Chautauqua Institution Meets Major
League Fishing – And Vice-Versa
by Randy Coleman
Bill Clinton was the last president to speak here, but there have been many. In fact, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his famous “I Hate War” speech from the 5,000-seat amphitheater that sits near the center of this picturesque campus. It’s a place where religious leaders, philosophers, business trend-setters and politicians from both sides of the ideological spectrum are featured. Thomas Edison actually had a getaway cabin here.
This is Chautauqua Institution. Founded in 1874, its campus covers 750 acres of rolling hills on the northern banks of Western New York’s Chautauqua Lake. Victorian architecture, manicured green space, quaint brick streets and a strikingly beautiful lake shoreline are among attractions that adorn the campus. Walkers and bicyclists are more common - and more welcome – than automobiles. It’s that kind of place: a welcome change of pace, seemingly a step back in time.
But it’s also a step forward, in many respects. Chautauqua Institution’s ongoing mission is to keep its four founding pillars– art, education, religion and recreation – as part of America’s walk into the future. For the past century-plus, Chautauqua Institution has hosted a summer “season” that highlights lectures, classes and concerts, now including issue-themed weeks. More than 100,000 people annually take part in Chautauqua’s offerings. And speaking of concerts, the 2012 lineup included a host of symphonies, chamber orchestras and classical vocalists. But… the Four Tops, Vince Gill, American Idol winner Scotty McCreedy, the Lettermen, K.D. Lang and Roger Hodgson of Supertramp were also on the summer 2012 bill.
Diversity is obviously a theme. As a result, there isn’t much in the way of American entertainment that Chautauqua Institution hasn’t hosted. But even long-time Chautauqua Institution officials admit that they’ve never seen anything quite like what descended on their hallowed grounds during a filming that took place in late August.
New to the Chautauqua calendar: Major League Fishing.
“I have to admit, this is new and really different for us,” said Chautauqua Institution Marketing Director George Murphy. “And we like it.”
On Wednesday afternoon, mid-week during the competition Major League Fishing brought to Chautauqua, Murphy stood on the banks of the lake, in front of the landmark 130-year-old Athenaeum Hotel, and watched Outdoor Channel producer Tom Dooley direct a series of maneuvers made by a remote-camera helicopter. The gadget was taking airborne shots of Major League Fishing’s 24 all-star anglers, video to be used during opening sequences of the 2013 General Tire Summit Cup television broadcasts.
As the tiny helicopter buzzed five feet above and then past the anglers heads, Murphy remarked, “That’s about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Choosing Chautauqua Lake
Major League Fishing wound up on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution through a chain of events that started in early spring 2012 when league officials began site selection discussions with Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Tranum. Major League Fishing’s late summer filming of the Summit Cup was to take place starting August 27, the week after completion of the B.A.S.S. Elite Series season-ending event at Oneida.
The league was looking for a great fishing venue within a day’s drive of Syracuse, New York, and Oneida Lake. Tranum, from his first conversation with Major League Fishing officials, encouraged the league to film on Chautauqua Lake.
“I was out of town when I had the first conversation about Major League Fishing coming to Chautauqua County. But I made the pitch for MLF to come here, and I admit I walked out on a limb and made some commitments, because from the beginning I was confident our team here in Chautauqua County could do what we needed to do to host Major League Fishing,” stated Tranum.
“We’ve got a solid team here, with the Chamber, the Visitors Bureau, great businesses and a lot of good volunteers. I figured everybody would step up, and they certainly did.”
And Major League Fishing certainly liked Chautauqua. The lake is known as a tremendous bass fishery, its size (13,000 acres) was considered appropriate for the league’s format, and Chautauqua’s Western New York location would provide the sought-after easy drive from Oneida. Choosing Chautauqua Lake would also allow Major League Fishing to hold off announcing the venue to the anglers until Friday evening, two days before they would need to report to the site.
The site also would work well for angler Brent Ehrler, an FLW competitor who would be finishing a tournament on the Detroit River, a relatively close five-hour drive away.
So Chautauqua Lake was chosen. And the anglers knew nothing about their Major League Fishing destination until they were handed an information packet on Friday at Oneida. (Ehrler received word of the destination through a Friday e-mail.) Generally, the anglers said they had heard of Chautauqua, but most had never put a boat onto its waters until the morning their competition would start.
