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By Bob Bechtold Jr., Major, US Army (Ret)

JUNE 23-26, 2022 | Tangle Lakes, Alaska

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In June 1974, I naively entered the U.S. Military, but with a feeling of invincibility and an enormous zeal to serve our great nation.  And exactly 48 years later, I was privileged to assist others who had signed on with Uncle Sam’s military as inspired soldiers, airmen and sailors.  But this weekend, June 23-26, we who have served had a different mission – to assist others to continue a healing process through fly fishing for Grayling while surrounded by the beautiful Cathedral Mountains and in the series of entangled lakes, appropriately named the Tangle Lakes.  This weekend was not all about the fishing however.  Actually, that was a small part of our mission.  Our mission for Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is to help those who have served our great nation to heal.  

It is about the camaraderie and the stories, to help those who served to deal with the many struggles, challenges, head and heart aches, hardships, and misfortunes during many years of serving our nation.  Most of us have who have served, have served on foreign soil, and for many of us as kids, we only read about these places in National Geographic magazines.

So, our group of participants and volunteers drove the 270 miles to fish for Grayling, known as the sailfish of the north, due to their large dorsal fins.  (See attached photos.)  Grayling are abundant in certain water bodies in northern Alaska, parts of Canada and Europe.  Surveys show that over 2200 Grayling live in a mile of Tangle Lakes water body, that we were fishing.  These fish are generally not known for their size, but make up for it in sheer numbers. Actually, I do appreciate that Grayling devour so many biting insects every summer day.  The Grayling that we caught in our two days of fishing from 9 am to 4 pm were 9” to 16”, unless you have a propensity to stretch the truth or a great imagination. 

Yes, we caught dozens of Grayling each day, and perhaps some of us caught over a hundred Grayling each day.  We were kind to the Grayling and released them quickly and respectfully.  A few had to have their photos taken, so as to provide evidence to the non-believers.

Serving those who have served is a great calling that I feel has always been high on my list of lifelong priorities.  Perhaps it was engrained into me as a child through pledging allegiance to the flag every school day, standing and placing my hand over my heart for the pledge and for the national anthem, and having a father and eight uncles who all served in the U.S. military.

Our six Wasilla Group participants were all cooperative team players and caught multiple Grayling each day.  Fly fishing and casting experience, along with some physical limitations from military service-connected injuries determines the amount of assistance provided to participants by our volunteers.  We offered assistance as needed.  The algae-covered rocks and boulders are quite slick and wading staffs were used to minimize the self-induced spills into the water.  Although the spills may have provided a cooling off of the fisherman from the sun and 82-degree heat, along with a short reprieve from the bugs, as they hovered in the thousands when the wind subsided. 

Two of our 2022 PHWFF participants, or ‘newbie’ participants, have proven to be great additions to our Wasilla group.  Both caught many Grayling and were instrumental in assisting others and being total team players.  One of our ‘newbies’ endured having me be his assigned assistant and of course the one being assisted had much more fly fishing experience and extremely smooth fly casting skills.  The other ‘newbie’ is a superb fisherman and a MacGyver-type.  He can fix anything with duct tape, baling wire and a ratchet strap.  Our MacGyver used a ratchet strap to keep by camper rear axle from continuing down the road at an 80-degree angle to the trailer, and that temporary fix held all the way home for 270 miles with many frost heaves.  MacGyver saved my camper and helped me greatly.  What impressed me the most is that seven or eight very considerate PHWFF volunteers and participants stopped to assist me, when we were incorporating the MacGyver repairs along the Denali Highway, of which the word Highway is a very loose term.  It has many big frost heaves that can airborne a trailer and cause things to break.  Let’s say that I know from experience. 

About half of our participants served during the Vietnam War Era and half during the War Against Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The phenomenal mesh of these fine characters as they banter about their branch of service and share war and fish stories that are quite enthralling and yet very believable.  That is when the true healing of each of our warriors is taking place in my view.  It is a pleasure and privilege to participate and assist these warriors, whom I have grown to respect and admire.  My serving them is a small way that I feel I can show my appreciation for their service.

This much-needed respite to Tangle Lakes to fish for Grayling was an annual event until COVID-19 ruined the past two years.  And this event was not possible without the great support and dedicated service provided by our boat drivers from our Bureau of Land Management partners.  It is wonderful to have their friendly service and knowledge of the waterways offered by our boat drivers.   One boat driver went way above the call of duty by providing a scrumptious Copper River king salmon fillet that was grilled to perfection and melted in your mouth at our awesome potluck dinner Saturday night.  The mouth-watering king salmon produced many comments of “this tastes like butter” and “that hit the spot.”

The bonds that band us together is our love of country and willingness to serve and have served many years, and for some, many years ago.  And fortunately, we seem to never forget no matter how many years ago we served in the military.  We shared a weekend of enjoyable fishing and stories that we will one day appreciate more and even some that we will believe one day, especially those about fishing.

And this weekend serving our veterans caused me to reflect on the third verse of our national anthem: 

Oh thus be it ever, when free men shall stand

Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation! 

Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land 

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!  

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, 

And this be our motto: In God is our trust!  

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave 

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

May we never forget those who served so that we may be free.

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