The northeast wind blew at more than 20 miles per hour and the temperature made it feel like the first day of March rather than the last day of May, making for less than ideal conditions for the 124 fishermen casting about in the 23rd Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club Striped Bass Catch and Release Tournament last Saturday night.
The fishing reflected the conditions — miserable by Island standards. About 184 bass, mostly small, were caught and released by fishermen who struggled from 7 pm until 2 am Sunday morning to find any spot facing the water out of the battering wind.
But a bad day of fishing in the catch and release beats a good day in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. One year ago, Army Captain Matthew Blair was in the hospital receiving treatment for the foot he fractured while on his third deployment to Afghanistan.
At the awards ceremony Sunday morning, Captain Blair, an Apache helicopter pilot assigned to the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, was happy to have the opportunity to fish on Martha’s Vineyard with his father, Jim Blair of Norton, his cousin Dean Blair and friends. And the more than 100 fishermen and guests sitting in the regional high school cafeteria were very happy to welcome him back.
For those who thought they were seeing double, they were. Matthew, 35, and his twin brother Army Captain Nicholas Blair, 25th Engineers stationed at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where he is part of the Global Response Force, are a catch and release tag team pair. In the past seven years their schedules have only allowed the brothers to fish the tournament together once.
Last year, Nicholas fished the catch and release undeterred by a cast on the foot he broke during a training exercise one month earlier. Here is one of those twin psychic connection anecdotes. Nicholas broke his foot on May 2, 2013. One week later, Matthew sustained a series of fractures in his foot while on a mission (which he completed despite his injuries).
In conversation, both brothers are humble about their military service. Quiet, competent, and professional in demeanor, they represent their service well.
The highlight of the awards ceremony held Sunday morning came when Captain Blair presented an American flag he carried with him in his Apache helicopter during a combat mission in Afghanistan near the Khyber Pass to rod and gun club president Bob Delisle and treasurer Cliff Meehan. It was a way to say thanks, he said, for an organization and event that has meant so much to him and his family.
Mattered a lot
I spoke to Matthew by phone Monday as he returned to the 10th Mountain Division base at Fort Drum, New York, after three days on the Vineyard. Matthew said that but for the tournament he would not have taken up fly fishing.
He said he values the tournament for the opportunity it provides to spend time with his father, to fish and enjoy the Island. “Just some good old American reset time,” he said.
Military service is a Blair family tradition. A sister, Kristen (Blair) Mayer, is an Air Force captain who for a time was stationed at a hospital in Kabul.
“This last deployment Kristen and I worked together,” Matthew said. “She was running a hospital in Kabul and I was outside Fenty by the Khyber Pass and she came up one day and I put her in the helicopter and I showed her around. That was a rare family experience meeting in a war zone.”
Matthew is married with two children, a four-year-old son and one-year-old daughter. Between his military and family responsibilities, free time to go fishing is rare.
Last year, knowing Matthew was in the hospital, the fishermen signed a catch and release tee-shirt to wish him well. For most of us, war is a distant rumble of thunder, a snippet of news. I suspect few of us realized that the smallest gesture of thanks can often be quite meaningful for those who serve.
In one of the more emotional moments of the ceremony Sunday, Matthew thanked those in the room for thinking of him. I asked him about that moment.
Matthew said that the routine of deployment in a war zone pushes home to the background. “When you get injured and sent to Walter Reed or any of the military hospitals, it’s very antiseptic and you are separated from anybody you are used to working with, and you are separated from your family, so it is like a deployment unto itself.”
Professional military men and women share a strong sense of duty. Matthew said that sitting in the hospital for three months far from the battle was difficult.
“I had been working 12 hours a day,” he said, “flying my absolute maximums every day and night and then when I got hurt I felt like I had let the team down. Like I was failing the Army by getting hurt.”
The tee-shirt and the card he received from the rod and gun club reminded him that his service was appreciated. “It mattered a lot,” he said, “because it kept me from reinforcing my own apprehension that I was letting people down.”
The flag now in a case at the rod and gun club was carried during a night assault on two towns in conjunction with the 101st Airborne in an effort to capture Taliban supporters. “It was two big raids. There were a lot of moving pieces. Lots of helicopters landing at night. Lots of troops moving around at night.”
Matthew served three tours in Afghanistan for a total of 24 months, beginning in 2007. The changing tempo of the war and the push to shift responsibility to the Afghan forces has created new challenges for those trained to bring the fight to the enemy, he said.
The Apache helicopter is a lethal piece of military equipment packed with high tech weapons systems and capable of flying 171 miles per hour. It carries a pilot and a co-pilot gunner.
Asked if it is fun to fly, without adding the qualification of people shooting at him, Matthew said, “It’s true. It’s a lot of work to be a pilot, but when you get to do the real yanking and banking at high speeds at low altitude it’s the greatest fun in the world.”
He said the austere Afghanistan environment was challenging but did not deter from the thrill. “Flying in the mountains at those speeds is really great, I love doing it.”
The first time Matthew fished the tournament he had just returned from Afghanistan. Upon each subsequent return he fished the tournament. “My father would always be looking at the clock saying, remember, if you’re going to be home in May get June off for the tournament.”
Following a revolving cycle of deployments, for the first time in a decade, Captain Blair and his unit are not home preparing to leave. World politics could intercede, but for now he is enjoying spending time at home with his family.
It is a short hop by helicopter from Fort Drum to the Vineyard. I told Matthew that his unit would be welcome and with no scheduled deployment he could begin preparing for the 24th catch and release.
“I’m already looking at the calendar for next year,” Matthew said.
Roberto Germani Trophy for the most striped bass caught and released by a team: 1. John Kollett, Sandra Demel (11 fish average); 2. Dave Thompson, Tom Carroway (Team Sprintless, 8.5 avg.); 3. Cooper Gilkes, Jackie Jordan, Pete Kutzer, Jess McGlothlan, Todd Cascone, Aaron Cascone, Tom Zemianek, Donald O’Shaughnessy, Jr. (Team High Stickers, 6 avg.)
Sonny and Joey Beaulieu Trophy for the largest striped bass caught and released: Dean Blair, 72 inches (44 inches in length, 28 inches in girth).
Arnold Spofford Trophy for the most fish caught and released by a team using one fly: 1. Seth Woods, Mac Haskell, Charlie Finnerty (Team Caddyshack, 2.3 avg.); 2. Jeffrey Stevens, Scott MacCaferri, Ed Tatro (Team Last Cast, 2 fish avg.); 3. James J. Jackson, Mark G. Wrabel (Team Bassholes, .5 fish avg.)
Larry’s Bass Blast
There is shore and boat competition striper action in this month-long tournament that ends June 30. Winners split the kitty. For more information, call the tackle shop at 508-627-5088.
Current tide charts are here.