the scales at a designated time, fish are weighed and recorded in real-time and returned to the water. Weights are reported and all the competitors know where they stand in relation to the others at any point in time. The marshals also communicate with a command post where the real-time leader board is shared with the public.
At the recent Tennessee River Challenge, the command center was set up at the Catfish Conference in Louisville while the competition took place on Wilson, Wheeler, and Guntersville Lakes in Alabama.
Ty Nall and Spud Barton carried out the emcee duties on the live stream as they checked in with various anglers during the day to let viewers know what was happening on the water. As visitors walked by the CatMasters booth at CatCon they could see the live fishing on screens in the back of the booth. Many stopped to cheer on the anglers.
A similar exhibition was held back in November on Lake Texoma. Aaron Churchwell was among the 10 anglers that participated back then. Following that first test of the MLT format, he expressed his pleasure for the new format in the sport of catfishing.
“I love that Bryan and the Catmaster crew are venturing out and trying new things,” stated Churchwell following the November event. “I think it’s an awesome concept and another way to expand our sport. It’s going to test anglers and make them think outside the box. Now we have to implement strategy into our plan. You have to decide, do you go catch a ton of small fish or go catch a few big fish?”
In the case of the recent Tennessee River Challenge, 11 anglers competed. In alphabetical order, they included Josh Brown, Jason Clark, Aaron Churchwell, Adam Cook, Ray Ferguson, Stacey Gaston, J. R. Hall, Terry Haraway, Doc Lange, Chad Mayfield, and Chris Wallace. All the teams produced fish in the tournament. The top three anglers all chose to chase numbers as opposed to targeting big fish only.
First Place—Josh Brown
The top spot in the Tennessee River Challenge went to Josh Brown. Viewers of the live stream were able to track his success throughout the day on Facebook Live. At one point in the competition Brown trailed J.R. Hall who had taken the early lead but as the day went on the victory went to Brown. He fished Lake Guntersville.
Brown boated, weighed, and reported 8 fish during the day to reach his winning weight of 239.73 pounds. The MLT is solo fishing and an 8-fish bag truly demonstrates the physical nature of the format. There is no partner to help with the various components of fishing.
“I think my key for the day was staying on the move,” said Brown following the tournament. “I anchor fished all day but would only sit on a spot for 30 minutes max. Each spot I would only catch 1 or 2 fish.”
Brown strategized that the MLT was a numbers game instead of looking for big fish which he usually does. He scanned with his Humminbird Apex for numbers of fish that he thought were in the 20- to 40-pound range. At the same time, he chose areas where he thought there may be a bigger fish in there that he couldn’t see.
“I stayed in areas where I knew I could catch 20 to 40-pound fish quickly,” explained Brown. “It’s a completely different concept compared to the normal tournament. In the MLT every single fish counts. I stayed on structure piles the whole day.”
As a catfish guide (Backwoods Catfishing Guide Service) Brown is used to doing all the work including netting big fish for a customer. But as he recognized in the tournament, netting your own fish adds another level of physical stress to the effort.
“The hardest part about fishing solo is netting the fish by yourself,” confessed Brown. “Being a guide, I’m used to doing everything else alone but landing them solo is a different animal. That was especially true with the 42-pound flathead I caught on tournament day.”
Another component of MLT is having a marshal on board. The marshals verify the weights and communicate with the land-based officials who in turn broadcast updates to catfish fans in a live stream production. The marshal also keeps the angler informed of his standing in relation to the other anglers.
“My wife was my marshal so it went great,” recalled Brown. “We worked well together and she knows me better than anyone.”
Brown enjoyed fishing the format of the MLT tournament and had a couple of suggestions for future events.
“I loved the format of the tournament,” concluded Brown. “It’s high-paced and very competitive since you know exactly how everyone else is doing. The only thing I would like to see done would be giving everyone the same certified scales to use and maybe a tournament on the national level just like this one was. Competing with everyone from all over America sounds like a blast!”
Brown thanked his sponsors for their support. They include Catch The Fever, Monster Rod Holders, Dales Tackle, Slime Line Fishing Line, River Rats Reel Repair, Guntersville Bait Company, Big Cat Fever Rod Series, Spread Em Planer Boards, and Dirty South Dragging Weights.
Second Place—J.R. Hall
The runner-up spot went to J.R. Hall (Blacksheep Catfishing Guide Service LLC). He too believed the better gamble would be to treat the MLT as a numbers game instead of waiting for that 1 big bite. He gathered bait on Friday morning and spent the rest of the day locating fish. By the end of the tournament, he had earned the 2nd place spot with 7 fish. His 206.64-pound bag included the big fish of the tournament at 52 pounds. He fished Wheeler Lake.
“The area I ended up fishing I had prefished just a little bit,” recalled Hall. “It produced 3 takedowns and a 40-pound cat in a short time. Saturday morning came and I initially started where I thought I could get multiple 15- to 20-pound fish.”
