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Fish Stories: Combat Fishing

Learning to Fly Cast in a Warzone

September 18, 2006

The fly cast in the picture looks like any other – the rod arcing forward and unfurling line. The caster, though, looks different. Instead of neoprene waders, the angler wears desert camouflage. Switch the felt bottom boots for military ones, and ditch the fish net with an M-16. This is no angler on a mountain stream. He’s a student in the Baghdad School of Fly Fishing.

A Navy Lieutenant named Joel Stewart started the school during his one year stint in Iraq, from February 2005 to 2006. Stationed at Camp Victory, on one of Saddam Hussein’s palace grounds replete with manmade lakes, he decided to try a few casts.

“I’ve always had a fly rod with me,” said Stewart, a Great Falls, Montana native who grew up trout fishing and has found ways to fish the world over during his 20-year Navy career. But this stop, in an active war zone, was different. “I’d hear car bombs go off and helicopters go overhead, and I’m standing there with a fly rod,” he said.

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Others noticed him casting in the manmade lakes stocked with asp, carp, and mangar during his free time, and asked if they could try. So he decided to start the Baghdad School of Fly Fishing (www.baghdadflyfishing.com). Stewart placed a post on a popular fly-fishing forum asking stateside anglers if they had old gear to send. The response proved overwhelming. “I was stunned,” Stewart said, as several companies, as well as individuals, sent brand new equipment and flies.

Stewart and others used the school to get away from some of the tedium associated with the downtime at camp. “There are moments of sheer boredom, where you’ve read everything to read and done everything to do,” he said. “But I could always hit the water.”

With all the donated gear, Stewart and other fly fishing soldiers took up their fly rods when they could. When time allows, classes met for an hour to an hour and a half a week. While the asp are mostly small, some soldiers did get into carp over 20 pounds. And Stewart himself is trying to get a line class record established for a local fish called the shaboot.

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Stewart is back from Iraq after graduating 34 soldiers, but other instructors have stepped right in, sohis school still functions-soldiers can sign up for one-hour classes that meet once a week. For them, it’s a great way to take their minds off the war. Plus, the carp and mangar there put up a pretty good fight. So there’s casting action in Middle East, but, said Stewart, “I don’t think it will turn into a fly fishing hot spot.”

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