Fishing Saddam's waters

You can take a bass angler away from his fishing, but you can't take the fishing away from the bass angler.

This is true even — or especially — when the angler is a serviceman or servicewoman on duty in a distant land. In past wars, soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have always found the time and means to put conflict on the back burner — albeit temporarily — in order to have a little fun.

The current mission in Iraq is no different. All work and no play leads to tired spirits and poor morale. Therefore, servicemen have played innumerable ball games, flown model airplanes, practiced archery, tossed horseshoes and pursued other leisure activities. One imaginative group laid out a golf course on a sandy tract and dubbed it the TPC (Tournament Players Course) at Mosul.

Then there were/are the fishermen! Where and how in this arid Middle East country would anglers ever wet a line? Don't worry; they found the waters and the ways. Some of the waters were Saddam Hussein's private lakes that had been off-limits to the public prior to the dictator's downfall. Others were the fabled Tigris and Euphrates rivers and their tributaries.

And the ways? Each angling soldier improvised his own. Collectively, they made tackle, found tackle, or had it sent from home. They scavenged materials. They whittled lures. They baited with human food. And they caught fish — maybe not bass, but scaly, swimming creatures that bit bait and pulled back on line.

In the process, these anglers escaped the stresses of war, and they practiced the ages-old traditions of challenge, relaxation and companionship that come through fishing. Following are the stories of several men who refused to let conflict and being in a distant country keep them from pursuing the pleasures of hook-and-line.

Sgt. Cesar Curiel: Necessity is the mother of invention

Sgt. Cesar Curiel is a helicopter mechanic with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, stationed at Ft. Polk, La. He was deployed to Iraq with his unit from March 2003 to April 2004.

Before going to Iraq, Sgt. Curiel was an avid, frequent fisher of bass and other species. A few weeks after arriving in-country, he got an opportunity to resume this pastime, albeit in a most unorthodox manner.

"I was stationed at Baghdad International Airport, and one day I ran into a buddy I'd spent some time with in Korea," Sgt. Curiel explains. "He told me his unit was headquartered at Saddam Hussein's palace on the airport grounds, and the palace had a lake surrounding it. He said he'd seen fish coming up, so we decided to try to make some tackle and catch some of them."

The two men had access to a warehouse that was filled with spare parts for obsolete Iraqi airplanes. These parts provided the materials Sgt. Curiel and his buddy needed to assemble rods and reels. "We made two rods from 1/4-inch aluminum tubing. We taped on some eyelets, and we cut up a wooden broomstick for handles.

"Next, we made reels out of some rollers and bearings. We used wire to hold the reels on the rods. We found some line and hooks in a pilot's survival vest. It took us three or four days to put everything together. When we finished working, we had outfits that would cast up to around 35 feet."

Next, Sgt. Curiel and his friend turned to making lures. They found some wooden dowels that were used to hold mosquito netting over cots. They sawed a couple of inches off these dowels and used the pieces to whittle topwater lures. They fitted them with bills so their "minnows" would wiggle. They also tapered the backs for a more natural appearance, and they cemented hooks in slots carved into the lures' bodies. Finally, they painted their minnow lures with yellow primer.

"We also made lizards and spinnerbaits," Sgt. Curiel continues. "We braided some nylon cord together to resemble lizards, and we cut out some thin aluminum spinner blades and made skirts by pulling threads out of some red cloth."

Next, with tackle and lures in hand, the men headed to Saddam's lake to test them. "We had some problems," Sgt. Curiel notes. "The spinners wouldn't spin, and the 'floating' minnows sank. So we went back and spent some more time fine-tuning our equipment."

Their second field test was more successful. "Our gear worked properly this time, and we actually caught some fish. They were some funky-looking catfish. They hit both the topwater bait and the spinner. The biggest one I caught weighed around a pound.

"Also, one day later, my buddy cut up some Slim Jims and used them for bait. The fish really liked them. We caught several, and we threw 'em all back."

Sgt. Curiel and his friend fished together about a half-dozen times, then Sgt. Curiel's unit was moved, and his fishing came to an end. But those few trips to the lake gave him a welcome diversion from boredom and a reminder of fishing back home. "We'd go to the lake around dark, and some nights the moon would be reflecting in the water. We could hear the fish jumping. It was very relaxing. If only for a little while, I could forget I was in Iraq and imagine instead that I was back in Louisiana fishing with my son. It gave me something to look forward to at the end of the day."

