UPCOMING EVENT: Costa FLW Series - 2019 - Santee Cooper

FISHING LEAGUE WORLDWIDE

Elite American Pros Take on the World

Elite American Pros Take on the World

It will take more than fancy footwork and artful “rope-a-dope” for a team of elite American anglers to KO 13 world teams at Africa’s newest Rumble in the Jungle. American pros will endure jabs and punches from a host of experienced worldwide competitors in their first ever bid for a world title. 

The XIII Black Bass World Championships, presented annually by the international sporting organization Confederation Internationale de Peche Sportive (CIPS), is hosted this year by the South Africa Bass Anglers Association (SABAA) on the Vaal River, South Africa, Oct. 2-8, with a celebrated team of top U.S. anglers making their tourney debut.

The highly decorated American team consists of big names in the world of competitive fishing: Scott Martin (team captain), Scott Canterbury, David Dudley, David Fritts, James Watson, Fred Roumbanis, Mark Rose and Lionel Botha. Collectively, the crack team holds multiple titles, including the Forrest Wood Cup, Bassmaster Classic and angler-of-the-year awards at various levels. The bid to showcase America’s best encapsulates years of planning.    

The push was spearheaded by a Wisconsin-based organization called U.S. Angling, a venture formed in 2014 that became sanctioned by CIPS to coordinate all facets of U.S.-involved global tournament fishing.

“A key turning point for developing USA Bass was when I was introduced to former FLW President and fishing hall-of-famer Charlie Evans in 2011,” says Tony Forte, founder and current vice president of U.S. Angling. “Evans became a U.S. Angling board member and insisted we recruit top anglers to represent the USA in the Black Bass World Championships. He coordinated team selection and approved it through the U.S. Angling board. The American squad agreed to represent USA and pay their own way.” 

 

Assessing the competition

The countries of Portugal, Spain, Mexico, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Swaziland, Russia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, South Africa and the United States will each field six-angler teams. Powerhouse countries include Portugal, last year’s World Championship team, followed closely by consistent top finishers Mexico, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The introduction of an elite U.S. team amplifies the level of competition, but cannot portend the future. Bass heroes flourish on the world stage. 

Justy Varkevisser, South African team captain, has attended six federation-level national championships in America, made 26 South Africa National Team appearances, won 17 southern Africa open tournaments and most recently qualified to fish the Costa FLW Series Championship in the U.S. Varkevisser, often considered the “KVD of Africa,” knows the river like few others and leads a squad of highly experienced anglers.

Acclaimed European anglers Joaquim Moio and João Grosso of Team Portugal have won numerous awards and titles since 2007, including Joaquim’s 2015 title as “Best European Angler.” Moio says the Portugal squad has no intention of forfeiting the crown.  

“This year, as well as in all the others, the spirit of the Portuguese team is for victory,” says Moio, who confidently lauds his team’s experience. Moio singled out Swaziland, Mexico and Russia as teams to watch.

“We don’t look for ‘chances.’ We work hard to understand the water and the fish,” says Sergey Titov, Russian team coach. “The American team is professional. They spend a lot of time on the water, and to beat them we must find something unusual.”

This, from a country where there are no bass. Determined Russian team members travel regularly to Europe and Mexico to hone skills.

 

The Vaal River

The Vaal River boasts a long history of great fishing. Largemouth bass were first imported to South Africa in 1928 and widely distributed throughout the 1930s. The Vaal River system became an early stronghold. During the late 1970s Florida bass were brought to Africa and stocked in the Vaal but failed to prosper, likely due to regionally cold winters.

The river flows through the Gauteng Province, about an hour south of Johannesburg in a region geographically known as the Highveld. The Vaal divides the northern Free State province from the old Transvaal amidst a sweeping, flat plateau of prairie grasslands more than 5,000 feet above sea level. Winter water temperatures can drop precipitously.

Local anglers find the Vaal a “fickle lady,” extremely technical and always challenging. The upper section of the 40-mile river remains well developed, with sweeping lawns, mansions, holiday houses and guest lodges. Fishing structure and cover include reeds, rock, river bends, willow trees and lots of jetties. The lower river remains largely undeveloped and lined with willow, gum and cottonwood trees. The average Vaal bass hovers around 2 pounds. Past tourney results tell the tale.

