SHREVEPORT-BOSSIER CITY, La. – Many anglers go to Lake Amistad and come away marveling at the beauty of the lake and the bass that come out of it.
Some have said, to paraphrase, that fishing Amistad is a “spiritual experience.”
For J’van Perez, fishing at Lake Amistad proved to be an “actual” spiritual experience. But to understand the full magnitude of Perez and where he is today as a competitor at the year’s first Bass Pro Shops Southern Open, you have to understand from where Perez has come.
Perez, a U.S. Marine, served his country overseas in the Iraqi War and the majority of his time was spent as a machine gunner in Fallujah, which was the scene of some of the worst battles in the war. In 2007, at only 21 years of age, he was shot several times, with bullets entering his back, chest and hand. He was paralyzed from the waist down.
Perez rehabbed in Germany and Maryland and finally Texas -- a journey that saw him hospitalized for more than a year and a half. It was a grueling experience. He began to lose faith in himself and those around him. He was ill-tempered and keeping those closest to him out of his life.
There was a point, Perez said, when he wanted to take his own life.
And then, something happened inside Perez – inside his heart, his mind, his soul. He asked to be let out of the hospital and upon his medical release, he went to Amistad with a friend. What was to be a three-day trip of recreational fishing turned into a three-week period of self-discovery, or perhaps, better said, self “re-discovery.”
“Amistad, it gave me a complete 180,” the 27-year old Marion, Texas resident said. “Out there on the water, you think a lot. You think about your life, your future. I started going back to when I was a kid, thinking about my childhood. I thought about fishing and I just decided to go for it.”
“It” was his boyhood dream of fishing professionally. From as far back as he can remember, Perez would go to ponds in the San Antonio area where he was raised. He grew up poor, so in the absence of rods and reels, he would take a piece of line and tie a coke bottle and a popper on in an attempt to catch fish.
“You’d just pop the string with your hands to bring in the fish,” Perez said. “It was a different experience. We didn’t have much, but I did whatever I could to fish. And I loved Bassmasters. Always.”
Time passed, however, and Perez found himself in the military and finally in Iraq. And that’s where the battles, both external and internal, began.
“My life changed in a second (when I was shot,)” he said. “I went from retiring in 20 years to retiring in a few months. My life completely changed. I only had one year of college…I didn’t have many options. So it was hard on me. I was really depressed and really negative.”
And then came Amistad. And to hear Perez speak of the experience, it couldn’t have come a moment sooner.
“When I got hurt, I saw it as a negative thing,” he said. “I didn’t think about fishing or anything like that. But I went to Amistad for what was supposed to be three days and when I stayed for three weeks, I said ‘I can actually do this for a living.’ Me getting hurt made me realize that I could actually try to do what I thought was only a dream as a kid.”
He said, fishing, in essence eased his troubled mind.
“(Fishing is) finding yourself. You get away, you clear your head. Fishing helps you stimulate the mind. There’s a psychology behind it. I think that had a lot to do with (my turnaround.)”
But there was work to do if he was going to give a go at fishing professionally. He started on the local level, fishing regional events in Texas. He fished as a co-angler in a couple of Bassmaster Open events a few years ago and has fished events in a couple other professional series. This week’s Central Open on the Red River is his first BASS event as a boater.
He said his life began to turn around when he gave himself to God. He married his high school sweetheart, Crystal, and last year, after being told by numerous doctors that J’van couldn’t father children, the Perezes became the proud parents of a daughter, Kamila.
There still are obstacles to overcome on a daily basis. J’Van uses a wheelchair for mobility, and the hand that was wounded in Iraq forces him to do the bulk of his fishing with what was his less-dominant hand.
“I can’t set the hook with my left hand, so I literally have to grab the rod with the right and reel with my left,” he said. “It’s not that hard though, you get used to it. It just takes time.”
Time has allowed bass fishing to be part of J’van’s healing process. Though he didn’t make the cut at the first Southern Open, he’ll continue on to the two remaining open tournaments later this year in Oklahoma and Mississippi. Perez said he’s just happy for the chance.
“I wasn’t always this positive person,” he said. “I had a pretty bad start. But God has blessed me with a wonderful and supportive wife who lets me fish Monday through Friday. I treat it as a job. The weekends, I spend with my family and go to church. The support is the main thing.”
But there’s one other thing he’d like to accomplish, something other than his goal of becoming an Elite Angler and making the Bassmaster Classic.
“Organizations pay for my entry fees and I feel like people have a lot of faith in me,” Perez said. “I use that faith to try and be good at what I’m doing and to try to make a difference. I’m doing this because there are a lot of guys out there who are wounded veterans. I feel like they’re very underestimated…My goal is to make a difference for these guys. I want to be an inspiration and let them know ‘Hey, life is pretty hard after you get hurt….’
“But you also can let them see ‘Hey, this guy’s paralyzed from the waist down and he’s out there fishing. If he can do it, maybe I can….
“That’s where I feel I can make a difference. Maybe it’s only one person, but that is one person that can be helped.”