MUSKOGEE, Okla. — The COVID-19 “shelter in place” buzzword took on a meaning of its own for Neels Beneke. The South African came to the U.S. in late February with the intention of competing in the Basspro.com Bassmaster Central Open at Lake Lewisville, then returning home until this week’s event on the Arkansas River. Instead, Beneke sheltered in place in this country, or faced losing sight of a lifelong dream.
Beneke came here with nothing but his fishing tackle. No boat. No vehicle. Just a dream separated by 10,000 miles. Beneke camped for weeks at Opens tournament fisheries, only to have the events postponed and the dream put on hold again. He remained focused through faith in reaching his goal. To say Beneke has steadfast determination is an understatement.
Beneke, 29, is a skilled angler in his homeland, where tournaments are equally as popular as they are here. That includes the skill levels of the competition, from local to national scale. Beneke is from Amanzimtoti, a coastal town near Durbin, that is surrounded by bass fisheries that offer ideal opportunities to hone competitive skills.
He put his plans in motion after dreaming of becoming a professional bass angler as a teenager. At age 18, he began competing in tournaments, then working his way up through the South Africa B.A.S.S. Nation, and eventually to FLW International, where he acquired consistent success.
This year, Beneke is taking his game to the next level, fishing the Central Opens with the goal of eventually becoming the first South African to qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series. Beneke realizes it will take time, and he is committed to whatever it takes to succeed. Five years is the vision, or however long it takes.
Could he be the next Carl Jocumsen? There is every reason to believe the answer might be yes.
“I know I can do this through faith, skill and determination,” he said. “Long ago, I realized God’s plan for me was to take my best talents and do the best that I can for Him, and this I believe is my destiny.”
Largemouth thrive in South Africa and the surrounding nations. Ray Scott’s annual safari trips to the region during the 1980s are the reason why. After discovering the similarities in South African and American lakes, the B.A.S.S. founder brought largemouth fingerlings from Alabama to Zimbabwe and South Africa. A naturally reproducing largemouth population spread to surrounding countries, and the first international B.A.S.S. Nation clubs formed and flourished. Tournaments came next. In February, Beneke won a team tournament there with 38 pounds. The partners culled 5-pounders. The bass fishing is as good as it gets. Now, Beneke is bringing his game to America.
“It is finally here,” he said on the eve of Open on the Arkansas River. “This is everything that I have dreamed about, even though it was put on hold.”
Beneke is a man of faith. Jocumsen’s mantra is “Fear My Heart.” Beneke lives by “Just Faith Fishing,” a self-inspired hashtag title using inspirational messages from the Bible to spread the word of hope. Since arriving here in late February, Beneke has leaned very hard on that faith.
He came here long before the first Central Open in April to attend the Bassmaster Classic in Birmingham. After taking it all in, Beneke set out to find a boat and truck, also realizing frugality would drive the purchases. The reason why is the South African Rand is at its lowest value due to ongoing trade deficits with the rest of the world, and especially against the strong U.S. dollar.
An online search led to a used Triton boat in Nashville. Beneke bought it, and began the process of having it rigged to meet his needs. Priorities were an outboard with a warranty, and then new electronics and a trolling motor. For both he chose Humminbird and Minn Kota products, his sponsors in South Africa. He loaded the rod compartment with Abu Garcia combos, another sponsor.
Next came the truck, which he found through a friend in Nebraska. He flew there, picked it up, and the shutdown began. He sheltered in place there throughout March. April came and the Lake Lewisville event was postponed. Beneke then faced two choices. He could stay in the U.S. or take a repatriation flight home, and risk being unable to return and resume his quest. He made the wise but financially challenging decision to stay.
“I have been planning my B.A.S.S. career for so long, and I decided that I wasn’t going to let the Coronavirus take it all away,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let fear take control of me.”
Beneke drove his truck to Nashville and picked up the boat. The journey ended at Neely Henry Lake in Alabama, where he camped for weeks while scouting the tournament set for May. After it was postponed, Beneke returned to Nebraska to stay with his friend. He’s lived in a tent for the past month at a state park on the Arkansas River.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances, Beneke has learned much about American bass fishing during his extended stay. Three things came to mind when asked about weaknesses and opportunities.
“Baitfish movements, river current, and inclement weather are variables that we don’t face in South Africa,” he said. “Those are minor changes to me, and I feel like over time I can adapt to fishing here.”
With exception of overcoming the three hurdles, the South African bass fisheries offer the level of variety that is ideal for conditioning Beneke towards his goal. He is no stranger to American tournaments, having competed as a co-angler on the FLW circuit.
“If I want to fish a lake like Table Rock, there is one just like it in South Africa, and the same goes for Guntersville and some other popular bass fisheries,” he said.
Beneke summed up his outlook with these profound words.
“A vision that once seemed impossible as a kid on the other side of the planet, is now becoming reality through faith and purpose, and it’s only the beginning.”