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Staff Sgt. Sean Kerley, left, a bass player in 4th Infantry Division’s rock and country bands, caught 24-inch carp Wednesday in a canal behind band headquarters on Camp Liberty using Froot Loops as bait.

Staff Sgt. Sean Kerley, left, a bass player in 4th Infantry Division’s rock and country bands, caught 24-inch carp Wednesday in a canal behind band headquarters on Camp Liberty using Froot Loops as bait. (Michael Gisick / S&S)

Staff Sgt. Sean Kerley, left, a bass player in 4th Infantry Division’s rock and country bands, caught 24-inch carp Wednesday in a canal behind band headquarters on Camp Liberty using Froot Loops as bait.

Staff Sgt. Sean Kerley, left, a bass player in 4th Infantry Division’s rock and country bands, caught 24-inch carp Wednesday in a canal behind band headquarters on Camp Liberty using Froot Loops as bait. (Michael Gisick / S&S)

Staff Sgts. Sean Kerley, left, and Troy Hascall, members of the 4th Infantry Division Band, bait their hooks with Froot Loops as they set out in search of big carp.

Staff Sgts. Sean Kerley, left, and Troy Hascall, members of the 4th Infantry Division Band, bait their hooks with Froot Loops as they set out in search of big carp. (Michael Gisick / S&S)

CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq — Through the greenish murk, the shadow rises toward the Froot Loops, the shine of its side emerging as it nears the surface.

“Here he comes, here he comes,” Staff Sgt. Sean Kerley says, coaxing it toward his hook until, at the last moment, the big fish bends away.

Kerley grunts.

“It must have seen something it didn’t like,” he says.

“Maybe it was the green Froot Loops,” offers his fishing partner, Staff. Sgt. Troy Hascall.

Conditions may be less than pristine, and bait can be a haphazard affair, but fishing has established a following at Victory Base Complex, a series of sprawling U.S. bases in western Baghdad that includes six interconnected lakes built by the mad fisherman himself, Saddam Hussein.

Few soldiers are more dedicated to the waters than Kerley, a bass player with 4th Infantry Division’s rock and country bands who spends most of his lunch breaks plying the canal that runs behind the band headquarters.

“Man, that really got my heart pumping,” he says after the near-miss, reeling in his line and retreating to his “tackle box,” a to-go container from the dining facility filled with white bread and colorful breakfast cereal.

Though Kerley brought his own rods and reels from the States — including a fly rod — Camp Liberty’s post exchange has started stocking a basic assortment of fishing poles. “And believe it or not,” PX manager Ron Barfield said, “they sold out.”

Barfield has an old map of the lakes listing what fish were stocked in each — bass, walleye, pike, catfish, carp. But according to Kerley, the oxygen pumps that kept the lakes aerated were turned off after the U.S. invasion and all the Western-style fish died. These days, it’s mostly just the carp — a fish so hardy it can survive in a filthy bucket — that persevere up and down the canals.

To hear it told, there is something else lurking in the nearby waters of what the soldiers refer to as “Z Lake.” Hascall and Kerley describe it as a three-and-a-half foot long relative of the minnow. More detailed description has so far proved elusive.

“We call them the Ghost Fish because they come out of nowhere and they’re huge,” Hascall, 32, of Atlantic, Iowa, says. “We have yet to figure out how to catch them.”

Though prized in Asia, the common carp, another member of the minnow family, has never developed the following of the bass in the United States. A bony, muddy-tasting fish to begin with, carp caught in these waters — drawn from the Tigris River — would seem an especially dubious meal. Kerley and Hascall say they’d rather go hungry “for a long time” than eat one.

But Kerley, a 32-year-old Williamsburg, Va., native who admits to watching fishing on television and owning two of those hand-held fishing video games, has developed considerable respect for the carp during his two tours of Iraq.

“They’re smart, they spook easily and they put up a hell of a fight,” he says, describing the battle he had earlier in his lunch break with a carp that ran away with at least 10 feet of line before he could pull it out.

The fish are not exactly picky eaters, however. Kerley caught that one with a piece of croissant.

“We know from our last tour that even the big ones will eat cereal,” he adds.

Hascall, who plays French Horn, regrets missing Kerley’s battle with the fish. Measuring 24 inches long and 21 inches around, it was the biggest they’ve caught since arriving in Iraq for their second tour in December, and now it doesn’t seem inclined toward being caught again.

“I was playing in the brass quintet,” Hascall says, shooing away a turtle rising to his bobber. “Go away, turtle.”

During their last deployment, Kerley and Hascall thought — not very seriously — about making a fishing show.

“The thing is,” Kerley says, “if we did a fishing show, who would want to watch us out here cursing at fish and talking to turtles.”

Convoys of Humvees rumble down the road. The occasional pair of Black Hawks thwack toward the landing zone. Hascall’s bobber twitches in the water, but he isn’t paying attention.

Is there a certain absurdity about fishing in Baghdad? Maybe. But if so, for how long does it remain absurd?

“My uncle was in Vietnam and he used to go fishing with C-4 or whatever,” Kerley reflects. “When he found out I was fishing here I got some very stern warnings about never fishing in the same place twice because I might get a bad surprise the second time, a booby trap or whatever.

“I tried explaining to him that I was fishing on the FOB, but I’m not sure it got through. So I just said, ‘OK, never in the same place twice.’”

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