Operation Muskie: A way to say thanks to soldiers who've served in Iraq and AfghanistanHeadquartered at Walsh’s Bay Store Camp on Oak Island of Lake of the Woods, Operation Muskie is a way to say thanks to soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, organizers say.
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
John Kriesel wanted to catch a muskie, but the Iraq war veteran from Cottage Grove, Minn., never in his wildest dreams envisioned he’d tie into the kind of fish he hooked Tuesday afternoon on Lake of the Woods.
Fishing with renowned muskie guide Doug Johnson of Warroad, Minn., Kriesel, 27, was trolling a large crankbait called a “Jake” when the rod buckled over in its holder and line started zipping from the reel.
At first, Kriesel says, he thought the lure had snagged, repeating a scenario that had happened twice the previous day when what acted like a fish turned out to be rocks.
This time, though, Kriesel’s guide assured him that wasn’t the case.
“I said, ‘I’m pretty sure it’s a snag, Doug,’” Kriesel recalls. “He said, ‘It’s a fish, reel it in.’ I felt the fish move then, and I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ It felt big.”
And when the fish appeared beside the boat, Kriesel knew the thrill, the rush of adrenalin that keeps muskie hunters everywhere pounding the water for one of the most elusive freshwater species on the planet.
“When I got it close and it splashed and I saw it was a muskie, I was amazed,” Kriesel said.
Thick and bluish-green and gorgeous in the way big muskies always are, the fish measured 49 inches. After a couple of quick photos, Kriesel released the muskie to swim another day.
As first muskies go, Kriesel’s fish set the bar pretty high. He says it was an experience he’ll never forget.
“I was moving around that boat as best I could, just fighting it, just falling down,” Kriesel said. “I put everything I could into it.”
He’s planning to get a graphite replica of the muskie and another of the 41-inch northern he caught just a half-hour earlier.
Kriesel admits the experience left him shaking — both from fatigue and the adrenalin rush. Playing a big muskie is difficult for anyone, after all, much less a double amputee with two prosthetic legs.
Landing an idea
Kriesel’s moment in the sun — or moments, if you count the 41-inch pike — occurred during an event dubbed “Operation Muskie.” Headquartered at Walsh’s Bay Store Camp on Oak Island of Lake of the Woods, Operation Muskie is a way to say thanks to soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, organizers say.
“I guess I’m an old-fashioned patriot,” said Dick Pearson, a South Dakota muskie authority and one of the organizers. “It’s a really emotional thing for me. It’s a huge deal. Regardless of how one feels about the war, I think it’s important to support our troops.”
This year’s Operation Muskie, the second annual, began Monday and wrapped up Friday. The massive volunteer effort attracted 10 of the Midwest’s top muskie guides and 20 veterans from as far away as Oklahoma and Virginia. That’s about as many as the camp can handle.
According to Pearson, who has written books and produced videos on muskie fishing, the idea for the event evolved after he sent some of his DVDs to National Guard troops in Iraq about three years ago.
Staff Sgt. Bret Wold of Long Prairie, Minn., sent Pearson a note of thanks, and the two struck up an e-mail friendship.
“He expressed a wish to go fishing sometime when he gets home, and I said I’d be happy to,” Pearson said. “And that discussion led to Lake of the Woods.”
It was sometime in the summer of 2007, Pearson recalls, when he contacted Frank Walsh of Bay Store Camp about renting a cabin for a couple of nights. Pearson had stayed at the camp numerous times over the years, and when he told Walsh he was planning to take a veteran fishing, the camp owner suggested taking things a step further.
“He said, ‘I tell you what — get 19 more veterans, and we’ll turn the place over to you for a week,’ ” Pearson said.
And so, the seeds for Operation Muskie were planted.
“You look at what those guys are doing for us,” Walsh said. “We’re sitting here with family, fishing, and they’re struggling to stay alive at 120 degrees.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do for them. Maybe it’s just so obvious it’s hard to put into words.”
Making it happen
For Kriesel, moments such as Tuesday’s big-muskie encounter on Lake of the Woods take on a whole new meaning after a life-changing experience that occurred Dec. 2, 2006, while he was serving in Iraq as a member of the Bravo Company 2-136th Infantry National Guard unit based in Crookston.
Kriesel and four other soldiers were traveling in a Humvee on patrol near Fallujah when the vehicle hit a roadside bomb — 200 pounds of plastic explosives packed into a propane tank.
He lost both of his legs and suffered internal injuries, losing part of his intestines and shattering his pelvis. The blast killed two of his friends and companions, Cory Rystad, 20, of Red Lake Falls, Minn., and Bryan McDonough, 22, of Maplewood, Minn.
As Kriesel recalls, he woke up eight days later in Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“They said I was going to be there two years,” Kriesel said. But nine months later, he was well enough to go home to Minnesota.
Today, he lives in Cottage Grove with his wife, Katie, and sons Elijah, 8, and Brody, 7, and works in a civilian position with the Army National Guard. That’s also where he learned about Operation Muskie.
And now, with a trophy muskie under his hat, Kriesel has taken his place among the ranks of confirmed muskie addicts.
Operation Muskie, he says, is what made that possible.
“Being able to do things and go out and enjoy life like I used to, I think it’s almost the pinnacle to think I caught a 49-inch muskie,” Kriesel said Wednesday night in a telephone interview from Oak Island. “It’s beyond words for me. Still today, I can’t believe I caught that fish.”
A veteran’s appreciation
While this was Kriesel’s first year attending Operation Muskie, many of the veterans were on hand last year, as well.
Jeff Wiegand, a returning veteran from Madison, Wis., landed a 47-inch muskie last year but said he hadn’t caught any muskies as of Wednesday night. An admitted muskie fanatic, Wiegand, 43, said thinking about fishing trips past and anticipating those to come helped get him through six deployments to Iraq.
He said the opportunity to rub elbows with some of the top muskie guides in the country and share experiences with other veterans makes Operation Muskie a special event.
“It’s overwhelming for the veterans,” Wiegand said. “It’s amazing, the camaraderie.”
The significance, he says, is difficult to put into words.
“Everyone that has contributed to Operation Muskie has shown an enormous amount of generosity to show support for our service to our country,” Wiegand said. “They’re doing a service to our country by supporting our vets.”
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to email@example.com.