It's not often that a photo of me kayak fishing pops up. I tend to be the one behind the camera and I don't often fish with people. The majority of the photos of me were taken by me. With that said, Tammy Wilson was able to snap a nice one while the sun was getting us ready during the event on Saturday."Heroes On The Water serves our Nation’s warriors by providing healing and rehabilitating kayak fishing outings that are physically and mentally therapeutic through our nationwide community of volunteers and donors."
The Space Coast Chapter of Heroes On The Water was created about one year ago by Bob Harvey. Shortly after it was created I took over as coordinator and I've been fine tuning it ever since with the intentions on finding someone who is able to take my place. It's a great organization and it changes the lives of Veterans. Kayak fishing also changes the lives of typical civilians with disabilities. I know because it changed my life and I'm not sure where I'd be without my kayak.
On Friday, June 13th five chapters of HOW came together to hold one large camping event, the First Inaugural Florida HOW Summit. This event would spread over a weekend and consist of eating, fishing, eating, making friends, fishing, camaraderie and eating some more. The Summitwould be held in my own backyard of Merritt Islands No Motor Zone of the Banana River. The Banana Riveris 1/3 of what makes up the Indian River Lagoon, Americas most diverse estuary. The other two parts include the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon.
The event started on Friday and with a new Ocean Kayak Big Game 2 in my possession I was too excited to wait. I wanted to get my new boat wet ASAP so I packed up my truck and heading for the campground on Thursday night at 9:30pm. There were a few leaders from other Chapters already set up and I was happy to have Butch Newell and Charlie Ganoe help me unpack and setup. By the time we were finished I set my alarm and managed to get five hours of sleep before I set off again.
Friend and fellow HOW Team Member, Wade Hollowell met me at the south end of the Mosquito Lagoon and we launched by 6:30am. This was a little pre-event fishing we intended on doing. With the wind and a few storms closing in early it made chasing tails a bit hard. We chased more mini whitecaps than anything and ended the late morning with a few trout. We made a quick stop by Kayaks By Bo on the way back to the camp in order to get some new gear for my BG2. By the time we got to the campground there was a significant amount of new faces and tents. Dinner shortly followed and was hosted by the Central Florida Chapter and after that everyone got some shuteye for an early Saturday start on the NMZ.
As you can see from the sunrise photo, it was a very welcoming morning. The thoughts in my head were more concentrated on the setting full moon and how productive the day of fishing would be. People travel from all over to fish the Indian River Lagoon for it's wide variety of fish including massive red drum and the last thing I wanted was for people to leave with no good fish stories. It's bad enough the IRL gets a lot of bad publicity due to the media and pollution. The IRL has a reputation to keep up and it needs every bit of positive support it can get.
The morning pressed on as Vets, guests and guides scattered throughout the NMZ. I guided my Vet and guests close to the launch ramp because of the mid-morning storms I knew were coming. I was happy to get his guests on some fish but unfortunately he didn't catch anything. His one guest caught a puffer fish that I gladly inflated for him and another reeled in a catfish I was able to hook up. The word was out that the only thing being caught was puffers, small trout and catfish. I was just fine with my group catching just that because my Vets guests were his son and daughter. They had nothing but smiles all morning.
Lunch was served by the local VFW and I couldn’t help but to watch the clock and count all the people coming to the lunch pavilion with no great fish stories. As much as I was trying to keep hope alive, I was watching the fishless day draft the hour hand. And with the last group of Vets and guests coming in the vibe of the day quickly changed. That last group was late only because guest Jeannie Dickman hooked into a 46” red drum that wore her out. Her Veteran boyfriend Chuck Miller was second on deck to tussle with this beautiful red until it wore him out and HOW Guide Donnie Leeper jumped in to bring the red to the boat. A successful mission
was had in the backyard of NASA and the reputation of monster reds in the Indian River Lagoon will carry on.
The day ended with the North East Florida Chapter cooking dinner and the Sarasota Chapter woke everyone up bright and early with the breakfast bell. With close to 100 people in attendance I’m happy to say the Florida Chapters of HOW conducted a great first event of it’s kind. There was only one problem, I wasn’t able to catch one decent fish in my new boat.
My final stop for the weekend was a Father’s Day picnic at a local park. It just so happen to be a park where I spent a lot of time fishing as a kid. With family members of my wife, brothers wives, our closest friends, family and my parents, we took over the park. It’s great to have so many special people in one place at one time. We dodged the summer storms as they came and went and when they finally left for the day my fishing brother Jon Billings and I pushed off the shore for a bit. My weekend just wasn’t complete without that one fish so we went to find him and close out the end to a fantastic weekend.
Special thanks to Kayaks By Bo, VFW Post 8116, Merri Cakes, Harry Goode’s Outdoor Shop, Ocean Kayaks, Indialantic Seafood Company, KARS Park, all Florida HOW Chapters, HOW National and Mother Nature for taking it somewhat easy on us.
I hope it was a great Father's Day and my thoughts are with you if your Father is no longer with us.
Matt Conneen, Joe Conneen, Mike Conneen, Chris Conneen