May 13, 2018

Hungary for Fishing

Spot on Team USA for Wisconsin angler offers opportunity to compete on the world stage

By: Barb Carey

The horn sounds. I swing the 12-foot pole in a giant sweeping motion flinging a delicate float into the water 25 feet in front of where I sit. I wait for the slight twitch of the float, and with a single lift of the rod, the 4-inch fish that took the tiny bait swings right to me. I unhook, toss the fish in the net, and cast again, all in one motion. It’s a rhythm I’ve been practicing for months.

To my right is a woman from Russia. To my left is a woman from England. The three of us, along with 85 other women from 17 countries, are on the bank of the Tisza River in Szolnok, Hungary, about 60 miles from Budapest. We are fishing in the 24th Annual World Championship Match Fishing Tournament last August. If you would have told me one year earlier I would be fishing for Team USA here in Hungary, I would not have believed you.

The tournament consists of two days of fishing, four hours per day. I have four teammates who are also on the river bank. We are all wearing the red, white and blue fishing jerseys that represent Team USA. We’re all sitting on individual “seat boxes,” in which the legs adjust for the slope of the river bank giving us a stable platform.

The tray at the side of my chair holds 12 baseball-sized wads of bait made from an assortment of “fish food” that get tossed into the water every 20 minutes. Another container holds a paste to be flung into the water every 30 seconds for the entire match. This is done to attract and hold fish in your area. An inaccurate throw can send fish to your neighbor. The recipes for the bait are guarded like national secrets. Live bait containers hold bloodworms, jokers and maggots, ready to place on the tiniest of hooks.

Small fish are plentiful. It’s a time-consuming struggle to thread thin bloodworms onto the tiny hooks due to what seems to be my oversized fingers. I feel my coach’s anxiety behind me and I know I am taking too long for this part of the competition. I switch to a longer pole, hoping to get out further to get to the bigger fish. It works! Soon I am swinging back stout catfish.

Catching them as they swing back toward me on the 14-foot pole is a challenge. More than once I feel the pick of the dorsal fin stab me in the hand. My hands and shorts are covered in blood, but I am not fazed. My stress mounts, and I try not to watch the woman next to me operate an even longer pole like it’s an extension of her body. She is swinging fish after fish out of the water like she is participating in an ancient fishing goddess dance I have never seen before.

Punching the ticket

Rewind 9 months ... I am talking to Mike McNett, board member of the U.S. Angling Confederation. McNett was telling stories about his experience fishing in the World Championship Ice Fishing Tournaments.

“There is nothing like it,” he said, as I see the dreamy look in his eyes as he recalls the fond memories of fishing for the national team and winning the world championship. I had heard of “Team USA” and had been following the ice fishing team over the years.

Our conversation took a turn and the subject of women anglers competing in world championships came up. The U.S. had never sent a team. The only competition for a women-only event is match fishing, which is not well known in the U.S. Being an advocate for women anglers for the last 12 years, my mind began to race. My conversation with McNett unlocked the door and opened the floodgate of possibilities.

Team USA was assembled. Our team – consisting of professional angler Shelly Holland, outdoor writer and avid angler Kristen Monroe, two experienced match anglers, Penny Smit and Elise De Villers, along with yours truly – would make the trip to Hungary. Hannah Stonehouse Hudson was the alternate in the event something happened and one of us couldn’t attend.

We set our focus on practicing this finesse style of fishing and needed to raise money to finance the trip. Smit and De Villers reside in Florida and practiced on their own. Their prior experience representing South Africa in another world championship event put them way ahead of the rest of the team.

Holland, Monroe and I travelled to Chicago to meet our coach, Atilla Agh, who is a match fishing champion. Originally from Hungary, Agh now coaches sports in the U.S. His coaching experience along with his Hungarian connections would be a great asset to the team. His help with logistical issues and obtaining high-quality bait was invaluable. McNett rounded off the group as team captain. His experience with U.S. Angling Confederation events would be a huge benefit.

Practice makes perfect

We met in Chicago to practice. A municipal pond held carp and bluegills with plenty of shoreline to fish. We sat at the picnic table filled with an assortment of match fishing gear. Size 22 hooks, weights the size of pinheads, special floats and fishing line as thin as a human hair. Total finesse fishing – which is not my strong suit. We were each issued four telescoping Trabucco poles from 8- to 14-feet long, which are basically high-tech cane poles. A crash course in technique was given and we hit the water.

The practice was interesting. We lost a lot of fish and had a lot of hooks in the brush, but we managed to land a few. One pole was pulled in the water by a carp and Agh jumped in after it. Holland broke a rod and I fell in the mud. We laughed a lot and it was humbling, to say the least. I quickly went from being a confident angler to feeling like I had never fished before in my life. We left that practice thinking, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”

Our practices continued. We shared videos and pictures and put in as much time as possible. We needed to raise $3,000 per angler to attend, so fundraising became quite a burden. In addition to reaching out to fishing companies, we held a fundraiser in Oxford, Wis. – small town USA. The support from the local community was overwhelming. It seems as if the whole town came out, most wearing USA shirts. They cheered us on, donated money, sold brats, and rallied behind us like we were headed to the Olympics. It made me feel so proud and happy.

The big fishing companies I work with really came through with donations. Clam Outdoors, Hot Spots Maps, Bast Durbin Advertising, World Wide Marine, Vexilar, Jiffy, Badger Sportsman, Off Shore Tackle, Stormy Kromer and Two-Way Fillet. Gemini Jerseys provided our Team USA jerseys and Frogg Toggs gave us rain gear. We looked like the real deal!

Game day

Before we knew it, we were on a plane headed to Hungary. The first week there would be more practicing. It paid off, as we doubled our weight in fish daily.

We all caught lots of fish including catfish, carp, roach, bream and skimmers. We were optimistic.

Finally, tournament day arrived. De Villars beat others in her peg. Smit caught more than 300 bleaks in one day. Holland and Monroe both caught hundreds of fish. At the end of the second day, we didn’t catch enough in weight to beat anyone. We were exhausted, our fingers were bleeding, and we couldn’t have tried any harder.

After the tournament, we got cleaned up and went to the awards ceremony where we were treated to dinner and celebratory toasts. One by one, teams were being called up to the stage to be introduced. I didn’t even realize this was happening due to all the chatting and laughing.

Then I heard the announcer call “Team USA,” and all heads turned toward our table and they began to stand and clap. They were giving us a standing ovation! This didn’t happen to any other team, not even the winners. It gave me chills and I was never more proud to be an American.

The other teams witnessed our efforts, skill improvement, our hard work and dedication, which left an impact on them. All the other countries were happy see USA sent a team. I felt so honored. It was an extraordinary adventure.

While I’m happy to be back home and fishing out of my boat, I was honored to have been chosen for this opportunity. I made memories for a lifetime. U.S. Angling has many teams that compete, and I encourage you to visit their website at www.usangling.com to see if there is a team you would like to try out for. It truly will be an experience you will never forget.