Jul 10, 2018

FISHING BUDDIES

Northwest Wisconsin’s legendary bass fishing reunited old army buddies

By Mike Yurk

Steve and I met some 30 years ago. We were both in the Army and stationed at Fort McClellan, Ala. He was a major and I was a newly promoted captain. He and his wife, Sherry, lived across the street and down a couple of houses on the same block in what the military called government housing. He had a fancy bass boat sitting alongside his driveway. Alongside my driveway I had a beat up, used jon boat. It didn’t take long for us to get to know each other. We both liked to fish.

His name was Steve Kirkland. Steve enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1965 and was a tank driver in Germany when he was sent to officer training school. He was later commissioned as an Infantry second lieutenant, went into special forces, and then to Vietnam.

One night he was hit by a chunk of shrapnel in the chest. That wound ended his days in special forces, so he transferred to mechanized infantry. He was working his alternate specialty in logistics when I met him. At the time, I was serving first as an instructor at the Military Police School at Fort McClellan, and then eventually a basic training company commander.

For several years we fished together almost every Sunday. Even when I was company commander I usually had Sundays off. In Alabama most of our fishing was for bass. Sometime before daybreak Steve and I were pulling out of his driveway on our way to one of the local lakes with his van dragging his bass boat. We drank coffee, watching the sun come up as we headed to the lake.

Even in the summer, early mornings were cool and comfortable. The sun wouldn’t get terribly uncomfortable until about noon. During the worst of the summer we were heading back home by noon, drinking a beer as we drove. Yes, I know that was illegal, but we lived in the south and drinking a beer as you drove home after fishing was one of those things which was not only tolerated, but accepted in the south.

Building a friendship

We fished all year long. You can do that in the south. I remember once it was two days after Christmas. The day before Steve walked over to my house to tell me we needed to go out the next day to test out the new baits we got for Christmas. So the next day I was standing on the back deck of his bass boat fishing in just a long sleeve shirt. We caught fish so our Christmas presents worked. 

Fort McClellan is in the foot hills of the Appalachian Mountains, so in the winter we would get a minor dusting of occasional snow. We were fishing a small lake from my beat up jon boat on a cold February day. Steve caught a fish earlier in the day, using a bait called a pig-n-jig. After he caught his fish, I switched to a pig-n-jig. It was the first time I used one. It was supposed to be perfect for cold weather fishing.

By mid-afternoon the wind was laced with a bit of snow and I hadn’t had a bite. I told Steve this pig-n-jig wasn’t any good. In fact, my feelings for this new bait couldn’t be quoted in a family publication. About the time I finished my rant, I pulled back on my casting rod and it felt like I was hung up. I swore again and pulled back harder, when far behind the boat I saw a large bass swirl on the surface. “Holy, something or another,” I said. “I have a fish.” It turned out to be about a four-pound bass. When we finally got it in the boat I told Steve the pig-n-jig was my new favorite bait. He laughed.

There were times we fished my boat, usually on smaller waters which would have been impossible to get his big bass boat in. Steve heard about a little pond just north of Fort McClellan that was supposed to be loaded with bass. He received permission for us to fish the pond and we took my jon boat there.

It had great bass fishing and we caught bunches of fish. It also had bluegill and in the spring we fished with fly rods and poppers. It’s hard to get a better fight out of fish than a big bluegill on a fly rod.

Much of our fishing was in Steve’s boat on the big impoundment lakes the south is known for. It isn’t cheap to run a big bass boat and a van, so I offered to pay for gas, but Steve waved me off, telling me he would be going fishing anyway. I brought sandwiches, beer, soda and water. I least was contributing something. I was a young captain, with a wife going to nursing school and three kids, so money was tight. Our pay was getting better under President Reagan, but it had a way to go after years of neglect. Steve’s generosity went a long way to help me fish more often and more places than I normally would have been able. I would never forget that.

Later when I was company commander, my Sunday fishing trips were more than just fishing. Being a commander is a demanding, stressful and lonely job. It was nice to just sit in the boat and forget it all for a while with nothing to worry about except catching a fish. Steve listened to my concerns, worries and troubles. I had no one else to talk to who understood. Steve did. He had been a successful company commander, understanding all too well the tribulations I was going through. He listened to me, giving the chance to let off steam while offering me support and sage advice from someone who had been there.

Parting ways

It was inevitable we would move. It’s part of military life. Steve left to become an instructor at a staff officer school at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. I followed him there briefly as a student in the staff officers course. We saw each other while both in Leavenworth, but we never had the opportunity to fish together. After ten weeks in school I left for North Carolina where I taught in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at a university. From there I was on the way to Germany for a third tour and then back to the states for a final assignment before retiring. Along the way Steve and I lost track of each other. 

The years would go on and I often thought of Steve, cherishing the memories of our many fishing trips. I wondered what happened to him. He was on a short list of old Army and fishing buddies I was trying to find.

Then thanks to Facebook, one day I found him online. His picture looked like I remembered him. He hadn’t changed much. I sent him a posting and within an hour I received a message back. “Is that you Mike?” We exchanged email addresses and telephone numbers and I called him. It was just like yesterday since we last talked. I told him I found some of the best bass fishing in the country in northwest Wisconsin. “Even better than Alabama?” he asked. Even better, I told him.

Steve retired from the Army, staying in Kansas. The last few years had not been good to him. When he was in Vietnam he was exposed to Agent Orange. “We knew we were operating in defoliated area,” he told me. That war from so many years ago came back to haunt him. When we first talked he was now completely disabled with heart problems, cancer and diabetes. All of it related to Agent Orange.

