Fishing with Vets: Taking those that have Answered the Call of Duty

By Tim Ackarman

Dustin Morrison of Des Moines sauntered across the parking lot and out onto the dock at Lynne Lorenzen Park in Ventura on a cool May morning. He knelt down to steady the boat as guide Kevan Paul pulled his trailer from the water and went to find a parking spot.

When Paul returned Morrison hopped into the big Lund and took a seat next to Erin, his wife of two months. Soon they were speeding over the waters of Clear Lake for a day of walleye and yellow bass fishing.

For most young men this would be a highly ordinary series of events, but for Morrison it was a testament to his courage, strength and perseverance.

Dustin Morrison spent seven years in the Iowa National Guard, including a tour in Afghanistan where a roadside bomb nearly took his life. Doctors said he’d likely never walk again.

With surgery, therapy and a lot of willpower, he proved them wrong. He’s not only back to walking, but also to hunting deer and turkeys as well as fishing.

Just as Dustin is no ordinary fisherman, the outing wasn’t your typical guided trip. The Morrison’s enjoyed a free day of fishing courtesy of the non-profit organization Fishing With Vets.

Justin Bailey of Grand Rapids, MN served nine years as a U.S. Army infantryman, including two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, before starting his own fishing guide service.

Conversations with fellow angling professionals and military veterans led Bailey to found Fishing With Vets about a year and a half ago. Since then he estimates the organization has served over 200 veterans.

“Fishing is a common bond,” he explained. “We use that to give back.”

Initially the group was only a handful of guides taking individuals or small groups on complimentary trips. More recently “Vets” has taken it to another level by organizing larger and more elaborate gatherings for participants from across the Upper Midwest.

Twenty-five veterans and their guests fished from 12 boats piloted by volunteer guides and tournament anglers during the Clear Lake event. Visitors were provided lodging and an evening meal the night before and a continental breakfast before hitting the water.

Morning and afternoon fishing sessions were interrupted by shore lunch of fried fish and sides held at a local park. Afterwards a police escort led the group to the Clear Lake Fire Station where they viewed the World Trade Center Steel Memorial, toured the Fire Museum and enjoyed a pork loin supper.

“It’s a little more than just doing a trip, to organize something bigger like this,” Bailey said.

He noted this was the sixth larger event Vets has coordinated. Doing so has required the organization to lean on local organizers within the fishing and veterans’ communities and to seek area sponsors.

Paul, who operates Kevan Paul’s Guide Service and co-owns Clear Lake Bait and Tackle, Inc., did much of the legwork involved with lining up facilities, volunteers and sponsors.

“He’s put countless hours in on this one,” Bailey said.

Many businesses, organizations and individuals stepped forward to volunteer time and/or money, according to Paul. “We raised over $2000 locally,” he noted.

Sponsors included South Shore Inn, Dean Snyder Construction, Clear Lake Bait and Tackle, Bonnie Hall Realty, First Gabrielson Agency (Jay LeFevre), Sukup Manufacturing, Brian Nettleson Excavating, Wess Transport, Farm Bureau of Garner (Tim Tusha), Glen’s Tire, Payless Foods, Advanced Concrete, Louie’s Custom Meats, Linda Charbonneau, Marcia Larson, Bob Jensen, Rockwell American Legion, Clear Lake VFW and Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce.
The veterans appreciated the effort.

“It was fun,” Dustin Morrison said. “We caught a lot of fish, had a lot of laughs and made a lot of memories.”

“We caught a ton of yellows, 10-15 walleyes, and my son (Nick, age six) caught the biggest of the day (a 19-inch walleye),” said Gabe Haugland, an Iowa National Guardsman from Clear Lake who both assisted with and participated in the event. “I’m very pleased with how it went.”

Russell Kemp of Birchwood, WI and his stepson Bill Lee of Arlington, MN both served in the Army during the Korean and Vietnam eras, respectively. They learned about Vets from a parade float and decided to sign up for a trip.

Lee, a retired truck driver, had stopped in Clear Lake frequently while on the road, but neither man had fished there before. They were pleasantly surprised to catch walleye and yellow bass after coming in with low expectations about the state’s fishing opportunities.

“I thought all Iowa had was bullheads and carp,” Kemp joked.

In addition to walleyes and yellows, other anglers in the group also caught white bass, crappie and musky. (No carp or bullheads were taken!) Most participants said the bite was surprisingly strong considering a cold front had dropped the temperature from 84 degrees on Friday afternoon to 54 on Saturday morning.

Perhaps more importantly, participants were able to enjoy camaraderie and experience the gratitude of fellow citizens with whom and for whom they served.

That’s a key goal of the events, according to Bailey. “They get to know one another, and they all get to feel appreciated again.”

Although plans have not been set, local organizers hope to host another Vets event at Clear Lake in 2017. In the meantime, the next outing will take place on Trout Lake at Coleraine, MN on July 24.

“We have 25 guides and 50 veterans lined up for that one,” Bailey said.

For more information about Fishing With Vets, go to www.fishingwithvets.com.