When 7 am and “lines in the water” came, he was marking fish on the graph but could not get them to bite.
“After an hour and a half I changed strategy,” explained Hall. “I decided I was going to have to spot-hop. I would give each spot 15 or 20 minutes and just grind it out. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd spots paid off in the first 5 minutes. I had 2 20s and the big fish of the day being a 52-pounder.”
After seeing what each spot was producing he just kept grinding it out. With time running out Hall found himself trailing Brown by about 30 pounds. He was hooked up on the live feed with a crowd watching from the Catfish Conference where Ty Nall and Spud Barton were broadcasting the tournament.
“With 2 minutes left I had a fish start peeling off on a takedown,” remembered Hall. “As I reeled down, I felt the fish come unbuttoned and knew that was my last chance.”
“In the end, I had a blast,” concluded Hall. “It was definitely a different format than what most are accustomed to. It is very physically demanding to fish by yourself with no assistance in setting up, reeling up rods, or netting fish. The physically demanding part I think puts some guys at a disadvantage. However, I would gladly fish that style event again if given the chance.”
Given his experience in the solo format, Hall suggested considering 2-men teams with the judge/marshal/cameraman as a 3rd person on the boat.
“In my opinion, 2-man teams would be safer for the angler and the fish,” proposed Hall.
Hall thanked his sponsors for their support. They include Monster Rod Holders, Spread Em Planer Boards, Big Cat Fever Rod Series, Slime Line, Outta Line Rod Racks, Dirty South Dragging Weights, and River Rat Reel Repair.
Third Place—Aaron Churchwell
The third-place spot went to Aaron Churchwell. He weighed 5 fish for a total weight of 99.74 pounds to earn third place. Although he changed his location strategy on the run, he too believed it would be a numbers game to keep up with seasoned anglers like those competing in the MLT. He fished Wheeler Lake.
“I had planned on dragging mid-lake,” noted Churchwell. “But when I came out of Ingalls Harbor I noticed all the bait had pushed back out to the channel ledge. This suggested a quick change of plans, and I decided to fish structure on the ledge below Decatur.”
He caught his first fish 7 minutes into the tournament. Then, as he changed to his second spot he noticed that the bites were coming quickly after he set up so he limited the time he spent on any spot.
“It didn’t take long to know that it was going to be a run and gun day,” explained Churchwell. “I knew going in that if I was going to keep up with J.R. and Josh I had to continue to catch fish regardless of size. Those guys can flat-out catch them. I mean that’s how they make their living. So that was my mindset going into it. Keep baits in the water and keep getting bites.”
All was going well until about 10 am when the wind increased and changed conditions. The worsening wind forced Churchwell to make a move up the river.
“I just couldn’t get back on the bite up there,” recalled Churchwell. “I honestly think that I could have at least kept up with the leaders had the wind not picked up.”
The solo format also requires anglers to fish and think differently than when they fish with a partner. They are also thinking about keeping cell service so they can report catches and join the live stream. That factor alone limits the areas available to fish.
“That morning I was only fishing with 6 rods,” Churchwell said. “I didn’t start using 8 until the bite slowed down. It was the same at Texoma last November. I normally drag with 150 plus feet of line out behind my planer boards. After reeling in 8 rods by yourself that changed real quick. That’s a lot of work for one person. It burns you down quickly.”
He also pointed out that in a normal tournament, he’s just looking for 3 bites on the day.
“I’m ok with not catching a fish for a couple of hours,” confirmed Churchwell. “I will be scanning a lot between fish to find the right one. Under this format, it’s not viable to chase just one bite.”
Overall Churchwell was pleased with CatMasters Major League Tour format and vowed to fish it again in the future.
“I love this new format,” concluded Churchwell. “I love the interaction with the Catmasters crew and actually getting to explain what goes into your decisions and your process. I think this is an awesome venue to help grow the sport and grow the audience. I can’t wait for the Catmasters to get their first MLT schedule out.”
Churchwell thanked his sponsors for their support. They include Meat Hunter Rods, RIGRAP, Dales Tackle, Parks Planers, SmackDown Catfishing, ROCK CREEK LLC, FUZION Custom Apparel, Hennessey Outdoor Electronics, Katfish, Livingston Lures, and RS Nets USA.
Following the initial MLT pilot on Texoma last November, Tournament Director Bryan St Ama hinted at what the future might bring for CatMaster Tournaments as organizers develop the MLT concept further. “This new tournament format will be something to look forward to in the near future!”
With the Tennessee River Challenge in the books, St Ama confirmed what many anglers were hoping for.
“The MLT concept will be our new format moving forward.”
The next Catmasters Tournament will be in March at Toledo Bend. It is the year-ending Classic where the Points Race will be decided. It is a regular team event and will mark the last weigh-in tournament for the CatMaster circuit.
To keep up with the CatMasters Major League Tour visit their website and like them on Facebook.