Few people need to relax more than people in uniform defending the country, but their stressful jobs can make it difficult to take it easy. That’s just one reason for the Fishing for Freedom tournament, in which volunteer fishermen — including a few pro anglers — took members of the armed forces along for a day on Belton Lake.

Members of the military, both active duty and retired, participated in the 13th annual Fishing for Freedom tournament at the Belton Lake Outdoor Recreation Area on Saturday.

The 249 two-person teams of anglers had their sights on the first-place prize of a brand-new $32,000 bass boat, but for many more it was about having fun while supporting the military.

“It’s important to show the soldiers that we appreciate what they do for us,” said event organizer Mary Brown. “I’m not sure they get a lot of opportunities to not think about life problems.”

Cliff Brown, event organizer and veteran, said it’s all about the soldiers and volunteers.

“For many soldiers, it’s their first time fishing,” Cliff said. “It’s exciting watching these young soldiers smile when they come across the stage to weigh their first fish.”

The volunteers provided their boats, fuel, fishing equipment and expertise. Temple Elks Lodge members helped out in the pavilion’s kitchen with snacks and drinks.

Friendships in fishing

Mary said she has seen many friendships blossom out on the open water, fishing rods in hand, which is important for the often transient military community.

“It helps let them know they’re part of our community and we’re happy to have them here,” she said. “Fishing is also a family atmosphere, where people get to know each other. The good camaraderie in fishing is similar to the military.”

The clouds were billowing, the wind was blowing, and for the winners, the fish were biting.

The winning team of Cris Tatum and Broc Boettcher just about broke the scales with their collection of largemouth bass weighing in at 18 pounds, 62 ounces. The second-place team of Reynaldo Ramon and James Banks rolled in at 17 pounds, 91 ounces. Charles Whitted and Gabriel Gonzales came in third place at 16 pounds, 33 ounces.

For others, fishing and fun were intertwined.

The “John Boat” team rolled off the water with largemouth bass weighing in at 8 pounds, 75 ounces, a middle-of-the-pack finish, but the John’s likely won first place for merriment on the water.

“We put on a little yacht rock and slow jammed all day,” said veteran John Miller. His teammate, retired Navy officer John Epp, was the more experienced fisherman of the two, but it was Miller’s little orange tackle box that won the day.

“It’s an 1980s model tackle box, filled with catfishing gear, and I said, ‘That’s the secret weapon,’ and then he started catching fish,” Epp said.

Epp started out six years ago with a Zebco reel at Fishing for Freedom and now he has his own boat. He even brought snacks.

After having their pictures taken with the catch of the day, the two men walked away smiling, likely friends for life.

Cliff said the next three tournaments already have been scheduled.

The event was sponsored by Triton Boats, Mercury Motors, Academy Sports & Outdoors, Texas Boat World, Line-X of Harker Heights, Marine Outlet, Lendlease Community Fund, Cloud Construction Perry Cloud, Tanner Roofing, Environmental Holding Group LLC, Yester Construction and others.

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