Ken Chapman: "In my element" when fishing

Sgt. 1st Class Ken Chapman is a special operations soldier stationed at Ft. Campbell, Ken. Chapman is also an avid bass tourney angler. When growing up in Memphis, Tenn., he spent many days casting for largemouth in oxbow lakes bordering the nearby Mississippi River.

From January to June 2003, Chapman was deployed to Iraq, and he worked at a palace complex in the outskirts of Baghdad. He relates, "Our compound had several lakes inside the fence. Many of these had been drawn down to irrigate surrounding fields, but one lake of five or six acres was brim-full and surrounded by cattails. There were some fish feeders on the lake, so I knew it had to have fish in it."

Chapman rummaged through the abandoned palace and found a fiberglass casting rod fitted with a spincast reel. "It was very heavy and had a long wooden handle," he recalls. "The line on the reel was obnoxiously heavy — 25- or 30-pound test. It had a lot of memory (coils)."

Chapman had a personal survival kit, which included hooks, small split shot and approximately 20 yards of Spiderwire. ("In a survival situation, catching fish is one of the easiest ways to procure food," Chapman explains. "Just about every soldier's survival kit includes some basic fishing tackle.") He tied his Spiderwire to the end of the heavy monofilament, and he rigged it out with the hooks, weight and a stick for a float. "I knew I couldn't cast with the heavy line, so I decided to try tightlining to see what I could catch."

Chapman had seen some carplike fish in the lake, so he baited up with bread. "I wadded light bread into tight balls and stuck those on my hook. I was wishing I'd had some Lucky Craft lures to try, but I hadn't had room for them in my rucksack."

Chapman was working on a 12-hour rotation. He'd spend a half-day in the palace analyzing intelligence and coordinating special ops missions, then he'd head to the lake to unwind.

"There was an old wooden skiff pulled up on the bank, and it had a couple of oars in it. I made a sculling paddle from one of the oars, and I'd sit backward in the front of the boat and scull around the lake. I learned that the fish were close to the bank, especially in the shade of trees that grew next to the water."

Chapman's efforts were quickly successful. He landed several carp that weighed up to 3 pounds. "They were strange looking. Their mouths were on the bottom. I'd throw 'em back in when I'd catch 'em. I didn't want to eat them."

While the catching was fun, the solitude was what Chapman enjoyed most. "It was very relaxing to be sitting in that boat and watching that little stick float. It was a good way to pass an hour or two, to get my head straight. It wasn't so much what I caught, but the simple fact that I was fishing, and I could chill out."

At this writing, Chapman is back in Tennessee and on terminal leave. He is scheduled to retire from the Army in early summer. In the meantime, he's spending weekends fishing bass tournaments. He says, "There's no better feeling in the world than to be in your comfort zone. My comfort zone is the deck of my boat, flipping a jig or a tube into a flooded bush. There's where I'm in my element, and that's where I intend to spend a lot of time in the years ahead."

Bob Mullins: "Caught one on the third cast"

From January to September of 2003, Lt. Col. Bob Mullins was an operations officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force stationed at the ancient city of Babylon, 30 miles south of Baghdad. Lt. Col. Mullins has been an avid angler since childhood, and it didn't take him long to recognize an opportunity to pursue this pastime in the war zone.

"A canal called Shat Al Hillah runs out of the Euphrates River through Babylon. It was dug for irrigation purposes. It's 50-100 yards wide, maybe wider in some places. It has mud banks, and the current is very swift.

"One day I was out by the water, just passing some off-duty time, and I saw a bird that looked like a kingfisher — diving for little baitfish. I thought, 'If there are little fish here, there are probably big ones too, so I got my dad to send me some fishing tackle. He sent a Shakespeare telescoping pole and a spinning reel. He also sent me some leadhead minnows, some Texas rigged worms, some Beetle-Spins and other baits."

On his first fishing excursion to the canal, Mullins tied on a leadhead minnow and began casting. On his third cast he hooked a large fish that was a real test for his limber rod and 6-pound-test line. "It took several minutes to wear the fish down, and the fast current added to the challenge. There were several marines on the bank watching me and cheering me on.

"Finally, I landed the fish. It had a head like a bass, but its body was long and slender, a lot like a snook's. I'd guess it would have measured 20 inches. It was a great way to get started fishing in Iraq!"

