OAK ISLAND, Minn. — The fish did what muskies often do, appearing beside the boat seemingly out of nowhere Monday afternoon, just minutes into Rich Thorpe’s muskie excursion on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods.
The follow — as it’s known in muskie-speak — didn’t result in a hookup, but it set the stage for a week Thorpe and 19 other anglers won’t soon forget.
A master sergeant at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts, Thorpe was one of 20 veterans selected to participate in the sixth annual “Operation Muskie” on Lake of the Woods, the giant fishery that straddles the Ontario-Minnesota border.
Walsh’s Bay Store Camp on Oak Island hosts Operation Muskie, which this year featured veterans from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska and Massachusetts. The event pairs the veterans with 10 topnotch muskie guides who volunteer their services for the week.
Operation Muskie wrapped up Friday morning.
“I sit in Boston dreaming to be up here in this — I don’t know what you’d call it — a sportsman’s paradise, a fisherman’s dream,” said Thorpe, a New Jersey native who was stationed at Grand Forks (N.D.) Air Force Base from 2004 to 2010. “You see the pictures, but you don’t really realize what you’re getting into until you get up here and experience it firsthand.”
According to Dick Pearson, a South Dakota muskie fishing authority and author of the book, “Muskies on the Shield” and producer of a DVD with the same name, the idea for Operation Muskie developed from a soldier’s request to go fishing after a deployment to Iraq.
Pearson, who has a cabin on Oak Island and logs hundreds of hours fishing muskies, had sent copies of his books and DVDs to soldiers in Iraq and was corresponding with a few of the veterans.
He contacted Frank and Laura Walsh, island neighbors who own Walsh’s Bay Store Camp, to check on reserving a cabin.
Round up, 19 more veterans, they told him, and they’d turn over the camp for a week.
“We figured we could come up with 10 guides and 20 vets a year, so we decided to give it a try,” Pearson said. “It was just an amazing experience and a tremendous success so we kept doing it.”
With this year’s Operation Muskie, organizers have entertained 120 veterans since 2008, Pearson said. All of the veterans have served deployments in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and Operation Muskie is a way of thanking them for their service.
“It’s an emotional thing for me,” Pearson said. “It’s just so inspiring. You see the vets arriving, and I hate to use the word skeptical, but they’re looking, ‘Where’s the catch, can it really be what it sounds like?’ And by the end of the first evening, it’s a total different atmosphere. They’re happy, they’re laughing, they’ve caught a fish or they’ve had an experience.
“It’s just a great thing.”
Jeff Wiegand and Chris Green participated in the first Operation Muskie in 2008 and found the experience so moving they decided to stay involved. The veterans both were serving in Iraq when they heard about Operation Muskie and said being selected helped make the time overseas go by faster.
“It was so important to us and meant so much to us that we wanted to be part of this organization and provide other veterans an opportunity like we received,” said Wiegand, Sun Prairie, Wis., who was deployed to Iraq six times. “It really has been life changing because we love it, helping take care of the veterans and giving them the opportunity and working with so many neat guides and Operation Muskie staff.”
Operation Muskie today is a 501c3 nonprofit with a board of directors and volunteers who help with everything from fundraising to soliciting donations of fishing gear and other supplies. An online auction is the big fundraising event of the year, and sponsors include companies, private individuals and anonymous donors.
Wiegand is fundraising director, while Green, of Edgerton, Wis., is veteran affairs adviser, overseeing the selection process and coordinating fishing licenses and other documents the veterans need to access Canadian waters.
The hard part, Green said, is notifying the veterans who aren’t selected. As many as 130 veterans have applied for Operation Muskie in a given year.
Operation Muskie covers all of the costs after the veterans get to Warroad, Minn., where they receive a sendoff from a color guard before making the trip by road to the Northwest Angle and by boat to Oak Island.
“It’s cool for us because we know the excitement they’re feeling,” Wiegand said. “We try to make it where it’s not about catching fish — it’s about the experience.”
That experience also includes sharing stories. Last year, a guide Wiegand described as “rough around the edges” pulled him aside and became emotional about the stories he’d heard on the water.
The veteran shared war stories he’d never told anyone and thanked the guide for listening.
“The guide was like, ‘wow, you’ll never pull me out of Operation Muskie,’” Wiegand said.
Paul Klein of Van Dyne, Wis., hosted Thorpe and Terry Larson of Farmington, Minn. Head guide for Operation Muskie, the Wisconsin muskie fanatic has been involved since the first event in 2008.
“It’s just a great way to say thanks,” Klein said. “It’s just an unbelievable experience and opportunity.”
Also guiding was Jim Best of Gilbert, Ariz., who has a cabin on Oak Island. Best, who owns a mortgage company, is Operation Muskie’s business adviser, and his wife, Pam, is treasurer.
“It’s been just a riot — by far my favorite week of the whole year,” Best said. “I thought about the military when I was younger. There wasn’t anything of importance going on at the time. One of my biggest regrets was not being part of the military, but I can’t say why. This is my way of being part of it.”
Best said he enjoys watching the dynamic between the veterans change throughout the week and hearing their stories, some of which he can’t repeat.
“By the end of the week, they’re best friends and exchanging phone numbers,” he said. “When it comes down to it, they appreciate each other. The quality of these military guys is just unbelievable, and I’m not sure they all go into the service that way.”
With another Operation Muskie in the books, there’ll be a few months to regroup and reflect before fundraising and selecting veterans for next year begins.
Pearson, the event’s founder, said he never envisioned what Operation Muskie would become.
“We weren’t sure how to do things, but it just turned out to be magical, and it’s gone smoothly every year,” Pearson said. “They’re just so happy to be here, and it’s such a life-changing event for some of them, and I would think most of them. I don’t think we’ve had a single complaint.”
Thorpe, who boated his first muskie on Wednesday afternoon last week, said he felt right at home on Oak Island.
“The numbers of fish, the follows, the strikes, the scenery, the guides — it’s been amazing, just unbelievable,” Thorpe said. “You learn so much from them. We saw some monster fish. This place is absolutely incredible.”