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News / Sports / Outdoors

Fishing outing a therapeutic appreciation for veterans

'It's how we communicate,' Operation Salmon Salute participant says of time with other vets, service members

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
Published: June 26, 2016, 7:36pm
4 Photos
Veteran Matt Wirkkla takes part Sunday in the annual Operation Salmon Salute near Ridgefield. The event took veterans out on the Lake and Columbia rivers for a day of guided fishing.
Veteran Matt Wirkkla takes part Sunday in the annual Operation Salmon Salute near Ridgefield. The event took veterans out on the Lake and Columbia rivers for a day of guided fishing. (Natalie Behring for the Columbian) Photo Gallery

RIDGEFIELD — Veteran Jimmy Benedict stepped onto shore at the public boat launch with a hefty salmon in his arms.

He and some friends stopped to pose for a photo with the catch Sunday afternoon at the annual Operation Salmon Salute, a veterans-appreciation fishing outing. Then he made a bee-line for the fish scale.

“That’s big. That’s huge,” one woman said as he walked from the boat. Another remarked, “Oh my God. Way cool.”

His silver salmon — a “June hog,” as he called it — weighed 23.14 pounds — and it appeared to be one of the largest fish caught during the event. The Olympia resident and Tennessee native, who recently served as a special operations forces sergeant, said it was a treat to share fishing time with other veterans and service members.

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It’s a physical activity. “It’s how we communicate,” he said. “It’s so therapeutic. Some people go to church. I come outside.”

It was the event’s best turnout yet, with about 140 veterans and 50 sponsors out on the Columbia River, organizers said. At about 5:30 a.m., they hit the water in more than 30 guided fishing boats. They returned by around 2 p.m. to weigh their catches, enjoy a cookout meal and hear a round of thank-you’s from local public officials, including U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow and former Vancouver City Councilor Larry Smith.

“We want you to have a good time. Please just enjoy yourself. We really welcome you here,” Onslow said.

Smith, a veteran and member of the Community Military Appreciation Committee, added: “Service is very, very important, and those who serve ought to be told thank you. … Honor them, respect them and respect their families.”

Veterans from as far back as World War II were in attendance. According to several accounts, it was a slow day for fishing, but the weather was fantastic.

Kenneth Gordon of La Center, who served as a Navy seaman, didn’t catch anything but was glad for the experience. After he was done fishing, he and his kids sat around a picnic table and feasted on hamburgers and hot dogs.

“I like to fish a lot,” Gordon said, but “I don’t get out as often as I’d like to, so this is nice.”

George DeVack of Woodland said it was his second outdoors outing with The Fallen Veterans, a nonprofit organization and a partner in Sunday’s event.

“It’s a great group of people — a lot of knowledge here about the outdoors,” he said.

On his boat, anglers caught one fish, had to release another, and a third fish got away. They spent a lot of time “just talking, B.S.-ing,” said DeVack, who served in the Army for five years.

The event allowed DeVack to find “camaraderie that you had in the military but is hard to find in the civilian world,” he said.

Dion Hess of Ridgefield was the lead organizer of Operation Salmon Salute, which is in its fifth year. He’s a member of the military appreciation committee. Though Hess never served in the military, he said he was affected by the story of his friend, a Vietnam War veteran who didn’t feel welcome when he came home.

“Society shamed him,” Hess said. “I just never got over it.”

His brother, Spokane resident Darin Hess, retired from the Air Force In 1988. Darin Hess was at the event Sunday and caught a fish that weighed in at 21.15 pounds. He planned to fillet it and share it with two marines who were there.

Benedict, who caught the 23-pounder, said he owed his success on Sunday to his fishing guide.

“They’re pretty sought-after fish,” he added. Behind spring Chinook, “it’s like the second-best fish in the river.”

Benedict said he wanted to encourage other veterans to participate in future fishing events.

“It’s definitely made a difference in my life,” he said.

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Columbian Assistant Metro Editor