Angler Kelly Jordon said, “I think we were all excited about seeing Chautauqua and fishing there. It’s nice to go somewhere you’ve heard about but never fished.”
Tranum and two officials of the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau, Andrew Nixon and Craig Robbins, had rolled out the red carpet early for Outdoor Channel and Major League Fishing. The three saw Major League Fishing as an opportunity to promote Chautauqua County before a national audience.
Robbins, who also serves as a fishing guide on Chautauqua, was especially interested in showing off the fishery to the country.
“This is a great place to fish, and everyone in this part of the country knows about it. But I can’t wait to see what your anglers are going to do on the lake,” Robbins said.
Robbins, however, was also a realist. During the first meeting with Major League Fishing officials, he brought two concerns into the discussion.
“I’m worried about one thing,” Robbins said. “Our (2012) winter wasn’t as cold as we’re used to, and there’s a possibility that is going to affect how the lake will fish,” Robbins said. “There will be a window where the fishing is not as strong.
“There could also be an algae bloom. It happens every year and could be going on when your anglers are here. I hope not.”
Robbins was a prophet in regard to the algae, which was indeed in full effect when Major League Fishing arrived. The anglers, however, didn’t spend a lot of time fretting.
“You can tell this is a great venue, and an algae bloom is just a part of fishing this time of year in New York. You just take the conditions, and deal with them,” said angler Gary Klein.
“I guarantee you these guys will find a way to catch fish. It might mean more dock fishing than normal. But if that’s where the fish are, that’s where our guys will go. To be honest, I think this will make some interesting television, because now people will see how these guys overcome an obstacle.”
A first look at Chautauqua Institution
Shortly after the initial discussions between Chautauqua County and Major League Fishing, the league’s advance team, which included production director Randy White, visited Chautauqua County. Tranum, Nixon and Robbins escorted the MLF team around the lake, offering various access points, potential filming locations and site possibilities for an outdoor studio set.
Tranum had one request. Before any final decisions were made, would the Major League Fishing crew mind taking a look at Chautauqua Institution? Tranum said it would benefit the county if Major League Fishing chose to incorporate Chautauqua Institution into the broadcast in some form. Tranum put it this way.
“We have been making a concerted effort to brand Chautauqua County as the ‘World’s Learning Center.’ We’ve got initiatives and learning opportunities all over the county. But since you’re looking at Chautauqua Lake, we have a tremendous, active, world-class resource in Chautauqua Institution. In fact, there are few, if any, places in the world like Chautauqua Institution,” Tranum said.
“And you need to see it.”
So after viewing a handful of other satisfactory set locations, the Major League Fishing team was given its first look at Chautauqua Institution. The advance crew drove onto the property, winding first through some of the Institution’s residential sections, then along the lakeshore, past recreational fields and tennis courts, before ending up at a “sailing center” on the southern edge of the property.
White spent roughly 15 minutes walking the length and angles of a grassy area adjacent to the sailing center, then took a long gaze north, where the iconic bell tower was in direct view. He offered a quick yet thorough assessment.
“This is really good,” White said. “This will work.”
So Major League Fishing and historic Chautauqua Institution on that day begin their brief but interesting journey together.
What is this place? Who are those people?
To say that Chautauqua Institution and Major League Fishing are an odd mix is no doubt true. Major League Fishing scheduled its filming the week after Chautauqua Institution wrapped up its summer season, but a significant crowd of visitors was still on campus when the production trucks began rolling onto the campus. Following the production trucks, the anglers started rolling in … with their really big trucks. Then the boats arrived.
In subsequent days, more than a few Chautauqua Institution residents and visitors looked curiously at Major League Fishing’s outdoor studio and its anglers, with their NASCAR-reminiscent jerseys and their glitzy Nitro and BassCat boats. At the same time, however, several Major League Fishing anglers were commenting on the quiet beauty of the campus, the walkers, the bikers and the century-old buildings - and they asked two basic questions: Just what is it that goes on here? And how did we wind up here?
As the Major League Fishing’s week at Chautauqua wore on, the two groups – Chautauqua Institution and Major League Fishing – seemed to develop a comfort level with each other.
