Healing Heroes in Action Tour

Evers and W.W.I.A: Lessons in faith

The participants (L-R): Ott DeFoe, Jesse Steele, Brian Eisch, Edwin Evers, Justin Walts, Andy Montgomery, Andy Vallombroso and Dave Dziob.

AUBURN, N.Y. — This story contains all the elements: life, death and life after the death of a child. It’s about war and peace, freedom and its cost. It’s about seemingly chance human connections that later seem orchestrated, as if they were meant to be. Ultimately, it’s about faith.

And, yes, it’s about bass fishing. This story even has fishing tips.

“Andy has already taught me how to fish a hairy jig,” said Justin Walts, early Monday morning, June 28, adding a humorous “y” to the name of the simple lure that’s become widely known over the past year as dynamite for smallmouth bass.

“Everybody wants to put some action on it – hop it, twitch it – but you’ve got to reel it straight back,” said Bassmaster Elite Series angler Andy Montgomery.

You want to know why big smallmouth bass bite a little black synthetic hair jig? Keep reading.

The event

The latest chapter of the Optima Batteries Healing Heroes in Action Tour presented by General Tire unfolded at Skaneateles Lake, one of central New York’s Finger Lakes. Edwin Evers had no inkling of what he was getting into two years ago when he made a decision to honor, in his own small way, U.S. military veterans. The result has been bigger than Evers could have imagined.

On this day, fresh off the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament at Cayuga Lake, Evers enlisted the help of two fellow competitors – Montgomery and Ott DeFoe. They were paired with Purple Heart recipients through the Wounded Warriors In Action Foundation: Evers with Brian Eisch of Sandy Creek, N.Y., DeFoe with Jesse Steele of Croghan, N.Y., and Montgomery with Walts, who lives in Great Bend, N.Y.

Healing Heroes N.Y. photos: On the water | Weigh-in

Winning the bid to compete in this event was Andy Vallombroso and his partner Dave Dziob. Those two made this quite an assembly of fishing knowledge. Vallombroso is the owner of Andy’s Custom Bass Lures in Madison, Conn. It was with a jig designed by Evers and Vallombroso that Evers won the Bassmaster Classic in March. Dziob, a prominent tournament bass angler in the northeast, owns Tackle Supply Depot in Wallingford, Conn.

The rules for his four-team tournament were as follows: Rule #1 – There are no rules. That was the light-hearted theme of the day, but there actually were a couple of rules: five bass limit for each team, and the pros could contribute only two of those five. Competition would end at 2 p.m., give or take a few minutes, as it turned out.

No matter how carefree the format, it’s impossible to keep tournament anglers from slipping into competitive mode. Shortly after the 7 a.m. takeoff, Evers hooked a smallmouth bass that put a deep bend in his spinning rod.

“Wow, that’s a big one!” Ever shouted within earshot of Vallombruso and Dziob. Evers landed the fish on the opposite side of the boat from his competitors, high-fived Eisch, opened the livewell lid as if he were keeping the “big one,” then slipped the half-pound smallmouth back in the lake.

“Tell me we’re not in their heads right now,” Evers whispered.

Brian Eisch and Edwin Evers bring a keeper into the boat during the New York stop of the Healing Heroes in Action tour.

Tom Testa operated a camera boat nearby. He and Eisch are good friends. As Testa got close, Eisch said, “Look how short Edwin’s got the tag end on my drop shot – four inches, maybe. I love it. I’m learning.”

Quipped Testa, “I’m sure Edwin loves fishing with kids.”

That would be the theme of the day – friendly smack-talk, give-and-take.

On the water

Skaneateles (pronounced “skinny-atlas”) Lake is 17 miles long, averages three-fourths of a mile wide and has a maximum depth of 315 feet. Like the other Finger Lakes, it flows south to north, toward Lake Ontario. It’s billed as “one of the cleanest lakes in the world.” The City of Syracuse uses Skaneateles Lake’s water unfiltered, adding only chlorine and fluoride.

As you might guess, smallmouth bass flourish in the clear water, which also has a naturally reproducing population of lake trout. Largemouth bass congregate at the southern end, where aquatic vegetation grows in a big shallow flat. When the south wind started creating white-capped waves and almost all the smallmouth being caught were 12 inches or less, a decision was made to move the tournament south.

“This is what a sandstorm feels like in Afghanistan,” said Walts as Montgomery high-tailed it to the opposite end of the lake. The soft rain felt like BBs hitting bare skin when Montgomery’s boat hit 70 miles per hour.

