Combat Fishing, Combat Warriors
Fishing tournament gives back to those who have served through trials of war
Wild places have always been a place of refuge and recovery for soldiers returning from war.
The quiet, beauty and wonder of nature have an immeasurable power to heal battle-weary spirits.
Nowhere is that more true than today in Alaska. U.S. forces continue more than a decade in continuous combat, with Alaskans and Alaska-based soldiers, sailors and airmen carrying an especially heavy share of the fighting. Alaska-based troops make up a substantial share of those fighting in Afghanistan, because the unique combat roles required match the training and skills of the troops here.
Alaskans have found many ways to repay that service, by getting those soldiers outdoors when they return.
One way they reach out to soldiers is with the Annual Armed Services Combat Fishing Tournament in Seward.
Relaxing Out on the Water
The brainchild of two old friends—a Seward fishing captain and an Anchorage businessman—the day-long celebration each May gets 300 active-duty servicemen and servicewomen out on the waters of Resurrection Bay.
Capt. Bob Candopoulos has been a legend in the Alaska and Seward charter fleet for decades.
His business, Saltwater Safari Company, based in Seward, is one of the most successful and well-respected charter outfits in Alaska. He’s also been a pioneer in new fisheries, like the one for huge and voracious salmon sharks.
His friend, Keith Manternach, owner of Specialty Truck and Auto in Anchorage, remains a key part of the tournament.
“We talked about doing something for several years, a way to take some of these young guys out, split the cost … have fun, everybody happy,” he said.
Candopoulos and Manternach agree the combat fishing tournament was born not in Alaska, but in Reno, Nev.
“We were down in Reno at a Safari Club International convention, and went out to dinner with a bunch of hunting guides,” Candopoulos said. “We saw some people who were being rude to some uniformed Marines. It incited us, you might say, and there wound up being a bit of a brawl in that bar!
“When we got back, Keith and I said it would be nice to do something for these guys, so we decided to do a fishing tournament.”
Community Opens its Heart
The friends held their first event seven years ago in Seward, using just the two Saltwater Safari boats.
“The first year we had two boats and about 65 guys, over two days,” Candopoulos said. “It was kind of a dry run, to learn.
“The following season we opened up to the whole charter fleet and teamed up with the Armed Services YMCA to help with banquets and the auction.”
While the event is one day of fishing, it’s a year-round logistical enterprise, with Manternach acting as the chief fund-raiser.
“Even better than the fishing is the banquet after the fishing is done,” Manternach said. “We load them at 1 a.m. at JBER (Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, near Anchorage) and Fairbanks and Kodiak, and head down to Seward. They’re at Seward by 5 a.m.
“They’re used to riding in military transports, so they’re a bit overwhelmed to see the big motor coaches we have for them, provided by Premier (Alaska Tours). They have coffee on the ride, coffee and donuts there, are on the boats by 6.”
The tournament starts with a “shotgun start,” all the boats gathering in the center of Resurrection Bay, waiting for the signal to start fishing.
Anglers fish until mid-afternoon, with often a two-hour run out to and back from the fishing grounds. Boats are back at the dock by 4:30 p.m. At the dock, it’s a huge show of fish being weighed and filleted, team photos taken and stories swapped. Friendly competition is always there, as is a genuine youthful joy for time away from war and duty.
It’s nice to give them a break …. These guys and gals are away from home all the time. They do not make much money. For them to come back and have a small community like Seward roll out the red carpet means a lot.
The competition is not about biggest fish alone. Every angler gets to pick one fish from his or her two-fish limit to weigh in and enter. While there are prices for the largest fish, there are also prizes for random sizes of fish and mystery fish, so almost every participant has a chance to win a prize.
“There are enough door prizes that everybody leaves with something,” Manternach said. “And there are some incredible door prizes. It’s not about just catching the biggest fish. They might not even catch a fish at all and still win the second-largest prize.”
Taking Care of Each Other
There are 300 open slots in the tournament, yet far more soldiers who want to fish.
“We focus on getting guys who have not been before, and they have to either have been deployed or scheduled to be deployed,” Manternach said. “Almost all of them are E1s to E5s. We decided to take guys who would never go on their own.”
Halibut fishing, never a bargain trip, is not economically possible for young troops.
“I would say, 60 percent of them have never been on that style boat,” Manternach said.
The nature of Alaska troops is that the youngest and lowest ranking are seeing the toughest assignments on deployments, he said.
“That is the unfortunate thing of being an E1,” he said. “It’s the nature of the beast. When it’s real dangerous, they’re going to send the lower-ranking guys. That is part of going over there as a junior enlisted guy.”