“I didn’t know anything about Chautauqua Institution until I got here. When I first saw it, I didn’t know what to think. It’s beautiful, and it’s obvious it is established and has a lot of history, but I didn’t know what that history was. And as the week has worn on, I’ve learned more about the place and come to appreciate what they do here. As I understand it, they don’t have a straight religious or political agenda. They bring in people with different ideas, and they let people think,” Major League Fishing angler Boyd Duckett said one afternoon while sitting on the dock outside the sailing center.
“We just learned we would be here on Friday before we got here on Sunday,” Duckett said. “I didn’t know what to expect – but this wasn’t it.”
The bond that formed between Chautauqua Institution and Major League Fishing was evident during a news conference on Wednesday afternoon at the Athenaeum Hotel that attracted television and print reporters representing media outlets in Jamestown and Buffalo, New York, and Erie, Pa. The reporters met with Chautauqua Institution and Chautauqua County officials, New York Assemblyman Andy Goodell, Major League Fishing Commissioner Don Rucks and anglers Gary Klein, Tim Horton and Shaw Grigsby.
Rucks, speaking on behalf of Major League Fishing, said, “Being southern born and raised in Oklahoma, I was not aware of Chautauqua Institution. But when I arrived it was a great surprise to find this wonderful place that just oozes with character and charm. There’s a hundred-plus years of history here, and Chautauqua Institution has molded a unique culture that everyone should have the opportunity to experience. This is a unique and terrific venue for Major League Fishing.”
Klein praised the local hospitality, Grigsby bragged about the beauty of the lake, and Horton recognized Chautauqua County’s claim as being the “world’s learning center.”
“From what we’ve seen, that is certainly an appropriate title,” Horton said. “We hope we can be part of the teaching experience as well, with what we do.”
Major League Fishing General Manager Jim Wilburn raved about the “ambience” of Chautauqua Institution and especially the Athenaeum Hotel, where he entertained close to two dozen Major League Fishing sponsors.
“When I heard we were taking our MLF event to Chautauqua, I had to Google it to find it on the map,” Wilburn said. “But I had spent years televising horse racing from Saratoga Springs, New York, and Chautauqua reminded me of that. In my mind, it’s a special charm that only Saratoga, and now Chautauqua, can bring. I can tell you it was a beautiful setting for entertaining our sponsors, and every one of them loved it.”
Murphy, Chautauqua Institution’s marketing director, pointed out that although professional fishing television production is not a typical summer offering, many of Chautauqua Institution’s residents and visitors know how to catch a Chautauqua fish.
“I mean, we are on a great fishing and sailing lake,” Murphy said. “And recreation is one of our pillars.”
Shortly after the news conference, Murphy got a first-hand look at Major League Fishing as he hopped into a boat with an angler that had been eliminated from competition a day earlier. The angler escorted Murphy into that day’s competition zone and described what the anglers were doing.
“He (Murphy) seemed really fascinated. We were about a hundred yards away from the action, but I tried to give him a feel for how the anglers were fishing and the emotions that they were dealing with,” the angler said. “He told me it was totally different than he expected. He couldn’t believe the pace.”
Murphy echoed the angler’s description.
“Everyone was moving, and they were moving fast. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t stop the boat and fish for a while. They would go to a spot, and it would seem like they would work it for a minute or two, and then they would blast off and go somewhere else,” Murphy said.
“I really couldn’t get over it. I never realized they worked that hard.”
As the week came to an end, Major League Fishing television analyst Marty Stone offered an interesting perspective about the merging of Chautauqua Institution’s and pro fishing’s cultures. Stone, a lifelong southerner who lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina, recognized cultural differences but said the divide is not as wide as some might expect.
“Chautauqua Institution has hospitality, almost a southern-style hospitality, and it has charm. It also has intellectual tradition. It is rural New York, and I’ve always found rural New York to be a wonderful, comfortable place,” Stone said.
“But you’ve got to understand that we, on the other hand, also have intellectual tradition about what we do. You’ve got to be smart to be at the top level in our sport. And pro anglers are also really accessible people, too. So everybody got an opportunity to learn something. In fact, I thought our folks did a good job of educating the people of Chautauqua County on what our world is like,” Stone said.
“So it was really interesting to watch our two cultures come together and not only coexist – but complement each other.”