The day broke 44 degrees at 7:37 a.m., as 202 pairs of long-sleeved anglers and soldiers cruised Belton Lake in search of bass and a Triton fishing boat package worth about $25,000.
The Belton Lake Outdoor Recreation Area’s eighth annual Fishing for Freedom event Saturday was just as contentious as the government shutdown, which temporarily canceled the event.
Last year’s champion, Bill Guzman, and Sgt. 1st Class Dustin Roberts caught five fish weighing a total 15.01 pounds, slipping past 2011 champion Landan Ware and Sgt. 1st Class Darryl Holmes by 0.01 pounds.
“It was meant to be,” said Guzman, an Austin resident. “We had caught the five fish, and I put in (life-keeping) formula every hour, and it kept the fish healthy. ...That was the .01 edge that we had — maintaining the fish well, to be healthy.”
Guzman and Roberts, of 2nd Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, weighed in about an hour after the eventual runners-up’s tally, and drew a stunned, collective gasp from the crowd.
While Ware, a Jewett resident, acknowledged Guzman deserved the win, he wanted a re-weigh.
“I’m not going to get it though,” he said. “It must be Bill’s lucky day. ...He caught a 9-pounder.”
The federal shutdown forced last-minute team reassignments, and Roberts — a hobby fisherman — learned of his partner on Friday night.
“When I paired up with him, they told me he was a two-time winner, and I was like, ‘Oh, hell yeah,’” Roberts said.
But Roberts hooked the pair’s biggest catch.
“It was surreal,” he said. “I’ve never caught a fish that big, or a bass that big. It was the time of my life, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. ...Weather didn’t affect us.”
Holmes, of Division West’s 166th Aviation Brigade, was glad to fish after the shutdown.
“They did a great job in a short time to turn this back on and get the turnout that they did,” he said. “We caught fish pretty much all day. It was rough, cold, but it was fun.”
Holmes and Ware shared $2,000 for docking second place, and might’ve sparked a friendship.
“He just bought a boat, so we’re fixin’ to go fishing,” Ware said. “I like winning money if I don’t have to pay to enter. It’s a win-win.”