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Going for gold

U.S. wins Pan-American tournament by Bryan Hendricks | September 14, 2023 at 2:32 a.m.
Hannah Wesley (left) and Stephen Browning display some of the fish they caught Saturday in the final round of the Pan-American Fishing Championship on Lake Hamilton. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Bryan Hendricks)

Bass fishing got a step closer to the Olympics on Saturday with the conclusion of the Pan-American Fishing Championships on Lake Hamilton.

As expected, Team USA won the gold medal with a total of 20 pounds, 8 ounces. The USA averaged 10-1 during the first round Friday and 10-7 in Saturday's second round. Stephen Browning of Hot Springs, who lives on Lake Hamilton, fished with Hannah Wesley. He said the team goal was to weigh in 10 pounds per day.

"I told everybody in our pre-tournament meeting that 10 pounds a day on Hamilton this time of year is really good," Browning said. "If you average that in a two-day deal, which would be about 160 pounds, I really felt like Team USA could win gold."

Mexico took the silver medal with 16-6, which factored to 9-4 on Friday and 7-2 on Saturday.

Columbia took the bronze medal with a 12-pound average, factoring to 6-4 and 5-6, respectively.

A separate, individual team competition also took place to award medals to the highest performing teams. The USA took all three medals. Larry Nixon of Bee Branch and Joey Cifuentes of Clinton won gold with 24-5.

Justin Hamner and Hilary Martin took silver with 24-3. David Dudley and Michelle Jalaba took bronze with 15-3.

The Pan-American Fishing Championships presage the World Fishing Championships, which will be held at Hot Springs in 2026. That tournament will include teams from many other nations.

Charlie Evans, organizer for the Pan-American Fishing Championships and the World Fishing Championships, said that the tournaments are designed to persuade the International Olympic Committee to include bass fishing as a medal event in the 2028 Summer Olympics.

"One thing they[the IOC] told us that we had to do was to get a lot more nations involved, and also to get more women involved," Evans said.

Team USA included three women, Wesley, Jalaba and Martin. Martin is the daughter of Scott Martin, who won the 2011 Forrest Wood Cup on Lake Hamilton. Her grandfather, Scott Martin's father, is Roland Martin, a bass tournament pioneer who won nine Bassmaster Angler-of-the-Year titles. Hilary Martin is a member of the University of Alabama fishing team. She said the Pan-American Fishing Championship was the first time she fished with her dad and grandfather at the same time.

In addition to holding the tournament on home water or familiar water for several US anglers, anglers had the added advantage of on-water communication. In regular tournaments, anglers are not allowed to share information. There were no such prohibitions in the Pan-American event. With its vast corporate knowledge of Lake Hamilton, its vast experience in tournament fishing and longtime relationships among its members, Team USA put together a logistical victory in addition to a tactical and strategic victory.

"The one thing we did really well was communicated," Browning said. "We could communicate out on the water, and everybody let each other know exactly what they had. A lot of times it wasn't for people to come over and catch their fish but, 'Hey guys, we're having a great day. You're having a decent day. Just chill out and go fishing.' "

An example occurred around noon Saturday. Browning and Wesley had a good fish that Browning said was struggling for health in the livewell. They decided to weigh that fish in early so they could release it and then continue fishing.

"We contacted Larry Nixon and Joey Cifuentes and told them, 'Hey guys, we've got a few fish right here and we've got to go weigh one in.' They didn't 'hole-sit' exactly, but they kind of held our spot until we got back out there and continued."

Cifuentes said that communication was counterintuitive to the usual bass competition model and that it required some mental reprogramming.

"All of us compete against each other all through the season," Cifuentes said. "We gave each other baits. We gave each other spots and waypoints the whole time because everybody has to do well to win.

Nixon said communication was helpful, but that it was more of an organizational tool than a tactical tool.

"It was a little bit dog eat dog because we wanted that individual gold [medal]," Nixon said, "but we called people. Once we started catching fish, we called and passed waypoints on. Most of the time they never came because a good fisherman has got to fish his own game, I don't care who they are."

Most everybody on Team USA fished different styles. Browning said he treated Wesley to a crash course on "Stephen Browning Junk Fishing 101."

"I told Hannah, 'You don't even know what you're going catch the next one on.' We had a bunch of rods on the deck. We picked the one up that we thought would work where we were."

In contrast, Nixon and Cifuentes parked in open water and cast to schooling bass. It was reminiscent of Nixon's winning performance in the 25th Anniversary BASS Tournament on Beaver Lake in June 1992, except with technological enhancements.

"It was a lot like that," Nixon said. "I knew the bigger fish was out there roaming in the deeper water. They were suspended, but in 1992 I could call them up with a [Zara] Spook. I couldn't do that here. We're getting later in the fall. We've had a few cool nights, and they were schooling good enough that we could stay out there. We didn't have to fight the shallow water because its difficult to catch over a 2 1/2-pounder in shallow water."

Cifuentes and his mastery of his LiveScope sonar helped them be precise.

"They had to be blowing up on shad to get the bite," Cifuentes said. "Sometimes you could see a big school down there on LiveScope. I could see them coming up and I knew right where to cast. I'd say, 'Larry get ready! They're coming!' It required perfect timing. We both had our rods in our hands ready to go."

Another difference was that in 1992, Nixon parked at the end of a point and waited for bass to surface. With LiveScope, Cifuentes could troll around and hunt for schools.

"We did a lot of waiting, and Joey did a lot of trolling," Nixon said. "The only time they quit breaking is when it got dead slick. If there was a ripple, there was a chance."

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