Healing Heroes: Anglers learn from service veterans

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James Overstreet
The four teams that took part in the Oklahoma stop of the OPTIMA Batteries Healing Heroes in Action Tour presented by General Tire.

MADILL, Okla. — It sounded like the opening scene of the movie Saving Private Ryan, said Levi Crawford, in describing the 2010 attack in Afghanistan that nearly took his life. That’s all Crawford could do – hear it, because the initial rocket propelled grenade explosion blinded him when it struck his Buffalo mine-protected vehicle. A cacophony of mortar rounds and small arms fire followed the first RPG.

Crawford spent 10 months recovering in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He is blind in his left eye and bears a massive scar along the inside of his right arm, which was almost amputated.

With that as background, consider the words that Crawford spoke Monday morning while fishing with Edwin Evers.

Photos from Healing Heroes in Oklahoma: Evers on the water | Horton, Zaldain on the water | Weigh-in

“It’s all in how you look at stuff,” Crawford said. “If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here fishing with Edwin.”

It’s that kind of perspective on life that convinced Evers to put together a second season of the Optima Batteries Healing Heroes In Action Tour. A year ago, he wanted to do something for injured war veterans, when this plan first came to fruition. After what Evers experienced, he had to do it again.

The 2016 GEICO Bassmaster Classic champion has innumerable demands on his time these days, but this remains priority No. 1 with Evers, who calls it, “Maybe the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

With the previous week’s Elite Series event at Lake Texoma being somewhat near his hometown of Talala, Evers was able to get some local help for the first of four events this year. Three generations of the Savage family in Madill, Okla., generously offered their “Ponderosa” of a pecan farm spread, which features two 30-plus-acre lakes managed for bass fishing.

Evers had only recently come to know Basil Savage Sr. and Jr. through his own fledgling pecan farm business. It isn’t like they’re longtime friends. But when the Savage family heard of this opportunity, they were all in. They even brought in a backhoe and a few truckloads of limestone to build new boat ramps at each lake, ramps that would facilitate the launching of full-size bass boats.

The winner of the bidding, which raises money for the Wounded Warriors In Action Foundation, had a local angle too. Chuck Wells is postmaster at the Oolagah-Talala U.S. Postal Service office. He and his brother, Doug, who lives in Tulsa, are frequent partners in local bass fishing tournaments.

The format was a four-team shoot-out. Evers asked a pair of fellow Elite Series anglers – Chris Zaldain and Timmy Horton ­– to lead the other teams. So it was the Wells brothers, who could weigh their three biggest bass, and three pro and W.W.I.A. angler teams, with the pro able to contribute only one bass to their three-bass limits.

“I smell bacon and a butt-whipping,” quipped Crawford as he walked into the Savage’s guesthouse for breakfast Monday morning. Yes, there was going to be a bit of trash talking on this day, when two teams would fish on each lake from 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m.

The Crawford/Evers team and the Wells Bros. spent the day on what was dubbed Lake Optima; Zaldain and Tyson Scott from Amarillo, Texas, fished on Lake General Tire, in a tip of the hat to another sponsor, along with Horton and Grady Rakestraw from Elk City, Okla.

In a telling note about how much the veterans have enjoyed this experience, Scott was back for a second tour with Evers. He fished the initial Optima Batteries Healing Heroes In Action event last year at Grosse Savanne Lodge near Lake Charles, La., prior to the Sabine River 2015 Elite Series season opener.

Scott, a former U.S. Marine who earned his Purple Heart in 2006 during an Iraq mortar attack, showed up with considerably advanced bass fishing skills from a year ago, and Zaldain quickly took him a couple rungs higher.

“Chris showed me how to fish a bunch of different baits, while he was throwing swimbaits that looked like muskies,” Scott said.

Rakestraw, a former Marine, was shot in the knee with an AK47 round while clearing buildings in Iraq in 2003. (It was the last bullet the shooter ever fired.) Like the other two service veterans, his biggest bass prior to Monday was a 4-pounder.

“I broke that record four or five times today,” Rakestraw said.

Crawford, who lives in Jonesboro, Ark., was ecstatic about his newly acquired flipping skills, saying, “This is as fun as a topwater bite, once you get a little confidence. Just a few tips from Edwin, a few little changes, that’s all it took.”

Well, that and Crawford catching the 7-pound, 11-ounce big bass of the day. That was a big part of Crawford and Evers winning the first-place trophy.

Final results of the three-bass limits were as follows: 1. Levi Crawford/Edwin Evers 17-12; 2. Tyson Scott/Chris Zaldain 15-8; 3. Chuck Wells/Doug Wells 15-6; 4. Grady Rakestraw/Timmy Horton 14-7.

Maybe Crawford really did small bacon and a butt-whipping Monday morning.