Fishing brings smiles to Warriors and Widows


September 7, 2023

Diana Zimmerman

A participant in this year's Warriors and Widows Fishing Derby looks on as a volunteer boat captain gives a quick lesson in gutting a fish at the Elochoman Slough Marina.

The smiles are what stay with you.

Willie Johnson, one of the organizers for the annual Warriors and Widows Fishing Derby, was warned long ago that the servicemen and women, or Gold Star families, who come from Fort Lewis to participate in the annual Warriors and Widows Fishing Derby might be quiet when they arrive.

But after a morning of fishing with a band of local volunteer boat captains on the Columbia River, some of the participants can't stop smiling, and the feeling of community that comes with living in small town has somehow extended to include these recent strangers, and make them feel at home.

It's part of the experience that keeps the volunteers coming back year after year. And it seems, some of the participants, which includes local first responders.

The event, which took place last Wednesday and Thursday, was originally organized eight years ago by a local fisherman, Bud Mickelsen, who passed away in 2018. Johnson and Doug Martin, along with a host of volunteers keep the event going in his memory, and because of the continued blessing it is for all of them.

Pastor Kenny Evans of The Bridge church led the opening prayer for the awards ceremony on Thursday, asking that peace would be given to all who were grieving a failed day on the river, as far as a catch.

"This is the wettest I've ever seen it," Jeff Mason said."It's been a good day. There were 24 warriors in attendance, two widows, along with eight local first responders."

Mason hails from Puyallup. He runs a program called Fish'n Trips for Heroes and has been involved with the local event since the beginning.

Larry Cantrell of Goldendale spent Thursday morning in a boat captained by Steve Simpson, and caught a 19.8 pound fish, the biggest of the day. Cantrell, a Senior Master Sergeant, retired from the Air Force after serving 30 years.

He was the last fisherman to arrive at the weigh-in, seen running across the parking lot of the Elochoman Slough Marina to make the 2 p.m. cut-off.

"It was awesome," Cantrell said of the whole thing.

Courtesy of Rene Westbrook

A serviceman from Fort Lewis hooked a salmon with the help of a local volunteer last Thursday.

A dinner on Wednesday night was catered by Crowded Kitchen out of Toledo, and Thursday's feast was provided by Maria's Place.

Johnson is grateful for his loyal band of volunteers, as well as all the sponsors who make all of it happen.

"One thing I can say about our small community, they sponsor well," he said. "I have a list of sponsors I go to every year. They give the same amount of money or they give more money than what they did the year before. I'm really impressed with the people who support this."

He also makes sure all the participants go home with some fish. Hopefully it's fresh caught, but if not, he has frozen fillets and some smoked salmon to send with them.

"This year we caught a lot of fish," Johnson said. "It was wet, raining the whole time, but you see the smiles of their faces, and that's what makes me happy. It's a lot of fun."


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