Proud angler

Retired Marine Emil Walsh proudly holds up his first catch at the Project Healing Waters outing that Thursday before the Albiefest tournament on Saturday. (Contributed photo)

ATLANTIC BEACH — The 2015 Cape Lookout Albacore Festival wrapped up last Saturday evening after the second-year  installment of the reinvigorated event took lines out of the water and announced winners at an awards ceremony at the Anchorage Marina in Atlantic Beach. 

Repeated efforts to obtain results were made by the News-Times, but a list of individual winners was not made available in time for this issue. Fortunately, the camaraderie and goodwill of the tournament far superceded any awards for finishes.

The one-day tournament, affectionately termed “Albiefest,” not only tapped into the area’s prime false albacore tuna fishing waters, it also provided a competitive outlet for fly fishermen who wished to take advantage of the area’s rich fisheries while raising money for a deserving charity in Project Healing Waters. 

The tournament originally began in 2002 as the vision of past director Charlie Utz whose 2-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2001 and had undergone treatments at Duke Children’s Hospital. The festival was organized as a charity event to raise money for children being treated for cancer at the hospital. 

Then in 2014, a handful of friends and anglers decided to re-institute the event with Utz’s blessing and the sponsorship of Temple Fork Outfitters and Jake Jordan’s Fly Fishing Adventures. The movement was led by co-chairmen John Snipes and Chris Thompson, the latter who also serves as a volunteer for the Crystal Coast program of Project Healing Waters. When the tournament was re-booted, it was an easy choice as to which charitable organization would be the primary beneficiary.

“Since North Carolina has such strong military ties and because we are grateful for those who serve to protect our freedom, the board of directors elected Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Inc. as the festival’s charity,” Thompson wrote in a press release. 

Thompson, a medically retired 17-year veteran of the Marine Corps who retired in 2008, has been involved with the charitable organization for five years and has his own personal connection to the principals behind Project Healing Waters. 

“Not to diminish anyone else’s efforts, but it may be something I appreciate a little differently because I am a vet myself,” Thompson said.

Thompson was quick to highlight the therapeutic benefits of fly fishing for veterans, but he also pointed out the perks of the camaraderie that comes with fishing. Oftentimes, veterans feel isolated when they leave the service, and finding like-minded people with similar experiences and similar goals can alleviate that feeling of segregation. 

“When you’re in the military, in whatever branch, you live in such close proximity for such a long period of time with the people that are in your unit,” Thompson noted. “You establish a closeness that is professionalism mixed with an almost familial feeling. There’s a close-knit bond that’s formed, whether you’re experiencing something good or bad or whether you’re garrisoned, deployed or in combat.”

“And when you leave the service, that’s gone. That becomes such an integral part of your life that a lot of the time when it’s gone, you’re lost.”

Project Healing Waters began in 2005 to serve wounded military members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The national charity has since spread across the country with close to 200 programs, eight of which are located in North Carolina. The Crystal Coast program began in 2013. 

The Albiefest tournament raised $10,000 for Project Healing Waters in 2014, and this year’s tournament matched that number. The event also gave 30 veterans a rare chance to fly fish in saltwater, something that John Mauser, head of the Crystal Coast program, was hoping for when the county chapter joined forces with the tournament.

“What we wanted to do with our involvement with the Cape Lookout Albacore Festival is get some of the guys who are used to freshwater fishing have a chance to come out here and experience saltwater fly fishing for a change and experience what we do here on the coast,” Mauser said. “It’s still therapeutic in many ways as the guys who are freshwater fly fishing, but at the same time, it mixes things up a little bit and adds some intensity and excitement.”

On Thursday, Oct. 22, the tournament hosted a private “Project Healing Waters” dinner catered by Fat Fellas in Newport to cap off a day of fishing among 22 volunteer captains, 30 veterans and their families. Some came to the event with a little experience, others came with none at all.

“For some, it’s their first time ever fishing, and for others, it’s their first time fly fishing in saltwater,” Thompson said. “It’s always fun no matter what their level of experience is.”

“It’s a very memorable experience,” Mauser said. “It’s usually their first time on a boat out on the ocean, and they see the ponies on Shackleford Banks and the bottlenose dolphins that come up on the side of the boat. Some of the teams even saw a couple of humpback whales up close and personal.”

A few of the veterans came in from out-of-state programs in Virginia and Alabama, but most of the participants were from one of the eight North Carolina chapters.

“A lot of the anglers came down from Asheville and Charlotte, and they’ve never saltwater fished before,” Mauser said. “Even some of the local guys from places like Richlands and Fayetteville had never saltwater fished before.”

Twenty-two captains volunteered to take the visiting anglers out on the water. Some took just one veteran angler, while others took two. Breakfast was that Thursday morning, and a box lunch was sent out with each group. By the end of the day, those in the same boat were pretty familiar with each other, but the dinner that evening was the time for everyone to mingle together. Last year, the dinner was hosted at Amos Mosquito’s, but this year, the tournament organizers were looking for a more open format to give everyone a chance to mix.

“We decided to have dinner under the tent this year because it gave everyone a chance to mill around and get to know each other freely,” Thompson said. “Fat Fellas came in and served steak and shrimp, and everyone had a great dinner.”