The first-ever FLW South Africa Championship tournament was held on the Vaal River in the mid-winter month of July. Top anglers from each Province converged on the river to qualify for a position at the Costa FLW Series Championship in the U.S. None of the teams managed a full bag of 15 fish for the three-day event, and the total winning weight was a mere 25.4 pounds. No doubt, a cold front with blustery, gale-force winds played a role.

 

Challenges awaiting the Americans

The Vaal River remains a popular tournament venue due to lodging, development and proximity to a major city. Many bass lakes in South Africa do not have the infrastructure to host a large tournament. As a result, contenders from all the African countries have spent long hours on the river, which may prove the greatest handicap for a professional U.S. team.

A host of other challenges will arise, beginning with boats. SABAA has been tasked with providing suitable and equal boats for all competitors. Bass boats of all makes and models, including high-end imported models, are rife throughout southern Africa, but the challenge for event organizers is to secure a few dozen high-performance rigs for tourney use.  

“The African teams will bring their own [boats], but we will need about 35 additional boats,” says Craig Fraser, SABAA president and host organizer. “I have confidence each of the boats will be top quality.”

Boats will possess a wide range of electronics, most of it top end, but not necessarily the same systems used by individual American pros. Interestingly, no commercially available river charts existed until early 2017 when the Fishtec Company of South Africa created HD charts for Lowrance.

John Easton, a South Africa-based Lowrance dealer and underwater HD cartographer, recently completed mapping the entire Vaal River recreation area. The contour charts include side-scan mosaic, bottom scan and more than 3,000 reference photos, available at the website fishtec.co.za.

“There is nothing else like it in the world. The amount of detail in the Lowrance mapping is incredible,” says John.

The challenge for American competitors is that Fishtec charts are the only game in town and compatible to only Lowrance.

Another challenge to face the U.S. team is a European scoring format, often called a “reverse grand prix.” Fourteen countries will be represented by six team members in three separate boats. Country teams are permitted two days of practice, preceding three days of official scoring. During the three scoring days, each boat – 42 of them – will weigh a bag of fish. The heaviest bag earns the No. 1 position and, subsequently, the lowest score of one point. The second place boat earns two points . . .  down the line. Daily and overall placement will be determined by the lowest aggregate score of the three boats representing each country. Unlike the American scoring system based on total bag weight, the reverse grand prix encourages teamwork, communication, strategy and coordination.

American anglers should not disregard issues related to jet lag. The fitful trans-Atlantic journey of 9,000 miles consumes a full 24 hours between flight connections, airport waits and long hours aloft. Once on the ground, the time difference between the East Coast of the U.S. and South Africa becomes a disruptive seven hours.

South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere where seasons are opposite. Pros will depart the chill of autumn to encounter oppressive heat. The team must not only acclimate to the weather but reverse fishing strategy to spawn tactics. Bass will likely be in all stages of the spawn when the tourney begins.

The Americans hold an ace in Team Manager Lionel Botha, a South Africa-born angler who knows the river as well as anyone. Lionel, a veteran of the FLW Tour and soon an American citizen, knows many secrets of the Vaal and will provide knowledgeable coaching.

Additionally, FLW pros are accustomed to fishing new lakes, detecting patterns and finding fish quickly. They possess the benefit of experience, use the most appropriate tackle and handle pressure well.

 

More at stake

The grand international event offers no cash award. At the end of the day, it is a patriotic test for the red, white and blue. Teams will be awarded gold, silver or bronze – Olympic style. The magnitude of this event has not been lost on Forte, who identifies each member of the American team as a “dedicated patriot” competing for American gold.

Forte could just as well have called these angling pioneers “visionaries.” U.S. Angling, in collaboration with CIPS, has outlined a four-year plan to make bass fishing an Olympic sport. The participation of elite American pro anglers on the world stage kicks off that effort.

“The quest to make bass fishing an Olympic sport has already started. It is now a matter of getting support from fans, writers, sponsors, government agencies and angling advocates worldwide,” says Forte.

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