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.