Editor's note: With Veterans Free Fishing Day coming up on April 23, 2022 at Bennett Spring State Park, check out a story about last year's event.
Despite cool, damp Ozark spring weather, almost 100 veterans turned out on Saturday for Bennett Spring’s fifth annual Veterans Free Fishing Day.
Bennett Spring Hatchery Manager Ben Havens has worked to bring more free fishing days to Bennett in his tenure at the hatchery as a way to encourage more groups such as women and veterans to explore trout fishing at the well-known park. A free fishing day for everyone as well as a Kids Free Fishing Day have been long-standing traditions in the area but Ladies Free Fishing and Veterans Free Fishing have been added in recent years.
“This is just a good way to get more people out, to enjoy the outdoors,” Havens said. “Last year, we didn’t do it officially because of COVID, but we still had a few veterans come out and enjoy the day and we were happy to supply them with a free tag. This year, we are back officially with blue free tags for all of our veterans, but the weather has not been as helpful this year as we would have liked.”
Still, several veterans came out, many from out of the area, despite the cool temperatures and fortunately, the predicted rain held off for the day.
Amy Milne of Kirkwood, Mo., headed up the volunteers for the day, many of whom came from the St. Louis area and are also associated with other trout fishing organizations.
“We’ve held this event at all four of the state trout parks now in recent years,” Milne said, while manning her post at the table, passing out free blue tags to veterans coming to fish for the day.
“We’ve had over 2000 veterans to participate,” she said.
Several of the volunteers serve with Project Healing Waters, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military personnel and veterans, through fly fishing and associated activities such as education and sponsored outings. Others are members of the Gateway chapter of Trout Unlimited, one of three TU chapters in the state. As a nonprofit organization, TU works to conserve, protect and restore Missouri cold water fisheries to sustain and improve fishing for present and future anglers through conservation, education and fellowship.
Additional activities for the day included fly tying and casting demonstrations. Volunteers were also available to help veterans into the water, if needed.
Those who came to enjoy the day included John Stafford of Holts Summit. While he has been a long-time visitor and fly fisherman at Bennett Spring since 1971, this was his first participation in the Veterans Free Fishing Day.
“We were here for the weekend and then found out it was free for veterans today, so that was a nice surprise,” he commented while preparing to walk into the spring branch.
His wife, Pat who says her job is to help prepare his fishing rods, grew up camping and fishing at Bennett Spring as a child.
“My parents, Joe and Betty Maire, brought us here camping and staying in the old CCC cabins when I was a kid,” she said.
Jimmie Jones of Ft. Gibson, Okla., an Air Force veteran, came to Bennett Spring to spend the weekend with his sons, one of whom, Jake Jones of Concordia is also an Army veteran. They were pleased to discover that the two of them could also fish for free this particular Saturday.
Perhaps, the best sentiment of the day was shared by Neil Miller, a 78-year-old Army veteran, who struggled but was ultimately successful in putting on his lace-up boots that went over his waders.
“I’ve been blown up, have rods in both my legs and my pelvis is wired together,” he related with a sigh and a smile. “I found out as a 25-year-old draftee that I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was. But I’m still here,” he concluded with a chuckle, as he climbed to his feet and walked slowly but steadily toward the spring branch with his fishing rod in hand.
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