Ron Kersten had executed his bass-catching strategy masterfully, fishing the deep holes, the rocky points, the shad-spattered topwaters, the deep channels — all to no avail.
Alas, Staff Sgt. Thomas Boyd had not caught a thing.
Of course, Staff Sgt. Boyd didn’t mind a bit. The National Guard transportation specialist counted it a good day: not a single bass had taken a shot at him; not a single Improvised Explosive Device had gone off; not a single car backfire had jangled instincts drawn tight as a 50-pound catfish on a 30-pound line.
Staff Sgt. Boyd drove convoys in the invasion of Iraq, when the National Guard Hummers had barely any armor and no one realized that roadside explosives would cause most of the casualties in the long, frustrating war. He also did a tour in Afghanistan. In fact, he spent more than three years in combat while his wife raised the kids. As a result, the need to look everywhere all at once has seeped down into his bone marrow and echoes in his dreams.
So as far as Boyd was concerned, bobbing around on Roosevelt Lake on a skillet-hot June day felt like a little touch of paradise — although he knew nothing at all about professional-level bass fishing, with three rigged poles, sonar bass finders and 70-mile-an-hour boats to cover as much lake as possible.
“I’m the king of the sit-on-the-bank-and-throw-in-a-bobber,” confessed Boyd.
They’d been out since dawn on the Caribbean-blue waters of Roosevelt Lake, one of 32 boats in which bass-fishing professionals had paired up with combat veterans as part of Warriors on the Water sponsored by the FLW bass fishing tournament tour.
Mind you, the Mesa-based Kersten had pulled in four good-sized bass of his own — each a foot long and a couple of pounds. But all he really wanted was to somehow coax a lunker onto Boyd’s hook.
“It was tough. It was tough,” said Kersten. “The bass were not chasing shad, while a few weeks ago anybody throwing anything was catching fish. It’s just a whole different lake,” he said, with water levels down below 60 percent of full.
Kersten recalled that last spring oodles of bass hid in drowned stock tanks near where the Salt River enters the lake, giving anglers fish-farm odds of pulling bass out of the holes. This year, those same honey holes are just mud flats.
But with the 10 a.m. return to the dock looming, Kersten figured he had one more shot: A rocky point within sight of the dock at the Grapevine boat ramps. So he advised the staff sergeant to rig for deep water, figuring the unseasonable heat had driven the big bass deep.
Some 30 feet down in the chill of the bottom water, something hit Boyd’s hook hard.
He soon landed a monster bass — just short of 5 pounds, with a mouth so big he could have fed on ducks.
That’s how it went for most of the 32 combat veterans who fought in every war since World War II, all savoring the day, the appreciation of the bass fishing professionals and the bliss of water lapping against the hull of the boat in the country they’d risked everything to protect.
Boyd has spent a lot of time since his last tour working for Project We Remember, which raises money and enlists volunteers to help returning combat veterans restart their civilian lives. They bring bags of clothes, pay overdue mortgages and clean yards for guys who lost their legs.
They all paid a toll as a result of the endless deployment, the strain of a war without front lines, the disorientation of coming home to a country where people hardly think about the decade-long war, said Boyd.
“The guys have had a lot of problems,” he said, “with divorce, with PTSD. You’ve got guys coming home from extended exposure to a high-tempo environment and they’re just not ready for civilian life. They come back and go to work at Ford and Chevrolet, and you can’t just stop.”
Over there, you need instincts, acute awareness — and luck. That went double for the National Guard guys during the invasion of Iraq, with their second-tier equipment and unarmored trucks. They expected to run the convoys well behind the front lines, but every convoy turned into the front line — with insurgents indistinguishable from civilians launching missiles from windows and every major road rigged with bombs.
“It was like the wild west, not like any other type of combat. It was a real eye-opener,” said the soft-spoken Boyd, with a body-builder’s build and an amiable courtesy.
“We just have to adapt our SOP’s (standard operating procedures), adapt to our surroundings — and figure out some way to up-armor our vehicles. And because of the ‘hearts and mind’ approach, we couldn’t call everybody an enemy.”
Like the rest of the guys in his unit, he struggled to adjust when he got home.
“I had a short temper. I was skittish. I would drive watching everything at once.”
But not on Saturday. The sergeant was just fine with the world on a very down-tempo day.
And Ron Kersten? How’d he feel when the fish-bobber amateur put him to shame by hooking Moby Bass?
“Just absolutely made my day,” said Kersten.