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Rod, Gun and Game: Purple Heart Veterans find Lake Erie Walleye

U.S. Marine veteran Joel Schneller (left) and U.S. Army veteran Jake Forsythe share a 29-inch walleye catch at Barcelona Harbor.
There were behind the scene combat-related stories to share and secret fishing moments to discover for 14 U.S. military veterans that registered for the 5th Annual “Fishing with War Heroes” event hosted by Lake Erie fishing charter captain, Fred Forsythe, and his staff of several additional qualified charter captains and volunteers.

The criteria for free admission to this exclusive, all-expense paid event? You must have a purple heart (medal) – that is, you were wounded in combat from any era of the United States defending freedom around the world.

There were ex-soldiers from 26 years of age to 88 years of age! Most of the younger sailors or soldiers were from the Iraq or Afghanistan conflict, the older gents were from Vietnam, Korea or WWII. Yes, WWII. As an 88 year-old gentleman who survived three monsoons while serving in the U.S. Navy aboard the U.S.S. Essex (carrier) in the Pacific theatre, Bill Pihl, never seemed to run out of energy. Calm and composed at all times, this elderly statesman of an era where the names of Stalin, Churchhill, Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo and our President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was among common stories and headlines in newspapers and those famous Life Magazines.

Bill did not talk too much about his war tour, but he did share that he enlisted at 16 years of age. I asked him, “Bill, thought you had to be at least 17 to enlist back then?” We were underway aboard the 22-foot long Castaway Charter boat, he smiled, pointed to the stern and said, “Look, is there a fish on that line over there?”

We had started fishing about four miles southwest of Barcelona Harbor in 105 feet of water, dropped five lines with 6-color lead-core with 70 foot monofilament leaders trailing multiple color stickbaits all selected by our military veteran anglers. Captain Forsythe and I looked at each other upon their selections and grinned. We would have never picked those lures, everyone knew what the “hot colors” were, and it was none of these. Anyway, we deployed their lure choices and continued to troll.

Over the next four hours, we caught 15 fish, 11 of them were walleye, and the other fish included steelhead, brown trout and another huge 18-pound lake trout. Vietnam veteran, Mel Kramer from central Pennsylvania, and Kyle James, a Washington State native that fought in Iraq, both from the U.S. Army in widely different battleground tours, were the other military veteran members aboard.

Unknown to them, there were trophies for the largest walleye by weight, shortest legal walleye and the best catch of another species. A few minutes later, Kyle James hooked up with a walleye, it was only 17 inches long, but when we told him about the prize, he yelped with a cheer! “Yes!” Most of the time, fish shorter than 17 inches are never caught out there on big Lake Erie.

Eight minutes later, another rod hooked up and Mel Kramer repositioned his wheelchair, attached a glove over his shattered right-hand thumb and took the rod and jammed it between his missing left leg and the side of his wheelchair. It took a few rod position changes to find the best place to reel and land a fish from, but this whale of a man accomplished that without wincing. He brought in a 24-1/4” walleye and noted, “Hey look! This is the lure I picked out, the one with blue, chartreuse, red and silver, YES!” Mel was high-fiving everyone aboard, and as it turned out, was the leading joke-maker aboard too. We kidded him about being a stand-up comic and he laughed so hard, we all did.

It rained all day, from before breakfast at Jack’s Barcelona Inn, where hostess Julie and her staff served all of the honored group and provided brown bag lunches. I had raingear, but was still soaked through it and right down to my shorts, but for some reason, I wasn’t cold, can’t say why. One reason might be that I was having so much fun watching these guys reel in their fish and helping them to share in this one-time experience. Besides that, Bill Pihl with his facial features and humble grin, not to mention his unassuming style, truly resembled my father who passed away over three years ago now. It was sort of like talking to dad. I wasn’t cold at all.

At 2:00 p.m., all five charter boats headed back to the pier and to Captain Fred’s fish-cleaning station at Blue Water Beach and Campground, three miles north on Route 5 – the same place the honored group had visited for their Friday fish-fry and barbecued chicken dinner cooked by chefs, Don Knappenberger and Pete Noreck.

The weigh-off for largest walleye was quickly underway and while over 40 walleye were caught by the group in a close contest, Joel Schneller, USMC Infantry veteran from Iraq, led all walleye catchers with his 29 inch, 8 pound-8 ounce fish. Schneller today is a New York State Environmental Conservation Officer who works in Region 6, along the St. Lawrence River area. Shortest walleye went to Adam Morris, U.S. Army Iraq veteran, with his 15-1/4 inch prize. The “Best Catch” award by unanimous vote of the charter captains went to no other than WWII veteran, Bill Pihl, with his handsome brown trout and two big lake trout catches.

To top off the day, a special dinner banquet was planned at Zebro’s Seafood House, located right on the back side of Barcelona Harbor and across the street from Jack’s, where the group had breakfast, so everyone knew their way. The trophies were presented, special prizes were provided by the Zippo Pro-Staff fishing team of Charlie Brant and Doug Yohe, veteran-written books from the library group at Coudersport High School and Darlene Forsythe, and special fishing tackle prizes from Pure Fishing, Mustad Hooks and the Erie County Federation of Sportsmen, for each of the veterans.

Psychologists say that the most difficult opinion for a man to keep is his opinion of himself. For many of these veterans, Saturday was a special fishing day that allowed such stories, provided friendship, simple fun, tales from the battlefield and more, new friends and moments to share themselves with each other. That is one giant leap for mankind! Very special.

Exceptional thanks goes to Charter Captain’s Fred Forsythe of Cast Away Charters, Jim Tunney of Looney Tunes Sport-fishing, Lou Budik, Doug Yohe of Zippo Outdoors Pro-staff and Ken Johnston - Angler Extraordinaire, and the long list of volunteers and donation providers.

God Bless America!
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