Peter Brookes: Heroes (and me) on the water

Peter Brookes got bullied by some bruiser bass while kayak fishing. Courtesy photo

All I could think of was Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel Prizewinning book, “The Old Man and the Sea,” in which a luck-challenged Cuban fisherman Santiago gets pulled around in the Florida Straits in his skiff by a mighty marlin he’s hooked.

That was pretty much me when a (likely) largemouth bass started towing me – and my fishing kayak – toward the lily pads in the Potomac River’s Gunston Cove after a toilet flush-like surface take.

It was my first go at fishing from a kayak. As a Navy guy, I wondered where the heck the anchor was on this underway vessel; or better yet, a crew member to whom I could yell, “All engines back!

No luck in either case.

I fear how I must have looked, flailing about, quickly coming to realize that: if I paddle (with two hands), I can’t fight the fish (with one hand)…if I fight the fish (with one hand), I can’t paddle (with two hands).

You see my dilemma.

In the end, the ol’ Bucketmouth” won, breaking me off cleanly by beaching me on the seeming Sargasso Sea of lily pads and wrapping my fishing line around some floating wood – and who knows what else.

I‘d come out to volunteer with the George Washington chapter of Heroes on the Water (heroesonthewater.org), which operates in the Northern Virginia area. The nonprofit group supports active military, veterans, first responders and their families through some great local kayak fishing.

The Heroes on the Water’s (HOW) pamphlet states that: “Kayak fishing provides both physical and mental therapeutic benefits through exposure to the outdoors and being part of a community.

(The exception, perhaps, is if you end up getting bullied by some bruiser bass as I did – but I digress…)

I came across HOW while attending a Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF — projecthealingwaters.org) meeting this spring at Fort Belvoir. As readers know, I’m a big fan of PHWFF, volunteer as a guide and have written about it on these very pages.

I thought I might do the same with HOW, another organization that I believe has helped save and rebuild the sometimes dented and dinged lives of those who‘ve sacrificed so much on our behalf, including family members.

But I have to admit that it didn’t start out well.

When I contacted the HOW George Washington chapter coordinator, Karl Schwartz, he told me that I’d probably need a “waiver” to come along on a trip since I was a fly – rather than spin – fisher.

Sensing sarcasm in his voice, he went on to tell me that the program provides spin rods, tackle, bait/lures, kayaks and safety equipment (i.e., PFDs), but I’d have to bring my own stinkin‘ fly rod.

The group had decided on an early evening fishing event, hitting the water after a late lunch/early dinner donated by Mission BBQ in Alexandria (mission-bbq.com). Breaking bread and socializing are an important part of the program.

After filling ourselves to the gills with barbecue and running out of “fishing fairytales”- if that’s even possible – we headed for the kayaks.

I’d kayaked before but had never combined it with fishing. The kayak HOW assigned me was tricked out in a “fishy-gadgety-kayaky” sort of way and was ready for battle with bass, or whatever piscatorial predator came my way.

Indeed, an experienced ‘yak angler I spoke with after the event told me that the largemouth I mentioned earlier was more likely a snakehead, considering how it slung me around like my literary compadre, Santiago.

Despite a short, but welcomed, downpour, the evening was terrific, filled with friendship, flopping fish and giant grins from the vets and volunteers who filled the chapter’s 12 single and two tandem loaner kayaks.

As a first-timer, I was impressed with the fishing freedom kayaks provide, getting you to spots inaccessible to wading or a power boat. Even better was the willingness of group members to share tips and tricks of kayak fishing and the location of “honey holes.”

In fact, I caught three good-sized lunkers on poppers after a fellow HOW fisher – no doubt feeling pity for me as a fly angler – yelled across the water to me, “Hey, come on over here and wet a line…they’re in here for sure!”

He was right.

But that sort of giving, thoughtful and caring spirit was indicative of this HOW group. “Maybe,” I thought, “these spin fisher folks ain’t so bad after all…just imagine how much more awesome they’d be if they learned to fly fish.”

Dr. Peter Brookes is a D.C. foreign policy wonk who escapes to his Fort Valley cabin and the great outdoors as often as he can.