He sold his boat and hadn’t fished in several years. “But I am not going quietly,” he said. “I am fighting this every bit of way.” As well, with all he had gone through I noticed he hadn’t lost his outrageous sense of humor. That was good. Sometime shortly thereafter he went into the hospital. The doctors took out his stem cells, replacing them later. He had no immune system. A cold could kill him, so he couldn’t even kiss his wife when she came to visit. He fought and survived again.

Several months after he returned from the hospital, he and I were reminiscing on the phone about our days fishing in Alabama. He told me although he sold the boat, he still had the rest of his fishing gear and would like to go fishing again. He said he was going to check into getting a guide for a couple days fishing in the Ozarks. After I hung up, I started thinking about our conversation. He didn’t need a guide and he didn’t need to go to the Ozarks.

I picked up the phone and called him back. I told him I would be his guide and he needed to get up to Wisconsin. “Fly from Kansas City to Minneapolis and I will be there to pick you up,” I told him “When do you want me there?” he asked. I said next week. There was a pause from him and then he said, “let me check.” He called back an hour later, saying he had to move a couple of doctors appointments but would be flying into Minnesota next week Wednesday.

Reconnecting

The sun was just coming up as I drove to the airport pick up Steve. I pulled up in the arrivals area and maneuvered through the cars to the last gate when I saw Steve. We looked at each other and hugged. It had been a long time. Steve hadn’t changed. He looked and sounded the same as I last remembered seeing him many years ago at Leavenworth.

We hit a lake close to home on the first day, catching about a dozen and a half largemouth bass. The weather was somewhat against us. It was raining and chilly. That night I made bratwurst on the grill. When you come to Wisconsin what else would you expect? There were lots of old Army stories exchanged and fishing trips remembered. There was no lack of conversation or laughter. Just a couple of Army and fishing buddies catching up.

The next day we headed to Shell Lake further up north. We stopped at one of my favorite diners for breakfast. It also was a gas station and I went out to the gas the pump telling Steve to put away his wallet. He wasn’t going to pay for any gas. I was going fishing anyway. Again it was raining and chilly with a brisk wind. We spent most of the day in rain gear but caught two dozen smallmouth bass.

The next two days we hit a different lake every day and caught a dozen and a half bass on each lake. The weather remained unsettled and I felt bad – not only for the weather – but also for the slow fishing. We did far better than any day I could remember in Alabama, but it just wasn’t what we normally see in August. I wanted Steve to catch lots of bass. But Steve was happy with the fish we were catching, telling me, “It is just great to be on the water again.”

That morning it was dark when we left to return to the airport. We stopped at an all-night diner in the Twin Cities for one last breakfast. We had four days of fishing and we talked about doing it longer next summer. We were already planning on a return trip.

The next summer we were only a couple days away from his return visit when I got a call from Steve. As soon as he spoke I knew something was wrong. His voice sounded weak. His doctors had changed some of his medications and it reacted harshly on him. He had spent more time in the bathroom in the last few days than he did in the last month. He wasn’t going to be able to make it.

I told him we could change it to September instead if that would help and he said maybe it would. But after Labor Day he told me that wasn’t going to work out either. He was just too weak to go anywhere. The plan for him to return to Wisconsin would just have to wait another year.

I wondered if my friend was ever going to come back to Wisconsin to go fishing again. As winter progressed into spring we started to make plans for his return in August. I told him to tell his doctors not to make anymore changes to his medication. He responded he wasn’t going to let that happen again.

The morning of his flight I was back on my way to the Minneapolis airport. Steve was on his way.

The weather was better this time – sunny and warmer. The first day we fished a small lake, catching 20 bass. Steve could not have been happier. The next day we fished a bigger lake and caught over 30 bass. The bright blue skies and warm temperatures remained. This is what August is supposed to be like. We moved to a couple different spots on the lake. At one spot, as we gently drifted in the wind, Steve said, “This is nature’s prozac.”

We returned to Shell Lake. It was windy and overcast, but no rain. We had a tough time finding the fish. We tried shallow and then moved deep, but only caught a dozen smallies. Along the way Steve caught a seven-pound northern pike.

“You don’t have fish like this in Alabama,” I told Steve as I took a photo of him holding his northern.

A couple days later we fished a small lake in northern Polk County. There was a light rain later in the afternoon, but we picked up over 30 bass again.

Whenever something did go wrong, Steve would say “this isn’t the first ‘awe shit’ of the day and it won’t be the last.” The last couple of days the fishing dropped off again. I was disappointed, but Steve couldn’t care less. Just sitting in a boat was enough for him, and if he caught some fish, than so much the better.

The days were filled with memories, stories, jokes and laughter. The nights with good food made on the grill and a bit of liquor. Due to his medications, Steve couldn’t drink much, but my wife found a new cocktail made with Apple Crown Royal and ginger ale. We call it ‘The Steve Cocktail.’ Having a drink named after you isn’t a bad thing.

On that last night and that last drink, Becky gave Steve a hug before she went off to bed. Steve and I stayed up a bit longer. There was another story or two to tell and a bit more laughter. It was dark as I drove him to the airport the next morning. As I dropped him off at the gate there was an exchange of hugs, a “Next year my friend,” and one last big smile from Steve as he disappeared into the airport.

It is now another summer and once again Steve is coming back to Wisconsin this August. There are more bass for us to catch, and perhaps a few more stories we missed the last time. There certainly is more laughter. You can’t have enough of that. It’s good to have an old fishing buddy.

 

Mike Yurk has been writing about the outdoors for over 40 years and has been published in numerous local and regional outdoor publications since then. He has also published seven books dealing with the world of hunting and fishing. He lives in northwest Wisconsin where he has found some of the best bass fishing in the country.