Upon arrival, it seemed as though late March had turned into early May. The forested ridges that rise 600 feet above the lake shielded the south wind. The stiff breeze and white caps were replaced by the soprano of songbirds, the thumping bass of bullfrogs and barely rippled water.

Andy Montgomery and Justin Walts fish New York’s picturesque Skaneateles Lake.

Montgomery has never seen a boat dock that he didn’t believe had a bass underneath it. He trolled in front of a covered boat house and pitched a Strike King Sexy Dawg so far into the darkness under the dock you could only hear its splash. A 3-pound largemouth bass blew up on the topwater bait. It was the smallest of three more bass that followed as Montgomery reeled it in. Montgomery and Walts wouldn’t venture far from this mother lode the remainder of the day.

Meanwhile, DeFoe was parked near the opposite shore, teaching Steele the details of sight-fishing. Spawning beds were visible, few fish were locked on them, but there were lots of cruisers.

“See that fish right there?” DeFoe said to Steele. “Cast about 5 feet to the right of where you threw last time.”

Like Montgomery and Walts, DeFoe and Steele had found their “camping area” for the remainder of the tournament. With a combination of wacky-rigged worms and topwater lures, they wouldn’t go long between bites until weigh-in time. Evers and Eisch were on a similar path, within sight, but well beyond shouting distance.

There was a considerable amount of teaching occurring between knowledgeable pros and eager military veterans – vets who were anything but novice anglers.

  • Walts was kicked off his high school baseball team for skipping practice to smallmouth bass fish on New York’s Black River. He would fish his second Bassmaster Open at Oneida Lake later that week and finish 60th among 199 co-anglers.
  • Steele’s father was in the U.S. Coast Guard, and as a result he’s lived in several fishing hot spots. Though a New York resident now, he calls Panama City, Fla., his hometown. He’s also lived in Oregon and Alaska, where he once landed a 157-pound halibut.
  • Eisch is vice president of the New York B.A.S.S. Nation, and in the past year has become the owner of a one-man bass fishing lure company, Tricky Phish Baits, which includes a variety of soft plastic lures.

Later, Eisch recounted Evers telling him, “I know you know how to fish, so I’m going to be critical. One time he said, ‘You can’t just flop you bait in the water like that,’ and another time he reminded me, ‘Close the (spinning reel) bail with your hand or you’re going to twist the line.’

“It was an honor to fish with him. Awesome. I couldn’t have asked for a better day.”

Vallombroso and Dziob were the exceptions to the southern trend at Skaneatles Lake. They didn’t stick around long, heading back north to smallmouth waters to play a numbers game, catching more than 100 smallmouth bass, mostly on Megabass Vision 110 jerkbaits, particularly after the clouds gave way to blue skies. (Why that particular jerkbait? They didn’t have a definitive answer, other than they tried others that didn’t produce as well.)

There were late arrivals for the 2 p.m. check-in time, but due to Rule No. 1, no penalties were assessed. Earlier in the day, Evers had predicted it would take 15 pounds to win the tournament. After catching so many “knot-head” smallmouth bass in the first two hours, Montgomery forecast a winning weight of 12 1/2 pounds, and Walts, with a prediction of 9 pounds, was even more pessimistic.

The startling results were as follows: 1. Walts-Montgomery, 17-11; 2. Eisch-Evers, 15-2; 3. Steele-DeFoe, 13-9; 4. Vallombroso-Dziob, 10-4.

“This is the first one of these in awhile that Edwin hasn’t won,” noted unofficial official tournament director and weigh-master Steve Bowman.

“I probably won’t be invited back,” said Montgomery with a smile.

A serious mission

All this fun had a serious backdrop: the Purple Heart recipients participating. The Purple Heart is a combat decoration awarded to members of the U.S. armed forces who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy. (It is also given posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action.) It is the Purple Heart that separates the Wounded Warriors In Action Foundation from some other military veterans groups, like the similarly named Wounded Warrior Project, which has recently come under scrutiny for its lavish spending.

Eisch had scampered between the front and back decks of Evers’ boat all day on a carbon fiber prosthetic lower leg. In 2010 Eisch took two .308 caliber machine gun bullets in the lower leg while attempting to rescue an injured Afghan soldier, who eventually survived severe wounds. Eisch returned from the war in Afghanistan with his painful leg intact, but it later required a mid-calf amputation.

Steele bore a 6-inch scar visible at the base of his neck. After first being injured with shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade in October ’06, Steele was a vehicle gunner in May ’07 when a bullet entered his jaw and exited his neck on the opposite side of his face. Another round penetrated the top of his shoulder and lodged in his chest, where it remains.

“I’ve got a card that allows me past airport metal detectors,” Steele said.