“It gave everyone a chance to get together and fellowship and share in the excitement of being out on the water,” Mauser said. “At the same time, they can relate with each other because of the experiences they’ve had in their military service.”

That military connection is what brought the veterans together, but Project Healing Waters and Albiefest both hope that service linkage now extends to fly fishing as well. 

“Even though they’re linked by their military service, now the common thread is the fly fishing and the fly tying,” Thompson said. “It gives you something else you can pour yourself into and experience that camaraderie all over again. Now instead of planning the next training event or the next combat patrol, now you’re planning your next fly tying outing or your next trip. Or you’re calling up your buddy on a Saturday when nothing else is going on and saying, ‘Hey, you want to go fishing?’”

Rather than just give veterans a one-stop shop crash course in fly fishing, the organization also hopes to create a lifetime interest in the sport, to give each veteran an outlet for the emotional baggage that comes with their individual experiences. There’s a relief to be found on the water when the focus on fishing takes over whatever may ail the mind. 

“When you’re out there fishing, the rest of the world just goes away,” Thompson said. “All of the stuff that’s rattling around in your head is gone for a while. The water just takes it all away. It doesn’t matter if it’s a river, a pond or the ocean. It’s a place where it doesn’t matter what your injuries are, what emotional stories you have or what’s going on in your life. You can forget about it all because you’re focusing on the fly rod, the fish and picking your flies.”

Beyond the mental and psychological benefits of learning how to fly fish, there also lies a physical advantage to veterans who have been medically retired for a bodily condition. 

“Injuries to arms, legs or fine motor skills and having to focus on things like casting or tying knots, you still get the benefits of being in a therapy room without feeling like you’re in a laboratory,” Thompson said. “It’s something you can’t find anywhere else.”

While the Crystal Coast program of Project Healing Waters is one of the few in the country that focuses almost primarily on saltwater fishing, one of the more substantial benefits of the national organization is that no matter where an angler might be, there’s likely a program nearby.

“It’s something you can take with you wherever you go,” Thompson said. “It’s not a one-time thing for a lot of these guys. They become more and more involved. No matter where you are in the country, you can make a phone call and find out where the closest program is, and it’s like you never left.”

As evidenced, fly fishing has an extraordinary number of benefits to veterans, but the targeting of false albacore specifically has its own special set of perks, and that starts with the unique contour of the coastal waters off Cape Lookout. 

“The topography of our coast is very different than in Florida or New England and in other places where people actively fish for false albacore,” Thompson said. “You have very deep water that becomes very shallow very quickly, particularly around Cape Lookout.”

“It’s an aggregation of bait, currents and water temperature,” Snipes noted. “Fish migrate through and are drawn to our live bottom. They follow the bait, and since the water temperature is perfect, they usually stay close to the shore.”

The albacore approach the shallow waters to feed, often swimming in 20- or 30-foot waters and sometimes up to the beach in 5- or 10-foot shallows. That kind of shoal fishing can also lead to a very visual experience, especially when using a fly rather than traditional bait and tackle, which is what albacore is traditionally targeted with.  

“False albacore are probably the coolest fish to target on a fly in North Carolina,” Mauser said. “They are ravenous eaters, and it’s a very visual process. They’re leaping out all over the water, they’re bunched up together, it’s heart-pounding.”

The deep-ocean fish can escape at speeds of up to 40 mph and travel in schools that come and go quicker than the average ocean variety.

“You’re cruising around talking to everyone, trying to find where the fish are,” Thompson explained. “It’s kind of like you’re hunting for them. Then all of a sudden, you find them and everyone converges on the school. And when it’s a good day, the fish come up and stay up, and you know you’re going to catch a few. You get these long, powerful surging runs. And it’s not just one fish. Sometimes it’s hundreds of fish, it’s acres of fish, the reels are singing, it’s chaos and then they’re gone.”

Thompson has been fishing his entire life but only started fly fishing in 1995 when he was stationed at Camp Lejeune. He has fished many different varieties of ocean creatures, but he holds a special place in his heart for chasing false albacore.

“I have been very fortunate in my life to get to go fish for a whole lot of things in a whole lot of places, and if I had to pick one thing to do, this is it,” Thompson said.

Mauser also places false albacore into a special category of premiere fighting fish that can give any experienced angler a run for their money. 

“When you hook one of these fish, it’s probably pound-for-pound the hardest-fighting fish that we have in North Carolina,” Mauser said. “You’re hooked to a fish that barely weighs 10 or 20 pounds, but they’re running 40 miles per hour for a couple hundred yards before it slows down.”

Fishing for the Project Healing Waters group and then for the actual tournament on Saturday was spotty, but event organizers were pleased nonetheless.

“The fishing was a little tougher in this year’s tournament, but the overall experience was still fantastic,” Mauser said.

The tournament hopes to continue growing while also working with Project Healing Waters to provide the charity, not only for funding, but also for a rare saltwater experience for amateur and expert veteran anglers.

“There are a lot of Project Healing Waters events across the country, but the one here is one of the few that focuses primarily on saltwater,” Mauser said. “We’d love to continue building this up and grow.”

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