By Sara Goodeyon
TULSA -- A group of Airmen, Soldiers and Marines were treated to a free day of fishing July 21 at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake in southeastern Kansas to thank them for their service and give them some downtime.
McConnell Air Force Base Outdoor Recreation Director Jim Vause teamed with the American Bass Anglers Southeast Kansas District 58 for their annual "Take an Airman" fishing day at Big Hill Lake, as a part of the ABA's Operation Rod and Reel. The group hosted 29 active duty military men and women from McConnell while it also held its final one day tournament of the year.
The day of fishing is just one of the many activities Vause seeks to offer to McConnell's military personnel, all in an effort to get them off the base and out experiencing the surrounding community. And with Big Hill Lake, a trophy fishing lake and one of the clearest lakes in Kansas only 122 miles from the installation, fishing is an obvious option.
"It's close enough to get to easily and far enough away to get quiet time and to relax without the crowds," said Vause. "It gives them a different view of Kansas. It provides them the opportunity to get out and see things they can do when they are home. So often they get back from these rotations that are 90 to 120 days, or some that are six months, and they have to get packed and move on to the next duty station. We want to take care of them so that they can get their energy back, get recharged and then come back to the fight."
The American Bass Anglers Association and Early Times Kentucky Whiskey joined forces to create Operation Rod & Reel. The program allows active-duty service members from selected military installations to receive fishing equipment and a free fishing trip to a local ABA tournament
"Quite a few of the ABA members are retired military and they approached us and said, 'hey, we want to give something back to the military guys. We want to sponsor a day of fishing for the military guys to come and let us provide them a one day membership and get them out on a boat with the ABA members for a real tournament experience,'" said Vause.
It is the third year the ABA has hosted personnel from McConnell and the participation has increased each year. The McConnell ODR served as the "bellybutton" this year, thereby making it much easier for personnel to sign up to participate, said Vause.
"This was the most we have ever had from McConnell; this is definitely something we can build on going into the future," said Jodi Udock, assistant director of District 58, who lives in Joplin.
The service members, many of whom had never fished in a bass tournament, were each paired with an ABA member with a boat that day, a feat accomplished by Becky Minor, Eagle Claw Pro staff, Eagle Claw Baits, and an ABA member. Minor reached out to ABA members in District 58 and a neighboring district to arrange for 29 ABA anglers and their boats to be available for the event.
"Our anglers were very excited about doing this and in having the service members do well," said Minor. "You know the ABA started out in North Carolina more than 30 years ago when some military personnel there formed a fishing team. So we are always excited to have these guys come and fish with us. We always have a good time."
In fact, visiting military tournament winner Staff Sgt. Jon Brennan, U.S. Army Wichita Recruiting Company, reeled in a 19-and-a-half inch largemouth, his largest catch ever.
"It was such as great feeling watching him fight that fish," said ABA angler Jim Clay, who was Brennan's boater that day. "It was the biggest he caught in his life, and it meant so much to me to be able to be there as he did that."
Brennan won a portable fish finder, courtesy of Mid Kansas Marine, and a $50 gift card from the McConnell Army Air Force Exchange. Early times Whiskey donated an Eagle Claw rod and reel to every service member who showed up, and AAFES donated $175 in gift cards and $400 in tackle.
Many of the service members have since been in touch with Vause seeking information on other Corps lakes where they can go fishing again. Minor says the ABA usually ends up getting one or two new members after the event.
The success of the event in Kansas has led to hopes that it can be expanded to other states. Minor is currently in touch with her counterparts in Missouri in an effort to get an Operation Rod and Reel event scheduled in that state in conjunction with Whiteman AFB.