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Team USA claims gold at Pan American Bass Championship

by James Leigh | September 12, 2023 at 4:04 a.m.
Team USA member Michelle Halaba lifts the trophy after the team defeated South Africa and the Philippines in the USAngling Challenge Cup over the weekend on Lake Hamilton. - Submitted photo

Team USA took seven of the top 11 spots at the 2023 Pan American Bass Championship on Lake Hamilton over the weekend to claim gold, and the event itself was a huge success, organizers said.

"Everything was phenomenal," John Knight, tournament organizer, said.

"For our first time in to Hot Springs, Lake Hamilton, it exceeded our expectations. From Wednesday's opening ceremonies at Bridge Street LIVE with the stage and band provided by Visit Hot Springs, it was way beyond anything we expected, but more importantly, it enhanced the experience for our international attendees.

"They were beside themselves that there was a crowd, a professional stage and venue, and when you go to these all over the world, sometimes they're in a park and we sit on benches. Sometimes we're in a hotel. To be outside and activate the event, the community and our sponsors is just a win-win-win for everybody," Knight said.

Mexico took silver in the tournament, and Columbia, which rarely makes the podium, finished third for bronze. Canada, Puerto Rico, El Salvador and Guatemala rounded out the results.

While weather did cause a delay for Friday's first round, Knight said the location was safe and allowed anglers to get on the water quickly once the storm subsided.

"That was challenging," he said. "We had a two-hour delay, but because of the venue at the fish hatchery that the (Arkansas) Game and Fish (Commission) gave us, we were safe within that big metal building. It was a great place to be for the rain and lightning, and again, just another welcome amenity that we could take advantage of."

Despite the shortened day on the lake, four of the nine teams had at least one pair with more than 10 pounds of fish on the first day, and Team USA finished with 10.1 to lead the field. Mexico averaged 9.4 pounds, and Columbia had 6.4.

Mexico's Ricardo Gonzalez and Alejandro Morales led the first day with 12 pounds, 5 ounces, with three U.S. pairs following. Joey Cifuentes and Larry Nixon were second with 12 pounds, 2 ounces while David Dudley and Michelle Jalaba were third with 11 pounds, 11 ounces.

The pairing of Hot Springs' Stephen Browning and Hannah Wesley was 13th overall on the first day with 9 pounds, 2 ounces.

Saturday's weather was great for fishing, Knight said with every pair landing fish on the final day of the tournament.

"Then we come into Saturday -- clear skies, clear fishing all day," he said.

"Everybody caught fish, which is always important. ... And then we had a wonderful closing ceremony. We had Jeremy Risley, the black bass program manager from Arkansas Game and Fish, come in and speak to us as kind of a keynote speaker.

"We always like to provide a topic and content that these visiting nations can return to their countries with and perhaps learn something from and take that knowledge back and better their habitat and their watershed," Knight said.

Team USA averaged 10.7 pounds to secure its win while Mexico and Columbia managed to again finish in the top three to land on the podium with an average of 7.2 and 5.6 pounds, respectively.

Five of the top 10 finishes on the second day went to Team USA with Justin Hamner and Hilary Martin landing 14 pounds, 1 ounce for an easy lead. Puerto Rico's Jans Rafael Santiago Jr. and Jose J. Cruz De Leon was second with 12 pounds, 13 ounces.

Browning and Wesley were 10th overall on the second day with 10 pounds, 2 ounces.

Cifuentes and Nixon had the most weight after the two-day tournament with 24 pounds, 5 ounces with Hamner and Martin second with 24-3 and Dudley and Jalaba finished third with 23-15. Browning and Wesley were ninth overall with 19-4.

The U.S. also defeated South Africa and the Philippines in the USAngling Challenge Cup event held during the tournament.

South Africa's Leon Potgieter and Gervhan Countino landed 12 pounds, 4 ounces to lead the pairs on the first day of the Challenge Cup with Cifuentes and Nixon second. Browning and Wesley finished 10th on the day.

Team USA swept the top five spots on the second day of the Challenge Cup with South Africa's Hennie Schoeman and Ruan Wahl coming in sixth with 9 pounds, 6 ounces.

The final results saw Team USA again sweep the top three, and Schoeman and Wahl were fourth overall.

The proximity of the tournament hotel, The Hotel Hot Springs, to the lake was also a huge bonus, Knight said.

"The proximity for me was key for everybody because it wasn't hard to find the lake," he said. "It was just easy. Sometimes you go to these countries, and it is a real challenge because you're hour, hour and a half from the hotel to the lake. Well, here we were 18 minutes. Well, that's just a big 'yes.' That's a big win."

Knight said organizers are looking forward to their return in 2026 for the World Black Bass Championship, which will again be held on Lake Hamilton. He said that event will have approximately 30 countries participate.

"We're also going to be back in October, which will be even less pressure on the water from just your recreation boaters," he said. "It'll be cooler weather. October will be, in our opinion, a more favorable time, but certainly right before hunting season, because most of our volunteer base, are these great local bass fishermen, but I also know they're hunters, too. And people aren't going to give up their time on the stand. We've got to be before that."

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