PREVIEW: 2018 Challenge Cup, The Mystery Returns

By Rob Newell - May 7, 2018

Border towns can be mysterious places, which is why Major League Fishing’s visit to the border towns of Natchez, Miss., and Vidalia, La., along the Mississippi River is a perfect location to instill mystery back into the MLF Challenge Cup.

While the Mississippi River itself is not going to be included in the official fishery lineup for the Challenge Cup week, the Natchez-Vidalia area is surrounded by dozens of obscure lakes, rivers, oxbows, and bayous that offer plenty of untapped bass fishing.

“Obscure” and “untapped” are the words Major League Fishing likes to hear when it comes to discovering fisheries that none of 30 MLF Cup competitors have ever been to. While no practice and no information are certainly signature elements for MLF, throw in zero previous history from any of the competitors and the true embodiment of Major League Fishing is amped up.

That mysterious charge fills the air as 9 MLF Challenge Cup pros arrive at a concealed boat ramp located at the Black River-Cocodrie Lake complex for the first day of the Elimination Round and begin to absorb their whereabouts.

The Black River-Cocodrie Lake complex is made up of Black River Lake and Cocodrie Lake as well as Workinger Bayou, which connects the two lakes. Just to make things more interesting, the MLF Cup pros will be launching into Workinger Bayou, giving them the choice to go right into Black River Lake or left into Cocodrie Lake. This is unique because the two fisheries are quite different from each other.

At about 740 acres and five miles in length, Cocodrie is a typical Louisiana oxbow lake, with an average depth of 6 feet. It’s full of cypress trees and shallow cover. The oxbow is wide, flat and shallow and muddies easily from wind, which is forecasted to blow from the North at some 20 mph on day one.

On the contrary, Black River Lake is essentially a large bend in the Black River that was leveled off to create a lake. Black River Lake is about 1000 acres and is narrower and much deeper, with an average depth of 40 feet. Most of the bank is lined with residential docks. Many of those dock ends stick out over 15 to 20 feet of water. The water color in the Black, as the name suggests, is a dark, tannin color.

As pros begin to digest all this information about the lakes, it becomes apparent that no one has any idea where they are. The term “clean slate” is certainly appropriate here and the 10 pros fishing are pretty fired up about it. However, only six pros will advance from today’s competition and the other three will be shown the door.

“It looks like someone drew a noodle next to a horseshoe. This looks like something I’d draw trying to play Pictionary.”

Although this is new territory for the competitors, most are familiar with Louisiana fisheries and their unique bayou-esque features.  

In 2009 Skeet Reese won the Bassmaster Classic on the Red River near Shreveport, La., so he knows how bayou bass act. But as Skeet Reese scans his map and GPS of the Black River-Cocodrie Complex, he seems a bit surprised.

“Wow, this has sort of thrown me for a loop,” Reese said. “I was totally expecting just an oxbow lake this morning. I see we do have an oxbow lake over here, but I also see what looks to be a river on the other side and that is going to be the wild card. They always find a way to make it interesting and this is pretty interesting.”

 “I’m guessing the oxbow is a typical oxbow, with cypress trees and stuff and I like that,” he continued. “But at the same time, this river thing over here is really long – it looks like maybe 15 or 16 miles long. If I could get a pattern going in there, I’d have plenty of room to run it. And then there is this canal that connects the two. Wow, I’ve got a lot to think about in the next few minutes.”

Speaking of bayous, bass and cypress trees, young Jacob Wheeler has certainly reeled in some hefty prize money from such terrain over the years as well. Wheeler won the BFL All-American on Louisiana’s Cross Lake when he was just 20 years old. Then a few years later he finished second at the Forrest Wood Cup on the Red River. Plucking bass from swampy shallows is something he enjoys. On the first morning of the Challenge Cup, however, he was not resting on his Louisiana laurels.

“Two things I’m going to be mindful of during the ride around this morning: wind and vegetation,” Wheeler said. “We just had a cold front go through this part of the country, so it’s going to be pretty windy today. Wind usually means power fishing, so I’ll be looking to move and groove, cranking and pitching, looking for reaction bites. I’m sure there are some cypress trees somewhere in these lakes, but trees can be so random, it can be annoying. I’d really rather find vegetation. This time of year vegetation is usually at its peak and fish use it a lot, so I’ll be looking for any kind of duckweed, pads, hydrilla or hyacinth. I think vegetation patterns better than cypress trees in the fall.”

“As far as which lake I’m going to go to, I have no idea,” he continued. “And that’s going to be the tricky part. One of these lakes is probably better than the other, so picking the wrong one out of the gate could be costly.”

Several boats away, Jeff Kriet was laughing at his map.

“This thing does me no good at all,” he said in amazement holding up his map.

“Look!” he said with a grin. “It looks like someone drew a noodle next to a horseshoe. This looks like something I’d draw trying to play Pictionary.”

Like Wheeler, Kriet said he would be on the look out for vegetation first thing.

“This is a different part of the world when it comes to bass fishing,” he said. “There is usually plenty of cover everywhere. I’m sure there is a slew of cypress trees somewhere in here. But if you can find vegetation in these Louisiana bayous, it can usually be pretty special so that’s what I’ll be hunting.”

“One thing is for sure, though,” he added. “This is really pretty cool: none of us have ever been here before and we couldn’t get any information about this place. They’re just going to drop the green flag and we’re going to fish – that’s about as pure as it gets.”

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