Like many veterans of wars past and present, Walts prefers not to detail the events surrounding his injuries suffered as a Marine in Afghanistan, saying only, “I’m just happy to be here, living for those who aren’t here anymore, and we had quite a few of them.”

Eisch claims bass fishing saved his life after his military career ended. He’d previously been a walleye fisherman in his home state of Wisconsin when he made the decision in Feb. 2011 to become “a tournament bass fisherman,” Eisch recalled. “That saved me. I had a purpose. After you’ve been 100 percent Army, when you get out you’ve got to be 100 percent something else.”

Eisch, however, has a non-military related tragedy in his life that overshadows everything. It was while driving to the pre-tournament dinner for one of these W.W.I.A. events with Evers last year when Eisch learned his 12-year-old son Joey was in critical condition in a Syracuse hospital after being run over by a pickup truck while riding his bicycle.

Eisch and his wife, Maria, Joey’s stepmother, went immediately to the hospital, where Eisch was met with news that Joey’s life couldn’t be saved. They couldn’t return home, where the accidental death scene continued to be investigated, so Eisch made a decision to return to Evers’ W.W.I.A. event.

“What a better thing to do, something that Joey loved and what I loved, after he passed away,” said Eisch. “I thought Joey would want me to do this.”

“I’ve never been religious, but that opened my eyes,” added Eisch, about having an outlet immediately available with Evers to take his mind off the tragedy. “I think it was by design.

“It was devastating. It still is. I talk to Joey every day. I have his photograph in my truck. I have his photograph on my [lure-making equipment]. He’s gone physically, but his spirit is still here with me.”

For his part, Evers had to summon some spiritual strength previously untapped so he could be a source of strength for Eisch. That W.W.I.A. event began a week that Evers would punctuate by winning the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament at the St. Lawrence River on Aug. 2.

“Edwin called me after that tournament,” Eisch said. “He told me that he didn’t do it alone. He said, ‘I think Joey was on the boat with me.’”

Keeping the faith

Evers had some other help in winning that tournament. It’s no secret around the St. Lawrence River that a 1/8th- or 1/16th-ounce black marabou or synthetic hair jig can be an effective lure for big smallmouth bass at times, and this was one of those times. As those rumors filtered through the Elite Series ranks, Evers recalled that he’d been given a package of those jigs several years before by Andy Vallombroso, while they were working a boat show in Massachusetts. Evers was able to find the jigs in his pickup truck, and they became a key component in his tournament-winning pattern.

Vallombroso’s company, Andy’s Custom Bass Lures, is well known in the northeastern U.S., but not so much elsewhere. He’s been making “simply the world’s best hand-tied jigs” since 1981. Vallombroso didn’t invent the synthetic hair jig, but he did some scuba diving to discover why they’re so effective. Smallmouth bass feast on catfish fry at certain times, and Vallombroso has the pictures to prove how well these jigs imitate catfish fry.

His underwater fact-findings have helped refine his other jig patterns as well, particularly crawfish imitations. Vallombroso also knows the merits of flat vs. round living rubber jig material. Through conversations with Evers after the St. Lawrence event last year, they decided to work together. The result was Andy’s E Series Finesse Jig – the “E” is for “Evers.”

As you might recall, it was with Andy’s E Series Finesse Jig that Evers caught 29 pounds on the final day to win the GEICO Bassmaster Classic at Grand Lake O’ The Cherokees in March. It would be an understatement to say that Vallombroso has been a busy man since then. Business is booming.

“I think this was meant to be,” said Vallombruso, looking back at this decade-long string of events – his initial meeting with Evers when he handed him a package of jigs, Evers winning at the St. Lawrence River with those jigs, combining with Evers to design a new jig, Evers winning the Bassmaster Classic with the E Series jig.

Prior to March, Evers had to be wondering whether he’d ever win one of the two major crowns of B.A.S.S. – Angler of the Year and Classic champion. He’d been frustratingly close, falling from the AOY lead during the final tournament in 2013 and finishing third in the 2014 Classic at Lake Guntersville. At 41 years old, it wasn’t like Evers was running out of time or hadn’t already been successful. But that list of “Best Anglers Who Have Never Won A Classic” is a compliment you’d rather not have on your resume.

You could say the foundation for Evers 2016 Classic title was poured at the St. Lawrence River in 2015 with Brian Eisch and Andy Vallombroso as unknowing participants.

Every element of this day at Skaneateles Lake was about keeping your faith, from faith in the next cast to faith that there will be better days after unthinkable tragedy. This was one of those better days.

“Faith is not being sure where you’re going but going anyway. A journey without maps.”
— Frederick Buechner