there will be another vet coming here who took a round in the spine in Vietnam and has been wheelchair bound ever since. He will drive himself to the rocky point on Lake Erie from Cincinnati, because the fishing is great and the company he’ll keep for a few days next week is even greater.
The “Walleyes for Wounded Heroes” gathering June 22-26 will welcome close to 100 Purple Heart recipients and first responders who were injured in the line of duty. They will break bread, share stories and they will immerse themselves in the camaraderie, and do a little fishing too.
“We appreciate our military,” said Joe Stelzer of St. Marys, Ohio, one of the driving forces behind the event and the Ohio president of the Walleyes for Wounded Heroes organization. “This is a very personal cause for me and I just wanted some way to give back.”
Stelzer is not a military veteran, but he had five uncles who fought overseas in World War II, and just four of them came back. There is a grave site and a marker at a cemetery in Coldwater to honor his uncle who did not make it home, but the body remains someplace in Italy, where Stelzer’s uncle was killed in action.
“I’ve visited that grave site many times, and that kind of sacrifice he made, and the sacrifices these other guys have made — it sticks with you. It’s not something you forget about,” Stelzer said.
The Walleyes for Wounded Heroes was humbly started in 2012 when 15 Purple Heart recipients fished Lake Erie for a couple of days from small boats. Then the boats got bigger, they were skippered by professional charter captains, and the event experienced significant growth.
In 2014, 60 wounded heroes were treated to the event, and they caught 1,130 walleye and took home more than 2,000 pounds of walleye fillets. Last year, 68 Purple Heart recipients were hosted. The 2016 group will have three days of fishing during their stay, plus a trip to South Bass Island aboard the Miller Boat Line, and dinner at Put-in-Bay.
Fund-raising, donations, and a generous contingent of Lake Erie charter captains fuel this retreat, so the wounded heroes don’t pay a cent. Stelzer said that as the program grows, the need increases, and the supporters of the effort respond in stunning fashion.
“We needed more boats and more captains, and as soon as we put the word out, we had more than enough volunteer,” he said. About 45 charter boat captains have donated their time, boats and fishing equipment to the cause, and covered the cost of the fuel they burn taking these wounded heroes out fishing.
“It’s just good people wanting to help out,” Stelzer said. “If we don’t have captains, we don’t have a program. Some of the charter captains will fish with us for all three days, and keep in mind this comes in the heart of their season. They give up potential income so they can donate to this cause.”
Stelzer said captain Paul Walker of Circle Maker Charters has been one of the mainstays of the wounded heroes fleet, while captain Greg Freeze from Walleye2go Sportfishing has been with the Ohio wounded heroes fishing effort since its inception.
“All of these guys are just amazing, and so supportive of what we’re doing,” Stelzer said.
The wounded heroes will stay at Little Ted’s Cottages, and the national VFW is helping cover the cost of the rooms.
“It’s a great place, right on the water, and pretty secluded so the guys will be able to really relax,” Stelzer said. “There’s a lot of bonding that goes on, with guys from different wars finding out they have had a lot of the same experiences.
“One guy told me that those nights he spent here last year were the best he had slept in years, because he was in a cabin with other men who had been through the same experiences he had gone through,” Stelzer said.
The Walleyes for Wounded Heroes event kicks off on June 22 with a dinner donated by Northwest Ohio-based Dei Fratelli — a fourth-generation, family-owned and operated line of tomato-based products. Innovation Chef Jim Lombardi will prepare more than 125 pounds of walleye fillets, along with several dishes using product donated by Dei Fratelli.
On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the focus is on the fishing, with early departures followed by evening dinners and celebrations. When the wounded heroes depart on Sunday, Stelzer said many rock-solid friendships are in place.
“This is a chance to take some guys fishing on Lake Erie, but it really ends up being a whole lot more than that,” he said. “A lot of them leave here as friends for life.”