Inside the yellow tape that marked off the area in Zone Two of Bennett Spring State Park on April 27, 2019, for Veterans Free Fishing Day were a few hundred veterans, a few dozen volunteers and few thousand trout.
Some 240 veterans from at least as far away as California were on hand and in waders, prepared to catch as many fish as possible on their way to having four trout on their stringers.
Air Force veteran Scott Westfal of Vandenberg Village, Calif. has been coming to the park for 54 years. For him and others, saving the three dollar fee for a trout tag was not the chief draw to be in the park that day.
“Three dollars isn’t much to pay, but it’s awesome to be able to intermix with vets. The hatchery manager clearly put a lot of fish in here last night because everybody caught a lot of fish. It was wonderful,” Westfall said.
Ben Havens was the chief organizer for the event. He had help, a lot of help from Project Healing Waters.
Bennett Spring State Park already featured Kids Free Fishing Day when Havens became the hatchery manager. He soon added fishing days for veterans and for women.
Three years ago, when he advertised the free fishing for veterans event, he received a call from Amy Milne, regional coordinator of the heartland area, asking if he needed any volunteers from Project Healing Waters, a veterans group that strives to help veterans with physical and emotional rehabilitation.
He requested three or four volunteers. Milne arrived with close to three dozen volunteers.
“We come out and support the park and provide the volunteers to do fly tying and casting instruction. We also have some donated items that we just give away to the vets,” Milne said.
It is an informal collaboration that helps both entities.
“It helps us by providing volunteers to foster this event. It helps Project Healing Waters by having a venue…It’s a great partnership that we work with these folks,” Havens said.
Havens could use the help since the number of veterans has grown from 150 veterans its first year to 202 last year to this year’s 240 tags.
Two other veterans groups also expressed their interest in helping with Veterans Free Fishing Day but had not arrived Saturday morning. Havens welcomes all such groups.
“We encourage any group that’s affiliated with the military or with rehabilitating folks to contact us and come out. They can put a tent up and get their message out,” Havens said.
Havens said the benefits from all three free fishing day events last longer the events themselves by encouraging an interest in fishing.
“These guys can come out. Maybe they’re sitting at home. They don’t have a lot of friends. They’ve disconnected from the group they used to run with or whatever. They can come out here and meet new people, create partnerships and friendships, then we see them back in the park a couple of months from now fishing together,” Havens said.
Wally Parker, a Marine Corps veteran from St. Louis, entered the Corps in 1980 and served two full tours before leaving in 1988. He did not not stay a civilian for long.
“When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait August 2, 1990, I went back in,” Parker said.
Parker lost his left leg below the knee and made good use of an electric track chair Saturday on loan from the Missouri Department of Conservation. The loaner gave Parker a much safer platform from which to fish.
“I’m loving it. Every minute,” Parker said.
A long-time rod and reel man, Parker was honing his fledgling fly fishing skills.
“I started out with a spin cast reel down there, but Amy said I had enough fun with that. She’s bound and determined to get me on these fly rods. We’ll get her done eventually,” Parker said.
Parker’s interest in fly fishing began when attended some Project Healing Waters classes at Jefferson Barracks south of St. Louis. He received instruction in casting and rod building. A trip to Bennett Spring State Park was a natural next step.
The weather Saturday affected his progress toward fly fishing mastery to some degree.
“It’s going to be a while. In this wind it’s going to be a long while,” Parker said.
Havens and his hatchery crew placed 2,500 trout, each approaching one pound, in the stream Friday night along with 25 bunkers to make Zone Two a target rich environment for the veterans.
Anglers reported up to 70 trout caught by a single veteran angler with other large figures being common.
“There is a supreme opportunity for fishing out there…Out here this morning one guy had his limit in 12 minutes,” Havens said.
Westfal confirmed the success of the hatchery staff.
“I killed them this morning. I caught 48 in the first three hours,” Westfal said. He had the most luck using a black marabou.
He also had the chance to help out a fellow veteran who asked him for help.
“I took a deep dive for him this morning. His lure was stuck on that log. To get to it…my waders go to here. The water went to here (indicating a few inches higher), but hey, he asked me if I could get his lure. I’ll get his lure,” Westfal said.
Due to their numbers and the time it would take to clean and cook all their fish, veterans were treated to a free deep-fried catfish lunch rather than trout.
“I call catfish the whiskered trout,” Havens said.
“This right here is what this is all about, getting these guys out and letting them talk a little bit and get a little camaraderie going over fishing and fly rods and trout,” Havens said, indicating the group of veterans having lunch.
Afterward, the each veteran debated a return to fishing or calling it a day, a great day for filling a stringer and connecting with fellow veterans.
When Parker was thanked for his military service, his response could have as easily targeted Havens and his staff and the purpose of Veterans Free Fishing Day.
“Thank you for your recognition,” he said.