Veterans spend day on the Chesapeake Bay, doing battle with rockfish
By MATT SCHNABEL | The Baltimore Sun | Published: May 7, 2014
ON CHESAPEAKE BAY, Md. — Gary Rasnake leaned against the starboard side of the boat, arms crossed, hoping for a bite.
The retired Army sergeant first class had been on the Chesapeake Bay for about four hours, much of it in the same position, waiting for the telltale jerk of a fishing rod.
Rasnake, whose nearly 25-year infantry career ended in 2009 after he suffered a back injury in Afghanistan, was one of 58 retired and active-duty military members who joined the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association on April 27 for its annual Rock on Warriors: Operation Rockfish event.
Dozens of former and current military personnel and family members boarded 20 boats captained by MSSA members and departed from the Annapolis Yacht Basin for six hours of trolling for rockfish on the bay.
Rasnake joined Jeff Sykes, captain of the Sykesville, and Jim Catterton, who also volunteered for the event, aboard Sykes’ 27-foot Chesapeake model, setting off at about 8:30 on a crisp, clear morning.
Shortly after the Sykesville left the yacht basin, Rasnake watched as Sykes and Catterton unraveled lures and set out planer boards and 13 fishing lines.
“That’s what I do, just soak it all in,” said Rasnake. “It’s amazing what they go through to get it all ready.”
Rasnake hasn’t gotten out on the water as much as he would have liked since moving to the area, he said. These days, he works as an occupational safety and health manager at the Naval Sea Systems Command at the Washington Navy Yard, where he’s been for about 4½ years.
Though Rasnake said he wishes he had been able to remain on active duty longer (“I was going for 30” years, he said) he conceded he’s luckier than many of those with whom he served.
“I’m walking; a lot of my buddies aren’t walking,” he said. “They’re missing limbs.”
As the Sykesville motored through the waters, Catterton and Sykes swapped stories about fishermen and talked shop while Rasnake listened, occasionally chiming in.
“It’s just a whole bunch to learn about this type of fishing,” he said.
Though the event’s captains reported favorable marks, the first fish wasn’t caught until nearly 11 a.m., about 21/2 hours in.
“In my opinion, the rockfish are only here to spawn,” Sykes said. “If there’s nothing to eat, they’re leaving.”
But the early lack of success didn’t worry the captain, who said he was convinced the rockfish would start biting.
“The smallest boat in the warrior fleet has to come back with the biggest fish,” Sykes said.
As noon crept past, however, with bites yet to come on any of Sykes’ lines and few catches relayed over his radio, the trio settled in for the long haul.
“C’mon, Lady Bay,” Sykes said.
The MSSA’s Annapolis chapter hosted its first Rock on Warriors event in 2010, after George Brown, a club member who served in the Army during the 1980s, urged the chapter to consider sponsoring a Wounded Warriors Project event, fishing trip chairman Ron Schaefer said.
“At that time, five years ago, there were a lot of wounded warriors,” Schaefer said. “Iraq was still a very live theater of action, along with Afghanistan, and there were a really tremendous number of wounded warriors coming back to Walter Reed” National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.
In the event’s inaugural year, a dozen MSSA boats were enough to carry all the participants, but the event has grown ever since, Schaefer said.
“It was so successful the first year, and we felt as good as the warriors did when we were done,” he said. “We just felt: ‘Oh, man, this is giving back to guys that have given so much for their country.’”
Many of the Annapolis MSSA chapter’s members have served in the military, and organizers have had to turn away volunteers hoping to captain boats during the event, said Schaefer, who served eight years in the Coast Guard Reserve in the 1960s.
“It’s standing room only, as far as getting into it — it’s not easy,” Schaefer said. “The first 12 guys that did this originally, every one of them has stayed in it. So only as we’ve expanded it have we been able to allow some of the other guys to bring boats.”
Sykes joined the volunteer group for the first time after missing the cut in previous years. He called the experience both exciting and nerve-racking.
“Jeff was very excited that he could participate this year, and I’m sure he’ll be first on the list in years forward,” Schaefer said.
Though the number of volunteers continues to grow, Schaefer said there’s no way to know how many veterans and active-duty personnel will attend the Rock on Warriors event in a given year.
This year, Hanover-based Dillon’s Bus Service lent two buses that drove attendees from Walter Reed and Virginia’s Fort Belvoir to the Annapolis harbor. But those who sign up don’t always make it to the event, Schaefer said.
“A lot of guys and women sign up for this, but because of their physical conditions and mental conditions, the day of the event we never know how many are going to show up,” he said. “One year, we only had two people on a bus. … Being in the military, if they don’t take their meds, or if they don’t adhere to their physical therapy, they can get kicked off of (an) adventure like this.”
Once participants reach the event, however, MSSA members make every effort to accommodate their needs and ensure that they enjoy their day on the bay, Schaefer said.
“We’ve had them on wheelchairs. I have had a guy sit there, take off his legs — they hoisted him on the boat, he put his legs back on again,” he said. “It’s quite a thing.”
At 12:31 p.m., Rasnake finally got the bite he’d been waiting for, in about 60 feet of water off Bloody Point, the southern tip of Kent Island.
A line jerked, and Catterton sprang into action, grabbing the rod and handing it to Rasnake. The veteran reeled in the rockfish from about 180 feet out.
“I’m out of shape,” Rasnake said, joking, as he rubbed his biceps after the five-minute catch.
Laid along a ruler on the boat’s deck, the fish measured 37 inches. A respectable length, Sykes said.
“That was a nice fish,” he said.
Soon after, though, the captain was all business.
“My happiness is gone,” Sykes said. “I want another damn fish.”
The Sykesville wouldn’t land another rockfish, and later headed back to the yacht basin for a reception hosted by the Fleet Reserve Club of Annapolis. Five fish were reeled in by the event’s end, but the relatively low catch count was typical for the spring spawning season, Schaefer said.
“Spring fishing is hit and miss,” Schaefer said. “I’m trying to tell the guys they really need to do this in June, when we can go after the smaller fish and they’re much more bountiful. … It’s something we’ve talked about, maybe doing a second trip in the summer.”
Upon docking back at the yacht basin, Rasnake thanked Sykes and Catterton for taking him out on the water. They thanked him for his military service.
“You guys loan your boats out on weekends?” Rasnake asked, jokingly. “I’m pretty close.”