Even on a day of play, they never forget their comrades, he said.
“Often the guys who come down and win some nice door prizes are going to take them back to one of the guys that are not able to go on this trip,” Manternach said. “They take good care of each other.”
A group of young servicemen and women who fished in the 2012 tournament consisted of a mix of specialties and branches of service. The seven men and one woman all had one thing in common—all had been deployed at least once, and all had seen hard duty.
They were all eager anglers, with the usual jokes about who would catch the biggest fish and who would get seasick first.
But woven within the fishing talk, the nonchalant way they told their stories reflected their confidence, and the challenges of what they see while doing their duty.
An Air National Guard parajumper was donning his foul-weather gear when one of the other soldiers noticed its camouflage design.
“New pattern?” the soldier asked.
“Yep, they issue all this to us,” he replied. “It works really good, blends right in on the ground.
“Almost blends in too good,” he added, after a moment. “When we jumped into a helicopter rescue (in Afghanistan), the guys overhead firing cover couldn’t see us. We had to pop smoke so they knew where to shoot.”
The soldiers talked about the changing war, and civilian perceptions about the relative safety of Iraq today, except when on patrols.
“Well, I was back at the base when I got blowed up,” a stocky non-commissioned officer said softly. “Round came into the compound and right through the wall.”
Another NCO, a woman who had been in charge of a team of mechanics, translated the importance of every job and of teamwork in combat.
“When we’re out and a truck breaks down, it’s my job to get it moving again,” she said, adding that keeping vehicles working is a way she and her team protect their fellow soldiers.
“When the shooting starts, everybody else grabs a rifle and I grab my tool box,” she said. “If I need to be shooting, there will be rifles.”
Giving Solace, Getting Gratitude
Alaska is a preferred assignment for most troops. The chance to hunt, fish and experience all things outdoors here is as attractive as the dedication, physical hardship and sacrifice of active duty.
Yet the cost, logistics and often confusion of how to successfully hunt and fish in Alaska can make it nearly impossible for soldiers to take advantage of their time here.
Most of these participants have never fished for halibut, Manternach said. On our boat, a couple of the troopers had made the nine-hour drive from Fairbanks, eager to catch their first halibut.
Another NCO, who obviously had some halibut experience, admitted he was on the trip to do some scouting.
“One of my buddies and I are coming back next week,” he said. “We pooled our time and money and are renting a couple of boats ourselves, so we can bring a bunch of our young guys fishing who couldn’t make this trip.”
The fishing was exciting, and as challenging as early-season halibut can be. Some of the anglers caught their two halibut, others caught none. One man on the boat didn’t catch halibut, but did boat a personal-best octopus that appeared to be at least 4 feet across!
Most of the fish taken weighed in the neighborhood of 30 pounds, while the big fish for the day was about 120 pounds.
For the anglers, that didn’t matter. Back at the dock, hanging the day’s take of fish and posing for a group picture, one of the young men said to another, “Thanks for making this possible,” extending a handshake.
The young troopers often could be heard saying, “thank you” to the people who had helped them on their journey and at their destination.
The charter-fishing business in Alaska is a brutally tough, seldom-profitable, always-challenging business. Why would every charter captain in Seward take a day off to take soldiers and airmen fishing?
“It’s nice to give them a break,” Candopoulos said. “These guys and gals are away from home all the time. They do not make much money. For them to come back and have a small community like Seward roll out the red carpet means a lot.”
Standing on the dock in Seward at the end of last year’s tournament, he remembered one person in particular.
“There was a young soldier fishing with us one year,” Candopoulos said softly. “He had a burn mask on his face. His face had been burned badly in combat. He pulled me aside and asked, ‘Captain, I hope you don’t mind that I need to wear this mask today.’”
“He didn’t want to offend anybody or scare anybody on the boat, seeing his face. My God, he has done all this for us, and he was worried about how we feel! I was in tears over that one.
“There was another group, of Army Rangers, a Special Forces team,” Candopoulos said. “It was after the banquet. I was actually leaving, loading up my truck, and these half dozen soldiers came up with this flag in their hand, to give to me.
“That flag had flown over their camp (in Afghanistan). They came under attack by the Taliban. They were undergunned, and seven of their friends were killed.”
The flag was the Rangers’ way of showing Candopoulos how much the chance to fish together had meant.
“That flag is my most cherished possession. They deserve everything we can do.”
For more information on supporting the tournament, call the Alaska Armed Forces YMCA at (907) 552-9622. Or online www.asymcaofalaska.com.
Lee Leschper serves as Alaska regional vice president for Morris Communications.