Hunting brings smiles to warriors and widows

Smiles are what stays with you.

Willie Johnson, one of the organizers of the annual Veteran’s and Widows’ annual fishing derby, had long been warned that the soldiers and women, or Gold Star families, who come from Fort Lewis to participate in the annual Veteran’s and Widows’ fishing derby might be quiet when they arrived.

But after spending a morning fishing with a group of local volunteer boat captains on the Columbia River, some of the participants can’t stop smiling, and the sense of community that comes with small-town living has somehow extended to these new strangers, making them feel right at home.

It’s part of the experience that keeps volunteers coming back year after year. It appears that some of the participants, including local first responders.

The event, which took place this past Wednesday and Thursday, was originally organized eight years ago by local fisherman, Bud Mikkelsen, who passed away in 2018. Johnson and Doug Martin, along with a group of volunteers, are keeping the event going in his memory. And because of the continuity of grace, it is for them all.

The Reverend Kenny Evans of The Bridge Church led the opening prayer for the awards ceremony on Thursday, asking for peace to all who were grieving as much a failed day on the river as it was fishing.

“It’s the most rain I’ve ever seen,” Jeff Mason said. “It was a good day. There were 24 warriors in attendance, two widows, along with eight local first responders.”

Mason hails from Puyallup. He runs a program called Fish’n Trips for Heroes and has been involved in the local action since the beginning.

Larry Cantrell of Goldendale spent Thursday morning in a boat captained by Steve Simpson, and caught a 19.8-pound fish, the biggest of the day. Cantrell, Staff Sergeant, retired from the Air Force after 30 years in the service.

He was the last fisherman to reach weigh-in point, and was seen running across the parking lot at Elochoman Slough Marina to cut through at 2pm.

“It was amazing,” Cantrell said of the whole thing.

Wednesday night dinner was served by Crowded Kitchen outside of Toledo, and Thursday night feast was served by Maria’s Place.

Johnson is grateful to his loyal group of volunteers, as well as to all of the sponsors who helped make it all happen.

“One thing I can say about our little community,” he said, “is that they look after themselves well.” “I have a list of sponsors that I go to every year. They give the same amount of money or give more money than they did the year before. I really admire the people who support this.”

He also makes sure that all participants go home with some fish. Hopefully it’s fresh, but if not, he has frozen steak and some smoked salmon to send with them.

“We caught a lot of fish this year,” Johnson said. “It was wet, it was raining all the time, but you see the smile on their faces, and that makes me happy. It’s so much fun.”

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