Heroes on the Water – The Fisherman

Heroes on the Water

2017 5 Heroes On The Water HEROES PORTRAIT
There are several New Jersey events this season where U.S. service veterans can join the Heroes on the Water program. Photo by Neriza Hufnagle

Why I love Heroes on the Water.

It was May 16, 2015 at 4:30 a.m. My fishing kayak was strapped to the roof of my truck, my tackle was in the back seat and a 7- by 16-foot enclosed trailer was on the hitch. With the connections checked, safety chains and lights, I was ready to go fishing; I had about an hour and a half drive from my home to Wilson Lake, so I gave an extra half hour.

At the time I didn’t have a real clue what I was getting myself involved in, or who I would meet, so it was good to have a little time to think on the drive. This was going to be my very first Heroes on the Water kayak fishing event, and I knew I would be asked to guide a veteran. “No problem, I am a veteran myself,” I thought to myself. I have fished for a few years and have some hours in a kayak, I just didn’t know the circumstances of who I would be with that day, but I was ready.

2017 5 Heroes On The Water HEROES PADDLING
Kayak fishing provides a chance to decompress from the stresses associated with combat and the physical rigors of rehabilitation. Photo by Neriza Hufnagle

Arriving at the lake, I was greeted by about a dozen happy smiling guys and a couple of gals, all who introduced themselves and thanked me for bringing the trailer. This trailer holds some magic, stuffed full of kayaks and fishing gear for the day’s event. Shortly after, a few veterans showed, and introductions were made over coffee, donuts and bagels. At that point there were about 23 kayaks for veterans and an equal number of volunteer kayaks. I was amazed at how efficient these folks were at setting up for the day.

I was paired up with a Vietnam vet who seemed visibly tense. My two older brothers both served in Vietnam, and I served in the Gulf War; I can’t completely relate, but I can talk some and listen. He had never kayaked before, and two of us paddled off in search of some bass while talking about our own military experiences and sharing a few laughs. We ended up getting pretty tangled up, and then a thunderstorm blew in, forcing us to take cover under a tree to wait it out.

Lunch was awesome; sub sandwiches and potato salad, cold soda, fresh air and more laughter. In fact, we laughed a lot. We did not catch a single fish, even though a lot of bass were caught; I drew a skunk for my veteran, and as we were heading in at the end of the day, I was apologetic that I couldn’t get him on a fish. He looked at me, with a visible tear in his eye and told me, “I have not been this calm since before ‘Nam.”

2017 5 Heroes On The Water HEROES AND THEIR KAYAKS
A group of American heroes gathers at Wilson Lake for a day of kayak fishing with volunteers from Heroes on the Water. Photo by Neriza Hufnagle

I did not catch any fish that day, I got way better than that; at that very moment I realized that the phrase “Freedom Captured” was more than a tag line and I was hooked.

The New Jersey Chapter of Heroes on the Water is a 100 percent volunteer organization with the goal of rehabilitating our wounded veterans and their families through the therapeutic power of kayak fishing. We supply the kayak and all safety gear for the day as well as all rods, reels and tackle. We provide lunch and breakfast, and even a fishing license for the day as needed, as well as personalized coaches to both help and instruct.

Heroes on the Water is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization headquartered in Texas and founded in 2012 by Jim Dolan, a veteran himself, who realized how relaxing and life changing kayak fishing could be. A part of a national organization now with 79 chapters in the United States as well as abroad, our New Jersey Chapter hosts various events all year long, from paddle skills and self-rescue at the indoor pool on Fort Dix and Rutgers, to fly tying workshops throughout the state and our on-water fishing trips from the New York line down to Cape May.

I’m proud that I can still serve our nation’s warriors, and that I can get to help ”Paddle, Fish, Heal.” If you’re looking for a pretty rewarding kayak fishing trip this season, I highly recommend looking us up!

2017 5 Heroes On The Water HEROES WITH FISH
A Vietnam veteran shows off a small pickerel taken while fishing for the first time on a kayak. Photo by Neriza Hufnagle
NATIONAL & LOCAL CHAPTERS

Learn more about Heroes on the Water by finding them on Facebook or visiting www.heroesonthewater.org. The site has a listing of all the state chapters throughout the United States, including New Jersey (contact Vicki Gordon at NJ@HeroesOnTheWater.org) as well as Central Pennsylvania (contact Adam Gagne at CentralPA@HeroesOnTheWater.org) and Long Island/NYC (contact Jerry “Capt. Kayak” Collins at LongIslandNYC@HeroesOnTheWater.org.)

Contact the author at eric.chamberlain@hownj.com

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