Mullins began fishing two to three times a week after work. "There was a floating pier on the canal, and I'd go out there and cast. There were no structures or eddies, but every now and then I'd see fish feeding, and if I could get a lure to them, I'd usually catch one. The minnows (silver metalflake) worked the best."

Soon other coalition troops joined Mullins in fishing the canal. "Some of the marines found some old tackle and started fishing. Also, a Polish division moved in nearby, and there were several fishermen in their unit. They caught more catfish and carp.

"I don't know what these guys did, but I didn't eat any of the fish I caught. I put 'em all back. There's too much suspicious stuff that could be in that water, and I didn't want to take a chance on getting sick."

Mullins had good fishing days, and others when he didn't get a bite. He caught several of the snook look-alikes during his months in Iraq. But as with the other servicemen, the main benefits of his casting time were escaping from the press of duty and letting his worries drift away with the currents. "Servicemen fished in Iraq for the same reasons they fish at home," he explains. "It soothes your soul, regardless of where you are."

Other fishermen, other stories

Sgt. Chris DePrater of the 1st Cavalry Division is still in Iraq, stationed in the west Baghdad area. He and a friend, Sgt. Adam Blunkhall, fish two of Saddam's lakes ("Palace Lake" and "Bass Lake"), and they catch carp, catfish and "basslike fish." They use tackle mailed to them by family members, and they also placed an order to Bass Pro Shops for lures and line. DePrater e-mails, "We've caught carp up to 4 pounds and bass (snook?) up to 3 pounds, but we've seen a lot bigger fish swimming by."

DePrater continues, "We've heard that Saddam only allowed his family (tribe) to fish these lakes. All others (caught fishing) were put in jail. When Palace Lake was drained (searching for weapons), they found over a hundred dead bodies in the lake. (No wonder the fish were big!)

"The local Iraqi guys were amazed at the fact that my buddy and I were fishing in these lakes. We gave them the fish we caught (good way to build positive human relations). Later they started fishing on their lunch breaks, using string wrapped around a piece of wood and a bobber made from Styrofoam cups."

He adds, "The best thing about fishing is just getting to fish and the reaction from people that hear that we are getting to fish. The worst thing is not getting to fish more, and that there are no largemouth bass here."

DePrater concludes, "We can hear gunfire coming from the guard gates every so often, but we are safe and have few worries. Fishing is a great way to relieve stress. I really need to do some more fishing (ha, ha, ha)."

Lance Cpl. Zeke Drawhorn fought with the U. S. Marines during the invasion of Iraq in spring 2003. He returned to Camp Lejeune, N.C. in June 2003, then he redeployed to Fallujah, Iraq, in March 2004. A center of Saddam Hussein's Baathist party, this city has been a hotbed of anti-American resistance. Still, Drawhorn and several of his leatherneck friends have found time to fish in a lake on the compound where they are encamped.

Drawhorn's uncle, Jim Bledsoe of West Point, Ga., e-mails, "After Zeke's first communication home, I immediately mailed him a package containing a small four piece Zebco spinning outfit with an assortment of lures, hooks, weights, etc.

"Zeke's been able to call us every couple of weeks or so during this deployment. I always ask him if the mail is getting to him. In one conversation, he told me that his unit had recently rescued a convoy that had been attacked. When they arrived at the site, they found a couple of trucks burning, including a mail truck.

"In subsequent conversations, Zeke's mentioned receiving books, batteries and other items I've sent him, but no fishing outfit. Perhaps that fishing equipment perished in the convoy attack."

Air Force Staff Sgt. Charlie King of Washington state fishes a lake on a former Republican Guards base. He has caught carp up to 15 pounds. He gives his fish to local Iraqi workers, who are very poor. He e-mails, "Their boss said one good-sized fish will feed a family for a week. Just one fish! Being able to catch fish and knowing I just helped these poor folks is a blessing. The boss said just a year ago, if a worker had been caught with one of these fish, his head would have been cut off. That's why we're here, giving the innocent people back their freedom to survive, and it's working."

Sometimes soldiers fish to escape boredom, the anxieties of war, or the loneliness of a foreign land. Other times a soldier-fisherman is an ambassador. Some hooks, line, bait and a pond full of carp can form friendships that transcend the politics of conflict. A smile on an angler's face knows no boundaries and no restraints.

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