Healing Heroes hits Minnesota's Gull Lake

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Joe Albert

BRAINERD, Minn. — When Michigan boys Jon "Frenchy" French, Derek VanBuren and Dan Berryman (who now calls Minnesota home) were deployed together in Afghanistan in 2009, they spent much of their downtime thinking about all the things they wanted to do when they got back home. Each of them grew up fishing and hunting, so it's no surprise their conversations gravitated toward the outdoors.

"We'd be sitting around and asking questions like: If you could go anywhere and hunt anything, where would you go? If you could have only one rifle, what would it be? If you could go anywhere fishing, where would you go?" French said. "You play those games and keep your hopes alive."

French, a 44-year-old who lives with his wife and two sons on Michigan's Upper Peninsula paused as he took in the scene in front of him. Several yards away, Elite Series pro Edwin Evers strung fresh fluorocarbon on new fishing reels. Just beyond was Elite angler Todd Faircloth, similarly preparing gear for the following day. A moment later, French continued. "To go fishing with the pros? No, that wasn't even a thought. It's kind of awe-inspiring," he said. "To be honest, I'm nervous to be fishing with these guys."

As part of the OPTIMA® Batteries Healing Heroes in Action Tour – an event, now in its third year, that Evers coordinates – French last Friday fished with Faircloth, Berryman with Evers, and VanBuren with Elite angler Ish Monroe. The fourth team competing in the event included Oklahomans Bubba Duke – who took part as a result of his winning bid on Evers' Facebook page (funds benefit the Wounded Warrior in Action Foundation) – and Clayton Carver, a veteran friend of Duke's who, like the three other vets, is a Purple Heart recipient.

Editor's note: See event fishing photos.

Evers, who several years ago brainstormed the program as a way to give back, considers fishing with wounded vets one of the most important things he does.

"It keeps my world in perspective," he said. "I probably take more from it than they do. I get upside-down, bent-up backwards when I lose a 5-pounder or I have a bad day fishing. But it's nothing like a bad day at work compared to these guys' bad day at work. It helps me out a lot mentally just to keep everything in perspective."

Monroe, who asked Evers if he could participate, said going fishing with a veteran was the "least I can do," while Faircloth called it "a great opportunity for us to give back and spend time in a boat with guys who have sacrificed a lot for our country. I'm honored to do it."

Berryman, French and VanBuren each suffered serious injuries while serving in Afghanistan. French and VanBuren were on a route-clearing mission and injured during an intense firefight; VanBuren suffered shrapnel wounds to his shoulders, while a rocket-propelled grenade struck French in the chest.

Said VanBuren: "We used to pass our time talking hunting and fishing. I just love fishing, and to be able to fish with some of the Bassmaster pros – it's just amazing that we get to do this."

Two months before his two friends were wounded, Berryman was a gunner in an armored vehicle that also was conducting a route-clearing mission. An improvised explosive device struck the vehicle and left an unconscious Berryman with a traumatic brain and spinal cord injury.

"Having something like this to look forward to has improved me mentally at home," Berryman said. "Instead of waking up and thinking about bad times, it gives me something to look forward to."

Probing Gull Lake

Evers had arrived at Gull Lake – about 30 miles west of Mille Lacs Lake, where the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship will be held Sept. 14-17 – the day before the event and caught dozens of bass flipping the lake's grass. He had high hopes for the veterans event and planned to kick things off with a topwater bite on a reed-covered point. It quickly became clear that wasn't in the cards.

"The water was 66 degrees last night and it's 63 this morning. You're going to have ice soon," he said. "With the water going down another 3 degrees, I don't think they're going to come to the surface. We're going to move out a bit."

And so began a long flipping slog. Evers caught bass from time to time, and throughout the morning instructed Berryman in the intricacies of a proper flip. But the dispensation of knowledge was anything but a one-way street. At one point, as a stiff east wind buffeted the lake, Berryman broached the topic of saunas – those Finnish structures that amount to heat rooms. "A what?" Evers said.

"They produce a really nice heat," Berryman said, shortly after he'd described the tongue-in-groove cedar common in most saunas. "And when you're done sweating, you take a bar of soap and a bucket of water and clean yourself off."

The Berryman-Evers duo hopped to a few more spots over the next couple of hours before returning to the grassy point where Evers received the lesson in Finnish culture. Berryman, his flipping technique now honed by hundreds of flips and several reminders to keep the rod tip high and the line slack, sent a Texas-rigged brush hog into the grass just a few yards from the boat. Moments later, he reared back and set the hook, the lure finally pegged in a fish's mouth. Call it a flippin' success.

"That's my first fish flipping!" Berryman said.

"First fish flipping – that's a big deal," Evers said, pride etched on his face. "It's like your first deer. Or your first duck. Or your first dove."

Elsewhere on the lake, the other teams enjoyed varying degrees of success. Like Berryman and Evers, Monroe and VanBuren – coined by Monroe the "Spinnerbait Kid" after a particularly productive afternoon – experienced more success as the water warmed. Dukes and Carver did their thing, too, focusing almost exclusively on Gull Lake's abundant boat docks. Dukes at one point lost a 5- or 6-pounder – a monster, by Gull Lake's standards – which he said would send him back to Oklahoma with a broken heart.

"Man, it was so much fun. Neither (Clayton nor I) had ever fished up here before. I got zoned in on my dock skills, I tell you that," said Dukes, a drilling consultant. "We fished docks for the past two days. It's just beautiful. The water is clear and there's vegetation everywhere. This was a whole different ballgame."

The final standings are as follows: 1. Ish Monroe/Derek VanBuren, 16.51; 2. Edwin Evers/Dan Berryman, 15.27; 3. Todd Faircloth/Jon French, 14.06; 4. Bubba Dukes/Clayton Carver, 12.63.

Editor's note: Watch the video of OPTIMA sponsored angler and brand ambassador Edwin Evers and the Purple Heart veterans from the Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation headed out on Gull Lake in Minnesota for the third annual OPTIMA Batteries Healing Heroes in Action program.