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Blake Warren – ON THE HOOK

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Thursday, October 24, 2019
Mead Eater


Back to the vets
Another Veteran’s Day has again come and gone. Both of my grandfathers were World War II Navy veterans. Both served in the South Pacific under less-than-ideal circumstances, one amid the horrors of heavily-bombed Guadalcanal as a Seabee and the other as an electrician’s mate on a mine-sweeping frigate all over the South Pacific in the choppiest of gut-wrenching seas.

But fishing wise, the two were on polar opposite ends of the spectrum. One showed me how it was very much possible to catch a Cachuma Lake catfish with merely a half spool of old mono on a crappy, old set-up with a spark plug as a makeshift sinker and some stinkbait he’d had in his garage for God knows how long. The other, just trying to accommodate my relatively new-found love of fishing by taking me out to Oroville Lake with a jar of PowerBait in mid-August with a mild and comfortable temperature of 106 degrees (when clearly, every rainbow trout that had ever been swimming around in the watershed had gone belly up or become a quick bass meal at least two months prior at even the most optimistic or ignorant of levels).


Nonetheless, both were vets who were there (pre-20-years-old) in the time we needed them most. And they both answered the bell, as so many countless others have for well over two centuries now. It’s a tough (and yet sometimes easy) thing to brush aside depending on the circumstances. But it’s incredibly important to actualize the oft-used cliché that we should “never forget” in any regard. There’s a whole lot there still left behind the curtain.


I’d venture to guess you’d be somewhat hard-pressed to find a collective group in our society besides veterans who truly value and enjoy the outdoors more. Just speaking from personal experience alone, having served nearly six years in the Navy aboard a long-since-decommissioned destroyer, I can tell you that the crew of 300 to 330 of the U.S.S. Paul F. Foster (DD-964) was about as diverse as it gets, as I’m sure is the case in the vast majority of veterans’ experience in the military regardless of particular command or duty station. Yet, most of those I served with had some kind of deep and legitimate ties to the outdoors, it turned out.


A radioman who religiously hunted the Upper Peninsula of Michigan every fall. A brute of a damage control technician who spoke of his teenage years as if they were one elongated scene from A River Runs Through It while growing up in central Montana. The tall and lanky, young Texan gas turbine tech who, no matter where we were at any particular time in the world, would pine over the November possibilities of this year’s trophy buck from “his spot” with his uncle and hunting partner upon our return to port. The 19-years-in engineering Chief who’s had his pending retirement in his head on a loop with a home being built in Oregon, where visions of beefy, chrome river-run steelhead and plump smallies ran rampant with just one year to go ’til the finish line.


Big stripers from the beach in the Northeast. Massive musky in the Great White North. Spring bassin’ in Florida just can’t be beat.


You’d hear it all after a while, and you couldn’t help but learn a few things here and there and occasionally be inspired in your own outdoor sporting pursuits from hearing all these things and the endless unique, personal experiences from all across our country — a common thread amongst so very many of us.


One dude I remember, a fellow native Southern Cali­fornian, always brought a medium-sized assortment of Rapalas and a few cedar plugs along on our deployments — despite us being stationed in Washington state and heading to God-knows-where for the next six-plus months. None­theless, upon pulling out of port at Pearl Harbor just three weeks into one overseas deployment, the captain allowed for us to slow down to about 8 knots for a short stretch on our eventual way to Hong Kong, a few other brief stops around the Pacific Rim, and then, the Middle East. Back went the Rapalas, and sure enough, there were at least a half-dozen mahi-mahi on the non-skid deck of the old warship that’d been in service since Vietnam. Fun stuff. Especially when you have a pretty good idea your ultimate next stop is the Persian Gulf for three months or longer.


Then there was the penultimate “big miss” on the fishing front during my time on that ship, the one that I regret most. With a simple twist of fate, we were heading to the Maldive Islands for a few days, the ultimate rarest of stops for a destroyer en route to the Persian Gulf to enforce U.N. sanctions imposed against Iraq at the time. Internet wasn’t an option then, at least not while out at sea at that point in time, but this tropical paradise just HAD to have world-class fishing in its pristine, relatively untouched, gin-clear waters full of voracious feeders.


One guy knew. “Bonefish,” he said. “Big ass bonefish on the fly.”


Having watched my fair share of Florida-based fishing shows growing up, I had vivid visions of what this could, with any real sort of luck, potentially be. Sight fishing for huge bonefish in the tropical flats on lightly pressured islands off the coast of India? The unexpected fishing opportunity of a lifetime at 21 years old? Sign me up!


I don’t even remember this guy’s name or hardly what he even looked like, but I do remember that we had completely different personality types and damn near nothing in common, except for fishing, that is. He was an older guy (at the time, not so old now with more perspective), maybe two or three years from his 20-year enlisted retirement, kind of the quiet, nerdy type — but he absolutely geeked out on tying flies, and from Pennsylvania I think. He had his fly-tying kit aboard with him and he went to work for a 48-hour stretch outside of his obligated watches and work duties in a small equipment room, churning out all types of bugs and streamers of all sorts in anticipation of the most epic and exotic fishing we could have ever expected to be presented whilst tethered to a United States Navy destroyer. His four high-end Sage fly rods he had carefully tucked away behind his switchboard would be a Godsend.


Alas, just two days out from our phenomenally unexpected bonefishing extravaganza reach­ing fruition, the captain’s words ringing throughout the ship of how we’d been redirected and wouldn’t be stopping at the Maldives after all were significantly soul-deflating to say the very least. I’ve thought about it many times since, and I think it’s going to have to be on the proverbial bucket list, just because.


But enough rambling about years past and old stories. Point is, the majority of veterans for the most part have very unique and individual stories to tell — both of the outdoor and military / life experience variety — and many of them will absolutely blow your socks off. Go fishing with a vet, especially one who loves to fish, and you’ll see for yourself firsthand. While some may seem reserved at first, get them with a rod in hand well away from the dock and you’ll likely hear some stuff.


Regardless of theater of operation or duty station, there are endless stories to tell from each and every walk of life here in America. And they’re worth hearing. All of them. Every. Single. One.


Our little (or maybe not so little) fishing community here in Southern California and beyond is among the most veteran-supportive communities there is that I’m aware of, and I for one am thankful and grateful of that, primarily so for my fellow veterans’ sake. From War Heroes on the Water, to the Saltwater Bass Series organizing veteran fishing outings and so, so many more contributions and volunteering to those who’ve served from so many countless people in our little slice of the world (fishing), it’s really all pretty awesome.


Let’s keep it going well beyond Nov. 11, 2019. There are plenty of opportunities to help and give back to our countless veterans in a multitude of ways that so many still need, and every ounce of effort and each dollar of support is so very well spent and appreciated greatly. But I still say for the time being, the best thing to do is to embrace each and every one of them and just go fishing. It really is the very best of all medicines.


To all U.S. veterans past and present, and to those who are currently serving now. Thank you, and tight lines and steady shooting...


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