CAMP RIPLEY, MINN.
“There’s one!” Nate Foster said as his rod bent under the weight of a broad-shouldered, 17-inch feisty smallmouth bass.
The first fish of the day brought bragging rights.
“This is what they look like,” said Foster, 35, of St. Cloud, teasing his grandfather, Swede Anderson, 82, of Rochester, who had yet to hook a fish.
“I can catch a bigger one than that,” Anderson replied dryly after Foster released the smallie back into the swollen Mississippi River.
There was plenty of good-natured ribbing Friday as 86 military veterans fished with guides or pro anglers at the fourth annual Trolling for the Troops event at Camp Ripley. Some veterans trekked to Lake Mille Lacs for a day on big water; others, like Foster and Anderson, fished the more intimate Mississippi River, which borders the Minnesota National Guard’s training facility.
The gathering brought different generations together under a brilliant blue sky.
Foster is an Army helicopter pilot who served recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. Anderson is a Navy veteran of the Korean War who, after his ship hit a mine and sunk, survived a night in North Korean waters clinging to a buoy. Five sailors died. “I’m not a hero, I’m a survivor,” Anderson said.
The fishing event is a way to bring disabled vets together with recently deployed soldiers to thank them for their service — and more.
“Some of these guys are hurting,” said Col. Scott St. Sauver, Camp Ripley’s post commander and an avid angler who launched the event four years ago when he got the job.
“You have to bring them out of their shell. There are a million ways to do that. For me, it’s the outdoors. Everyone changes when they go to war. Being outdoors heals.”
St. Sauver is an Iraq war veteran who grew up in South Dakota fishing walleyes and perch. He modeled Trolling for the Troops after the successful deer and turkey hunts for disabled veterans that have long been held at the camp.
“I love to fish,” St. Sauver said. And that passion often was shared by his solders overseas. “When they’d talk about what they missed most about home, they’d mention hunting deer or ducks or fishing,” he said.
He figured that Camp Ripley, nestled along 18 miles of undeveloped Mississippi riverfront and a short jaunt from famed Lake Mille Lacs, was a perfect venue for an event to get veterans — both disabled and able-bodied — on the water for some R&R and a chance to fish with guides and professional anglers.
“This gives them an opportunity to get out there and experience something that maybe they haven’t done,” St. Sauver said.
The event has grown each year. On Friday, 43 guides volunteered their time, boats and equipment to take 86 veterans fishing.
“We’ve really been treated nice,” said Anderson as he cast a spinnerbait under the limbs of maple trees overhanging the river.
“This is our way of saying ‘Thank you,’ ” said Eric Altena of St. Cloud, a member of the Upper Mississippi River Smallie Club, who guided grandfather and grandson. The club is a group of two dozen “river rats” who prowl for bass.
Like many of them, Altena has a jet boat that allows him to skim shallow water and navigate backwaters and small channels where smallmouth lurk.
He also has a leg up on most anglers: Altena is the area fisheries manager for the Department of Natural Resources, so he knows the river inside out.
“You may know where the fish are, but you still have to catch ’em,” he said.
Bass fishing has been very good in recent years. “The fish up here grow faster, but they’re not as abundant as farther downstream,” he said.
Walleyes, northerns and muskies also inhabit the river, but it’s smallies that Altena loves to pursue. “They’re a great sport fish,” he said.
The river flowed fast on Friday from 5 inches of recent rain. That won’t help bass production.
“Bass do better in drought years,” Altena said.
The newly hatched fry get swept away in the strong current. Walleyes do better with high water levels.
Anderson, a retired social studies teacher, is an avid angler who makes his own lures and flies. Foster also fishes, but the distance between them means it’s a treat for the two veterans to get on the water together.
Foster had the hot hand Friday morning, landing seven nice bass, all in the 17-inch range, including a dandy that leaped from the water twice and bent Foster’s rod in half.
“That’s why I love ’em,” Altena said after the fish was boated and released.
Anderson had several hits but didn’t land a fish until later in the morning.
“They’re going to think you’re a better fishermen than me,” he quipped.
Then a 17.5-inch smallie struck, the biggest of the day.
“Oh boy, he has a little bit of snort,” Anderson said, fighting the fish. “He’s a dandy.”
His luck improved in the afternoon, and at the end of the day, 23 smallies were caught and released.
“It was awesome,” Foster said. “It was a great day fishing with Grandpa.”