LEESBURG, Fla. – Micahel Matthee and Glen Naude watched wide-eyed from off stage as a pair of teams weighed 20-plus pound limits of Florida-strain bass on Day 1 of the Bassmaster Team Championship.
Those hefty bags, and two more that exceeded 20 pounds, set the bar on Wednesday when 194 of 197 competing teams weighed fish. In all, 35 states and three different countries were represented on the Harris Chain of Lakes here in central Florida, where bucket-mouthed bass are commonplace.
When it was Matthee and Naude’s turn to weigh their own catch, the South Africa anglers presented only three bass that weighed a total of 6 pounds, 12 ounces. It could have been a humbling moment considering the big bass weighed moments earlier, but Matthee and Naude couldn’t have been more pleased with the outcome.
Unless they had caught one of the 20-pound sacks themselves.
“It wasn’t a bad day on the water,” said Naude, a 35-year-old co-angler who was only days into his first ever trip to the U.S. “There was a pretty massive temperature drop overnight which set us back a lot, and we lost a lot of fish. But that’s fishing.”
His angling partner Matthee has more experience with American fishing, after competing in some FLW events dating back to late 2017. He already knew that U.S. fisheries such as the Harris Chain can produce impressive bass, and he was left wanting more on Wednesday.
“The whole country of South Africa is watching us, so it’s a pity we didn’t do well today,” the 32-year-old Matthee said. “But we tried our hearts out. This is a lot different (fishery) than ours at home, but we tried. We’ll give it our best shot again on Thursday.”
Matthee and Naude are one of three South African duos competing in the Bassmaster Team Championship. Each qualified through their country’s Bass Nation Team Trail and all of them, except Matthee, are fishing their first tournament in the U.S.
Matthee and Naude fared the best of the trio and are in 133rd place heading into the second and final day of the team championship.
All six men said there are subtle differences between fishing in South Africa and U.S., but the hardest adjustment they said is learning the body of water (just as it would be for any first-time angler on a fishery).
And the Harris Chain, with a varied selection of lakes and connecting creeks and canals to choose from, is a complex system to master. Large offshore mats of grass are not commonplace in South Africa, and the visiting anglers said the forage in south Florida is different than what they see at home, too.
“There are no shiners in South Africa,” joked Johan van Veelen, who along with his son Nikki, are another team that traveled more than 8,000 miles to compete in the team championship.
The van Veelans caught two bass weighing 3-13 and are tied for 169th place in the championship. Like countrymen Matthee and Naude, they would have liked to fare better on Day 1, but are pleased to take part in the spectacle that is a Bassmaster tournament.
“This is a big thing to us,” said 40-year-old Nikki van Veelan. “We want to do well and are proud to be here.”
The van Veelans began bass fishing 10 years ago. Johan, who is 63, previously raced automobiles and was looking for an additionally exciting pastime when he retired. There was a pond stocked with Florida Strain bass on some property he moved to near Johannesburg, which is South Africa’s largest city, so he decided to give angling a try.
Did he find bass fishing as exciting as racing cars?
“Maybe not,” Johan said, chuckling, “but it’s very exciting when you are fighting a big bass!”
Craig Ninaber and Neels Botha teamed to catch three bass on Wednesday that weighed 5-4, which put them in 152nd of 197 teams competing on the Harris Chain.
Ninaber, 46, has been to a Bassmaster Classic before – he was a spectator at the 2006 Classic which was held on Lake Tohopekaliga just a few dozen miles from the Harris Chain. That was his first trip to the U.S. and his second visit stateside was for this tournament.
“This is a dream come true for us,” Ninaber said. “Bass fishing is a growing sport in South Africa…We have sufficient lakes. They’re not as large as they are here, but there are keen anglers and it’s a passionate group. We even have some Florida strain bass. Guys in some tournaments are pulling out some nice 18- or 20-pound limits from time to time.”
The largest team tournaments in South Africa, Botha said, might have 50 boats, however, which made the Bassmaster Team Championship four times the size of any tournament he’s seen before. So watching the line of anglers snake across Ski Beach Park in downtown Leesburg, Fla., on Wednesday was an eye-opener, much like the 20-pound sacks of bass that lead the tournament.
“This is mind-blowing,” Botha said. “What an experience it’s been.”