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Paul A. Smith: Wisconsin fishing camp allows veterans to relax and have fun [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel :: BC-OTD-SMITH-COLUMN:MW]

PHILLIPS, Wis. - In just an hour, the lawn at Hidden Cove Resort was transformed.

A pair of open-sided nylon tents was erected. The campfire was lit. Meat simmered on the barbecue grill.

And a crowd of people flowed in.

Bob Boris, 65, of the Town of Elk, Wis., established the camp rules.

"The first is to relax and have fun," Boris said. "The second is go back to the first."

With that, the 2017 edition of the Wisconsin Veterans Fishing Camp Inc. was open.

"I think I can abide," said Mike Myers, 73, a U.S. Army veteran who lives in Ottumwa, Iowa. "In fact, for an old military guy, those rules are a joy to hear."

Myers was one of 12 military veterans invited to the camp this year. Boris, also an Army vet who served in Vietnam, is a local volunteer who helps make the guests feel at home.

Founded in 2014 by fishing guides John Carlson of Phillips and Joel Walczak of Milwaukee, the 501(3) nonprofit organization gathers vets and volunteers each autumn for four days of fishing and camaraderie in northern Wisconsin.

Carlson and Walczak didn't serve in the military, but like a vast majority of Americans, they have a deep respect and appreciation for those who did.

Carlson, 43, and Walczak, 51, however, weren't content with expressing their feelings in words and thoughts. Four years ago they formed Wisconsin Veterans Fishing Camp Inc. in an effort to share what they know best with our nation's finest.

"These vets wrote a blank check to our country, didn't know how or if they'd come back," Carlson said. "Joel and I wanted to find a way to do more than say thanks."

As we approach Veteran's Day, this home-grown Wisconsin event helps highlight the value of expressing heart-felt gratitude to the men and women who helped protect our freedoms.

This year the camp honored 12 vets: Jeffrey Lytle, Oshkosh, Army; Jerry McDonald, Tomah, Marines; Harlan "Butch" Moen, Two Rivers, Marines; Aaron Jackson, Oshkosh, Army; Mike Myers, Ottumwa, Iowa, Army; Sarah Rothisberg, Clintonville, Air Force; Preston Schmidt, Dalton, Army; Ben Smits, Green Bay, Army; Tim Smits, Green Bay, Navy; Frank Struble, Chetek, Army; Pamela Williams, Theresa, Army Reserve; Michael Young, Chilton, Marines.

Carlson and Walczak reached out to fellow guides, organizations and businesses in their communities to gather donations of time and materials to round out the camp.

The response has been overwhelming.

The owners of Hidden Cove Resort, John Winter and Darren Hornby, close the venue for the duration of the event and make the cabins, grounds and docks available to the guides and vets free of charge.

Top Wisconsin fishing guides travel to the event and donate their time, expertise and boats to the vets. Homemade food pours in to camp from kitchens around Phillips.

The Westside Vets, a Phillips-area organization founded by Vietnam vets Boris and Billy Fillmore, sells brats throughout the year to help support the camp. This year the Westside Vets donated a high-end musky fishing rod and reel to each participant.

Even more, Boris and Fillmore were joined by their wives (Lori and Sunee, respectively) and handled many of the camp cooking chores.

The campfire on the resort's lawn glowed throughout the event, and it was ringed by chairs to allow the vets a place to sit and talk.

"There are some things that are harder to talk about," said Lytle, a 20-year Army vet who fought in Operation Desert Storm. "Other vets understand that better and when you get around them like this it can be helpful."

Bob Boris, said most, if not all military veterans qualify for post traumatic stress disorder.

Many get drugs prescribed. But Boris is convinced the best treatment comes at events like the fish camp.

"What heals vets is other vets," Boris said.

The benefits extend to the volunteers.

"Other than my marriage and the birth of my kids, I get more emotional at fish camp than anywhere else," Godager said. "It's a real honor to be able to host the vets."

Participants in Wisconsin Veterans Fishing Camp Inc. are nominated by other vets.

The camp forms on a Monday, with vets arriving and checking in. Many head out to fish for the afternoon, then return for the evening meal.

Tuesday and Wednesday are full days of fishing. Thursday morning is left open for a little more fishing, then packing and departure. This year's camp ran from Oct. 2 to 5.

The fishing took place on lakes in and around Phillips, including the Phillips chain, Butternut Lake and Lake X.

In addition to Carlson and Walczak, the fishing guides this year were Doug Alderton of Rhinelander; Trey Fazio, Brookfield; Rick Godager, Menomonee Falls; Dan Gropengiser, Rhinelander; and John Kleczewski, Park Falls.

After a hot breakfast on Tuesday morning, Godager took Army vet Lytle to Lake of the Pines to try for muskies.

Godager's father, grandfathers and uncles served in the military and now his son does, but Godager didn't.

"It's hard to put in words, but it's a privilege to just be around these vets and try to give them a memorable few days of fishing," Godager said.

At 11 a.m., one of the sucker rigs got "nervous." A minute later, Godager instructed Lytle as the retired master sergeant set the hook. A 31-inch musky was in the net moments later. Four hours later, Lytle caught a 33-inch musky; the fish also hit a sucker on a quick-strike rig.

In between, a 40-plus inch musky hit a bait and came to the surface before spitting the hook.

"That was a thrill," Lytle said.

The vets, guides and other volunteers reconvened at Hidden Cove about 5 p.m. daily for dinner, stories and a campfire.

This year's group of vets spanned the range from Vietnam to Afghanistan. It also included the camp's first father-and-son team of vets, the Smits (father Tim and son Ben).

Myers, the Vietnam vet, said the expressions of gratitude toward military service members has changed dramatically over the last several decades.

"We got nothing like this after Vietnam," Myers said. "Many of us got spit on. It's a really nice change to see."

In 2016, the vets caught 27 muskies in less than three days at the fishing camp.

This year, the vets landed eight muskies and dozens of bass, walleyes and yellow perch.

Vets Aaron Jackson and Frank Struble won the big fish awards - each caught a 37.25-inch long musky and will be awarded with a replica mount.

By Thursday, the vets and volunteers had formed bonds and netted more than fish.

"Vets notice when things are genuine," Lytle said. "This was much appreciated."

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