Veteran ice-fishing event aims to remove barriers
Saturday, on a Hubbard County lake whose location is a fisherman's secret, a two- to three-foot layer of ice bridged the gap between veterans whose service spanned more than 70 years.
Among the participants in the third annual Walking on Water Outdoors (WOW) ice-fishing event were current armed forces personnel as well as veterans from every branch of service and every decade going back to the 1940s.
Vietnam, Korean and World War II veterans were among the veterans who came out for fishing and fellowship. They included 96-year-old Albert "Ike" Fischer of Frazee, who served in the Army Airborne corps from 1943 to 1946 in Africa and Italy, and Charles Andress, 91, of Akeley, who spent parts of 1946 and '47 on the South Pacific island of Guam.
Andress left his walker outside the door of a fish house hosted by owner LeRoy Phillips, one of 18 ice houses that private owners and businesses loaned to the event.
"I don't dare to go by myself," said Andress, who came with his son, Chuck. "I have trouble falling."
Asked whether his father has wanted to go ice fishing for a while, Chuck laughed, "Yeah, he has!"
"My health has not been that good," said Charles. "So I stay pretty close to the house."
It was the elder Andress's first time attending the event. Like several other veterans who came out Saturday, he heard about it from Hubbard County Veterans Services Officer Jerry Bjerke.
Taking away hindrances
Tim Schmid, a member of Park Rapids Assembly of God who works seasonally for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, has spearheaded the ministry since its inception.
"We specialize in older veterans and veterans who don't get out a lot," said Schmid. "A lot of young vets are bringing houses, too. Our main goal — I think what separates us from other events like this — is to take away any hindrances to these people getting out. We take them straight to the door of a really nice fish house. We tell them, 'If you can sit in your recliner in your living room, you can come fish with us.' That's how easy we make it."
In addition to wrangling a small village of fish houses, Schmid and his group of volunteers also provided fishing equipment and live bait, bored holes in the ice, cleaned any fish the veterans caught, arranged transportation to and from a nearby parking area and served cookies, bottled water and a hot lunch.
Portable huts and tip-ups were also available, in case someone wanted to move out on the open ice, away from the crowd.
The ice houses ranged from a tiny pull-on shed heated by a small brazier to RV-sized varieties with kitchens, dining tables and sleeping facilities. Schmid said some of the fish houses rival the price of a regular house — though they're not just used for ice fishing; they are also used for camping and hunting at other times of year.
"I'll stay with my little portable," one veteran said.
Why we fish
Tyler Paskey of Blaine, an Army veteran (2002-2014), said, "I'm an avid hunter-fisher. I finally decided to go to one of these veteran ones. I saw that they posted a video from last year. It looked like a lot of good guys hanging out and having a good time."
Jim Cronin of Fargo heard about the event at work. "I work as a readjustment counselor for veterans who have PTSD and other types of mental illness," he said. "I wanted to join these guys, do some fellowship and just enjoy the outdoors with them."
A female veteran, who asked for her name to be withheld, said she attended last year's event and loved it. "That's the first time I've been able to fish in years," she said. "I think it brings the community together for the veterans and shows them support."
Veteran Dennis Schroeder of Lake George said he has lived in Albuquerque, N.M. since 1971. After a 36-year Air Force career he recently moved back to Minnesota and has a home in Lake George.
"The older I got," said Schroeder, "the more I wanted to come back home. I haven't been ice fishing since the early 60s. I think this is really fantastic, with these people donating their time and effort."
Tom Simmons of Fergus Falls attended last year with his son Tim, who was unable to make it this year due to being in officer candidate training in Alabama. Instead, Simmons brought his friend Dan Hayes. Both friends are recent transplants to the area who served in the Air Force during the late 1960s and early 70s.
"It was an awesome blessing," Simmons said about last year's event. "They really went out of their way to honor veterans. We had fun. We caught fish, brought home fish, had a nice lunch out there. For a while I fished inside an ice house, which was nice and warm, and then I fished out there on the ice because it was a nice day. I was very impressed. It's an awesome ministry."
Brent Manners of Park Rapids brought his ice house from its usual perch on Fishhook Lake to host a group of veterans. He caught the helping-out bug from his son-in-law Phillips, whose ice house was right next door.
"They did it last year," said Manners. "I've known Tim (Schmid) forever. They needed more houses, so we just decided we'd let them use this one."
Volunteer Les Kline said his son, Riley, talked him and his grandpa's company, Gladen Construction of Laporte, into helping with the event. They brought out side-by-sides and an ice house and provided shuttling services.
Kline estimated there were approximately 75 people on the ice Saturday, including about 35 volunteers. "There are a lot of people here," he said. "It's really nice."
"A lot of private people and local businesses have stepped up," agreed volunteer Aaron Stearns. "It's unbelievable. They do a great job of standing alongside the organization and being the hands and feet. A lot of these guys can't get out, aren't equipped to get out, don't have access to the equipment. So, it's just to come out and feed them, give them a good time and brighten their spirits a little bit."