OKEECHOBEE — An unusual fishing tournament wound up in Okeechobee on Monday, March 9, with Australian fisherman facing off against Americans. The whole thing was the brainchild of Australian bus driver Matt Price, who not only conceived of the plan but also funded the trip. Mr. Price originally planned to bring three Australian veterans to the U.S. to compete with three American veterans in a fishing competition in several locations around the U.S. One of the Australian veterans was unable to make the trip, and Jake Hiles from Virginia agreed to fill in and did his best to pretend to be Australian, although he did not even attempt an accent, he said. Mr. Hiles is also not a veteran but does a lot of work with Navy Seals, and the Australian team was happy to have him fill in as part of their team.
Fishing and veterans are two of Mr. Price’s favorite things. In 2011, he found out about the International Game Fishing Association’s six different Royal Grand Slams. No one in the world had ever completed them all, and he decided he would be the first in the world to do it. He had to travel all over the world in order to fill each category, but in the end, he accomplished his goal in 2015 and was the first to ever complete it. Now, he said, he is halfway through the list again.
Along the way he fished with a lot of veterans, and hearing what they had been through and how much of a difference fishing made to them made him want to help, he explained. One of the first people he took out was a blind woman, who told him there was no way she could fish. She could not see. “I called bull crap and started her on the journey. She’s now the first female in the world with the three fresh water royal slams and the first blind person in the world with a royal slam,” he said.
He hoped the media attention he got after he completed the grand slams would help him with a nonprofit “Fishing for Freedom” he started. Through this organization, Mr. Price takes veterans and people with disabilities on fishing trips. “I put a lot of time and effort into that back home,” he said.
He wanted to do something bigger and film it. Something that would show people that no matter what they are going through, fishing can help soothe the soul and recharge the batteries. “I’ve found with these guys that they hate going to a psychologist, but when we get out on the water, it all comes out,” he said. “It just opens them up, gets them talking about stuff, clears their heads. Some of it is life changing.” He was able to get enough interest that they are now working on a television show that will begin airing soon.
This tournament was financed by Mr. Price with some of the U.S. competitors chipping in with gas and their flights to Tennessee, which was where they started. The Australian competitors were chosen after Mr. Price posted on Facebook explaining what he was planning to do and asking who wanted to join him. They were each asked why he should take them, and he finally chose three. Unfortunately, one of the three was unable to make the trip and a substitute had to fill in once they arrived in the U.S. Mr. Price tried to get corporate sponsorship but found it very difficult. He is hoping after the show appears on television, more people will get behind the idea.
They fished for six days, ending on Lake Okeechobee. They started off in Tennessee, fished South Carolina, Orlando (including Disney), a couple of days in Stuart and then headed to Okeechobee, where they were welcomed by VFW Post 10539. Sylvia Creach, whose son was the recipient of a trip with Mr. Price several years ago, was a huge help organizing the Okeechobee leg of the trip. “I’m kind of an anthropologist at heart, and what he is doing meant so much. One of mine and my husband, Arlen’s, big things is removing labels and not focusing on what you can’t but on what you can do, and that’s what Matt was doing,” she said. Mrs. Creach contacted the VFW to ask if they would be willing to help and was put in contact with Willis Nettles, who she was surprised to find was actually her cousin. He helped arrange everything for the Okeechobee competition and a wonderful meal afterward hosted by the VFW.
The tournament was unique in that the competitors competed as teams. Normally, in a tournament like a bass tournament, it’s all about the weight, he explained. The one with the most weight at the end of the day wins, but in this tournament, he wanted them to work as a team, “because in the military you’ve got to rely on your mate to have your back,” he said. “As a team, when you go into battle, you will win, because you work well as a team.” He wanted them to think of this as a battle, country versus country. He wanted them to work on fishing as a team, too, because it is not fun for the others sitting around while one catches all the fish. He set it up so they would get 1,000 points for the first fish of each species that a competitor caught, but the second of that species was only worth 100 points. If you caught a largemouth bass, you got 1,000 points for the first one but only 100 points for the second one. If you caught a striped bass, it was another 1,000 points for that. So, what they had to do for the whole tournament was make sure their teammates were catching as many new species as they were.
They took three boats, each with an American and an Aussie along with the boat captain aboard. They had two cameramen from the show along, said Chuck Smith, who works with Mr. Price on the “Global Adventures Fishing” television show, which should be airing soon on the Outdoor channel. This tournament, “Hook, Line and Heroes,” will be featured on the show.
The Australian competitors were Kylie Henderson and Dave Condon, with Jake Hiles as the “Aussie in training.” The U.S. competitors were Arland Creach, Rohan Ramsingh and J.W. Boutchyard.
The boat captains/guides were Roy O’Dell, Will Bennion and Lee Poulin.
The winners on Lake Okeechobee were on Captain Roy O’Dell’s boat and were Jake Hiles and J.W. Boutchyard.
Overall winners of the competition were:
• First American Rohan Ramdingh;
Mr. Price is not a veteran. He said taking veterans on these trips is his way of saying thank you to those who served. This was his 24th trip to the United States.
All the contestants wanted to thank Mr. Price for everything he did and they were grateful to all the people who contributed to the tournament and to the meal they had afterward. “This was a really great experience,” said Mr. Hiles.
“Coming from Australia, it’s been an awesome week,” said Ms. Henderson. “Fishing for species we have never caught before, being able to catch those species has been an awesome experience.”
“We never met each other a day in our lives, but from day one, it was like we had been friends for 20 years,” said J.W. Boutchyard. “We couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”