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Brasher’s Muskie Challenge called major challenge

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BRASHER FALLS - The president of a fishing outreach program in Connecticut looked around a room filled with Fort Drum soldiers, guides and community organizers after the conclusion of the Hometown Heroes Muskie Challenge Saturday in Brasher Falls and shook his head in amazement.

“I’ve never seen a town like Brasher Falls get together and pull off something like this. You’ve just blown my mind. I applaud you all,” Sgt. Joe Kowalski Jr., USMC, retired, and president of the Major Steven Roy Andrews Fishing Outreach Program, said.

Mr. Kowalski now hosts the Beyond The Experience segment on the Ultimate Fishing Experience show that airs on the NBC Sports Network. His segment features non-profit organizations, groups and private corporations that are helping veterans go fishing.

He wasn’t the only visitor impressed by the event.

“You’ve got that right,” Eddie Kidd, a former member of the Oakland Raiders who traveled to Brasher from California for the event concurred after Mr. Kowalski shared his thoughts on the event.

Mr. Kidd, one of three former National Football League players who participated in the event, was struck by the greeting the former NFL players and the soldiers had received during their visit to the north country.

Mr. Kidd is now a professional tournament bass angler and Department of Defense civilian employee and operates a wounded veteran’s fishing adventure in California.

Also on hand were Monte Spencer, who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Sam Kennedy, who was a member of the San Francisco 49’ers and sported a Super Bowl ring during his visit to Brasher Falls.

The Hometown Heroes Muskie Challenge brought 32 soldiers from Fort Drum and 32 guides from around the area to the Brasher area Saturday to fish in the St. Regis and Deer rivers.

The former NFL players participated in a flag football game and were on hand for the Kick, Punt and Pass contest that took place after the fishing tournament.

The event, presented by Brasher Falls community leaders and representatives of Fishcap, the initiative that promotes the St. Lawrence River Valley as a premier fishing destination, also featured face painting, horse-drawn rides and a bouncy house and slide for family members of the soldiers and community residents.

St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Patricia McKeown gave the event high marks.

“This was a fantastic day. The soldiers arrived at the legion at a quarter to six, and the food was ready for them. The Lions Club were ready for the soldiers and guides at lunch time,” she noted.

“Everybody in the Tri-Town area was ready. There were flags lining the streets. It was perfect. The soldiers loved it. They are coming back,” she suggested.

Donald Meissner, Fishcap coordinator, was pleased with the event.

“Some great things happened. This day was about us honoring all the soldiers who do so much for us. What it also represented was people who were willing to share what we have, this tremendous resource,” he noted.

Capt. Jason Williams looked around the packed dining room at the Riverview restaurant Saturday and saw members of his unit spending time with the guides and community volunteers that had made the event a success.

“I’m really blown away. This was a great fishing event, but it was more about building relationships. I can see it in people’s faces,” he said, expressing his gratitude to the volunteers and townspeople that treated the soldiers so well during their visit to Brasher Falls. “From the bottom of my heart, thank you so much.”

——

James B. Henderson, a 23-year-old Fort Drum soldier from Azle, Texas, couldn’t stop looking at the photograph on his cell phone, a picture of the nearly 50-inch muskie his guide had caught while they were fishing on the St. Regis River in the Helena area.

Mr. Henderson has grown up fishing on creeks and rivers in his hometown, but he said nothing compared with his fishing adventure Saturday with Michael S. Small of Long Lake, an avid muskie fisherman, and Jim Stickney, commander of American Legion Post 514 in Winthrop.

He said Mr. Small caught the muskie with an 18-inch girth within the first hour of fishing while he was fly rod fishing.

“It was the first one I’ve ever seen, and this is the farthest north I’ve ever been. I loved it. We all measured the fish and weighed it,” he noted.

The young soldier said fishing was just one part of the positive experience.

“It was amazing. Even though the weather was bad, it was non-stop action. For y’all to open up your houses, campsites just for us. I stayed last night at a campsite, and people were stopping by every hour it seemed with food, dry wood and this and that,” the veteran of one tour in Afghanistan said. “And then this morning there was so much food at the American Legion and it was take as much as you want.”

Mr. Small said he had been surfing the internet when he learned about the muskie challenge.

“That’s all I like to catch. My son is a veteran who lives in Seattle, and he is involved with the Healing Waters Wounded Warriors organization. I called up the organization running this event and got involved,” he noted.

“It has been a fantastic day, great company and a beautiful area. I just wish James would have caught the fish,” he noted.

A table away two muskie fishermen from Canton, David C. Swanson and Bill Locy, were sharing stories and memories of the ones that got away Saturday morning with Fort Drum soldiers Jeremy L. Stepp of Muskegon, Mich., and Kevin D. Burdick of Belfast, N.Y.

“They each had a muskie on their line, both of them in the 4-foot range, but they got away,” Mr. Swanson explained. “Our guys were so shocked. Both had fish on their lines for a brief period of time.

Mr. Stepp said his encounter with a muskie happened in the first five minutes he had his line in the water.

“I initially thought I had a snag when I got the fish to bite. I was trying to reel it in, and it took off up the river and line let go. That’s when the fever set in,” the 27-year-old said of his new found passion for fishing muskies.

The seven-year member of the U.S. Army said he is getting set to go on his second tour in Afghanistan.

