National Guard enjoys a bad day of fishing on Martha’s Vineyard

Specialist Joseph Zero sat on the dock and waited for the fish to bite. — Photo by Bob Delisle

It rained. It rained some more. And it kept raining. But the deluge did little to dampen the spirits of the six members of the Massachusetts National Guard who visited Martha’s Vineyard last weekend as guests of the Rod and Gun Club.

Our soldiers didn’t care. They wanted to fish, drink beer, and watch the Bruins — and not necessarily in that order.

The fishing was about as lousy as the weather, maybe worse. But the bumper sticker philosophers explain it this way: A bad day of fishing beats a good day of work.

Well, I will take it one step further: A bad day of fishing on Martha’s Vineyard beats a good day in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The club had invited the citizen-soldiers, all recently returned from a one-year deployment in Afghanistan or Iraq/Kuwait, to join the 20th fly rod Striped Bass Catch and Release Tournament on Saturday night — weekend transportation, lodging, food, and equipment provided.

On Friday morning, I met Staff Sergeant Mark Welch and Sergeant Joel Larson of the 1060 Truck Company as they drove off the ferry (Bridget Tobin, Steamship terminal manager, made it easy) in Oak Bluffs and brought them to the beautiful house on Oak Bluffs Harbor that Ralph Norton of Oak Bluffs had arranged. Joel took one look at the green carpet of grass and his jaw dropped. “I want to roll around on it like a dog,” he said.

Members of the 101st Artillery unit — Specialist John Palmariello; Staff Sergeant Matthew Kulikowski; Specialist Joseph Zero; and Specialist Heather Gramz — arrived that afternoon.

It did not take long for the six to discover a nearby package store and bait shop. Hooks were baited with sea worms and the visitors sat back and relaxed.

It is a bit daunting to invite six people you have never met to join a fishing tournament. It seemed like a great idea in December but as the weekend approached I was not sure how to make the logistics work. But fishermen stepped forward.

Jim Blair, who had been instrumental in arranging the military contact, and his pal Norris John, a seasonal Chappy resident, took Zero back with them to Chappy to fish. Not knowing when he would return, Zero had the foresight to bring a 12-pack to an island without benefit of beer.

David Nash of Edgartown took Joel and Mark under his wing Friday night and teamed up with Mark for the tournament. Ralph and Ken Berkov took out Joel Saturday night.

Jay Cronin, who normally fishes with his dad Phil Cronin of West Tisbury, and his pal Jim Herbert, stepped forward to fish with John on Friday and Saturday nights. They even graciously delayed fishing Friday night so John, Heather, and Matt could watch the Bruins game.

When they arrived at Seasons on Circuit Avenue the place was packed. When Mike Santoro, managing partner and Oak Bluffs selectman, learned about the soldiers he made sure they got a table. It was a weekend of gestures large and small.

Many readers will remember Billy Norton, a fisherman, hunter, and gracious Island gentleman. The apple, as one person told me, did not fall far from that tree.

Ralph’s only concern was the comfort of the soldiers. His only disappointment was that he could not get them into fish because the weather kept his boat at the dock.

At the awards ceremony Sunday Ralph contributed a new fly rod in memory of his brother Tim, who died too young, and a check for $500 in memory of his father to be used to help fund the rod and gun club kids spring trout derby, open to all kids.

The generosity was not limited to people familiar with the Island and the tournament. Jim Blair put me in touch with Michael Kahn of After he heard about our plans he agreed to contribute six complete fly fishing outfits for the soldiers.

One of the highlights of the awards ceremony held Sunday morning was the club’s version of the Army-Navy game.

I picked out six Navy veterans and engineered our own version of a sing-off with “Anchors Aweigh” and “As the Caissons Go Rolling Along.” The prize was six fly rods. To no one’s surprise, the Army won.

Spend some time with members of the National Guard as I did, and you will be struck by how much our country asks of men and women leading ordinary lives until the deployment orders arrive.

The people I met over the weekend came from working class backgrounds that were far removed from the comfortable offices where elected officials make the decisions and pronouncements that profoundly affect these soldiers and their families.

Saturday I teamed up with Matt and Heather. I made an executive decision to forget fly rods and hand them spinning rods with Sluggos. I wanted them to catch a fish and did not care how they did it.

We began fishing on Menemsha Beach during a lull in the downpour. Heather had two hookups but was unable to land the fish. As the darkness and the rain fell I suggested we make a strategic retreat and order a pizza and go back to the house. They agreed with my generalship.

We talked about their deployment. My guess is that Heather, 24, was the most attractive red-head Humvee turret gunner in Afghanistan.

She operated an M240 Bravo, a machine gun that can shoot from 650 to 950 7.62 caliber rounds per minute. Heather said that some of the best moments came when Afghani women, some dressed in full burkas, would look at her in her battle dress and realize that she was also a woman (the eye makeup was the giveaway), and wave to her with delight.

At the awards ceremony Sunday we asked the six soldiers to come to the front of the room. The more than 150 fishermen and guests provided a standing ovation as we handed each a gift basket filled with Island goods.

I know that the six felt overwhelmed by the reception. I explained that it was not just them we honored, but all the members of the Massachusetts National Guard who could not be with us.

I read the following: “The Commander-in-Chief conceives little is now waiting to enable the Soldier to change the Military character into that of the Citizen, but that steady and decent tenor of behaviour which has generally distinguished, not only the Army under his immediate Command, but the different Detachments and separate Armies, through the course of the War; From their good sense and prudence he anticipates the happiest consequences; And while he congratulates them on the glorious occasion which renders their Services in the Field no longer necessary, he wishes to express the strong obligations he feels himself under, for the assistance he has received from every Class — and in every instance.”

I explained that those sentences were from General George Washington’s Farewell Address to the Army delivered on the second of November 1783
 in Rocky Hill, New Jersey.

When General Washington delivered those orders members of what we now refer to as The Massachusetts Army National Guard were present.

General Washington, one of the greatest leaders this nation ever produced, understood the importance of the citizen-soldier. Our citizen-soldiers continue to serve in distant lands. It is something we do not think about often enough as we go about our daily routines unaffected by the dangers they face. This weekend we said thank you.

The 20th Catch and Release Results

A total of 156 fishermen registered for the tournament by mail and in-person. A total of 148 showed up to fish. The official catch report total was 58 fish, likely the lowest total on record. The results follow:

Roberto Germani Prize (for the most stripers caught and released by a team): 1. Frank Anderson and Thor Farish, 7 fish; 2. Team Beulah, Wuss Industries (Seth Nickerson, Jeff Iandonis, Tim Sheran, Tony Jackson), 13 fish; 3. John Kollett, Sandra Demel, 6 fish; 4. Chilmark Kitties (Mike O’Connor, Perry Harris, Matt Bienfang) 6 fish; 4. David Nash, Mark Welch, 4 fish.

Arnold Spofford Prize (for the most fish using one fly): 1. Team Last Cast (Ed Tatro, Mike Mathias, Jeff Stevens, Scott Maccagerri), 2 fish; 2. Team Capawock Lite (Jim Hebert, Jay Cronin, Gary Hoffman, Brian Corrigan, John Palmariello) 1 fish; 3. Team Hooters (David Hoskyns, Randy Shea, Ralph Carrieri): 0* (*we had extra plaques).

Sonny and Joey Beaulieu Prize (for the largest fish caught and released): Tony Jackson (32-inch length, 16-inch girth).