“This was an amazing day, and the guys were phenomenal,” he said.

Mr. Burdick said he had fished for bass in the past, and he was interested when he learned several members of his company at Fort Drum were heading north to the muskie challenge.

“I’d never done muskie fishing, and it was something that interested me. Muskie fishing is a lot more fun than bass,” he said after his first encounter with a big fish on the St. Regis River in the Winthrop area.

The 23-year-old soldier said the muskie was about two feet from the boat when it hit his line and noted the initial hit scared both he and his guide.

“We hooked into a big one, but I only had him for about 10 seconds,” he admitted.

“I loved it. I would obviously do this again. The guides were awesome. We were fortunate to have someone on the water with us who had actually done this before,” Mr. Burdick noted.

Mr. Swanson had a smile on his face as he listened to the soldiers share their muskie experience.

“We had a great time. I had been looking forward to taking these guys out. The key for me was getting him a bite. The best part was watching them hook those fish,” he said.

He has been a strong supporter of the county chamber’s Fishcap effort since its early days. The president of the North Country Savings Bank felt the effort to focus on the fishing opportunities in the area could boost the economy in St. Lawrence County and the soldiers’ positive experiences on the rivers in the Brasher area was further proof of that possibility.

“My (bank) board felt pretty much the same way I did. I’d love to be able to put St. Lawrence County on the map,” he said.

Mr. Swanson said Fishcap officials are now working with Franklin County representatives to expand the effort.

“We will probably be working with Franklin County to the benefit of both counties,” he noted.

“I think today was important for Brasher and important to Brasher. I think it was done very well, and the soldiers clearly enjoyed themselves,” he said.

Mr. Locy said he and Mr. Swanson hit the rivers looking for muskie every chance they get, and he said he has learned patience is the key to landing the big fish.

“I didn’t catch my first one until I was 50 years old. I’ve caught 38 since over the past 12 years, and 13 of those came on the same day. I’ve learned over the years - their habits, not to scare ‘em with muskie lures... It’s so simple yet elegant. It’s you against the fish. The hair stands up on your back when you get that hit. You know what’s coming. The fish will do a half twist and then come out of the water and then it’s on,” he said.

The success of the day was make more impressive by high winds and dramatic increases in the water levels in the last few days before the event.

“It was totally different than fishing the Grasse,” Mr. Locy said. “The water was high and moving real fast, but it was well worth the effort.

Mr. Swanson concurred. “It’s a phenomenal stretch of water,” he said.

And Mr. Henderson, the soldier from Texas, wasn’t complaining about the overcast skies and threat of rain that marked the day.

“It wasn’t a perfect day, but it wasn’t too cold and we didn’t get sunburned,” he pointed out.

Matt Curatolo, Ogdensburg, was fishing in a canoe with Sgt. Sean Jones from Philadelphia, Pa., a short distance from where Mr. Henderson’s party had landed the big muskie.

“This was my first time on the Deer River. It’s a beautiful stretch of water. Unfortunately we didn’t hook up with a muskie, but we did have some excitement with some white water rafting. It was fun,” he said of the two men’s battle with 40 and 50 mile per hour wind gusts hitting their canoe.

Mr. Curatolo said it was Sgt. Jones ‘ first real fishing trip, and he noted the soldier also brought his father-in-law along for the adventure.

“He had a great time. I just wish he could have hooked on to a big monster,” he said.

The Ogdensburg man is a strong supporter of the Fishcap effort.

“I think it helps put the area on the map. We have some of the best fishing in North America here. When you talk muskie fishing, the only places that can compare are Minnesota or Wisconsin,” he said.

——

Supervisor M. James Dawson said the town of Brasher has allocated $13,000 to Fishcap and provided an additional $600 for the Hometown Heroes Muskie Challenge and Riverfest.

“I was delighted we did this. It was nice to get these guys (soldiers) up here, and we have encouraged them to come back and see us,” Mr. Dawson said.

“The whole issue was to have the people from Fort Drum come up here and have a good time. I think it put us on the map a little bit. I think we’d like to do it again,” he noted.

Mr. Stickney, the commander of American Legion Post 514 in Winthrop, was already looking forward even before they handed out the awards for Saturday’s events.

“This was a fantastic day. It was great to see all the soldiers arrive today, and it was a real bonus having the pro football players here. For the first annual, it started out real well. It’s only going to get better,” he pledged.

John A. Ward, who served as the overall chairperson for the event, was also talking about another event.

“We’ve tentatively set the Muskie Challenge for the first weekend after Labor Day next year,” he said.

He said the former professional football players spoke with St. Lawrence Central football team on the night before a game and then traveled to Malone to watch the first half of their game on Saturday.

“They fell in love with Brasher. The flag football went over very well, and we had a great turnout for the punt, pass and kick contest. The players enjoyed it, and we got a lot of attention,” he said.

He said two of the players, Mr. Kidd and Mr. Spencer, were talking about purchasing property in the area.

He said Mr. Spencer is talking about bringing in national vendors for a fishing show in March and wants to turn the muskie challenge into a two-day event next year.

“He is talking about bringing more celebrities in for the event,” according to Mr. Ward.

He pointed out Mr. Spencer had already started raising funds for an event in 2013.

“Monte went over to the Riverview Sunday night with some of the people from the campground. They started a fundraiser just having a good time, and they raised $679. We’re on our way,” he said.





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