Larry Harris loves to fish. And on July 8, the Wilbraham resident got the chance to put his passion to the test.
Harris came in first place in the team memorial competition of the Wal-Mart All-American Bass Fishing Tournament. The Tournament was held the weekend after the fourth of July at the Convention Center in Hartford along the Connecticut River. The history-making event is currently one of the most prestigious Bass fishing tournaments in the United States.
Harris served in the United States Air Force for two years in the early 1960s. Stationed in England, he suffered a spinal cord injury that left him partially paralyzed. Harris is a lifetime member of the New England Paralyzed Veterans of America (NEPVA) and has been on the fishing tour for the Bass Fishing League (BFL) for the past three years. He is no stranger to achievement in fishing tournaments, having come in second place in a few past competitions.
FLW Outdoors, a company named after Forest L. Wood, the founder of Ranger boats, sponsors a number of tournaments each year, including the Wal-Mart Tournament. Ninety-six fishermen representing 22 states competed for prizes and cash awards totalling $1 million. On the Saturday of the competition, 10 All-American fishermen who did not qualify for the final round of the individual tournament were paired with a disabled veteran for a tournament honoring those wounded in the line of duty.
For the team competition, disabled veterans serving as anglers were each paired up with able-bodied fishermen that serve as co-anglers. The angler's job is to run the boat, fish, and make the fishing decisions. Co-anglers fish only from the back of the boat and can give input on strategies, but cannot make any final decisions.
Teams were allowed to catch up to five fish within the allotted time, with the option of throwing smaller fish back in an attempt to earn a greater weigh-in at the end of the tournament. Veterans must have caught at least three of the fish.
Harris and his teammate, Mike McAtee from Waverly, Kentucky, got off to a good start in the beginning of the four hour period allotted for the contest. However, Harris and McAtee left the contest early when Harris's wife required medical attention. When he returned to the tournament, Harris discovered that his team had still won the contest by an ounce at the weigh-in, a total catch of 8 pounds, 10 ounces, despite having a shorter fishing period than the other participants.
"It felt great to win," Harris said. "It was nice to fish with people from all over the country and learn from them."
The teams were escorted to and from the fishing docks by the Nam Knights of America, a Harley Davidson motorcycle club made up of military personnel and law enforcement officers serving to honor the memories of veterans.
Harris's tournament experience didn't just end with his win. During the three-day event, Harris and other fishermen got the opportunity to share their skills with disabled children in a youth fishing derby, bating hooks, helping with lines, and giving fishing pointers. For Harris, the opportunity was rewarding.
"It was wonderful to see their faces light up when they caught something," he said.
Bill Decoteau of Hampden, member of the executive board of NEPVA and an outdoor journalist, described the rewards of being involved in such a signifigant tournament.
"For the veterans, it's like a dream. Many of them thought that they couldn't get involved, that they would never get a chance to get out there," Decoteau explained. "It's an emotional, heartfelt, patriotic feeling."
An avid fisherman and past competitor himself, Decoteau found inspiration of the teamwork between the disabled veterans and their able-bodied teammates.
"The biggest benefit isn't just for the disabled veterans, but also to the boaters, who can see firsthand the influence of their help and time spent with them [the veterans]," Decoteau said.
For Decoteau, the tournament had a special meaning of pride- in oneself and one's country.
"We always start out with the National Anthem and a prayer, and it's nice to know that that sort of patriotism still exists."
Coverage of the competition will be broadcast to subscribers on the Fox Sports Network on August 6 and August 13 as a part of the "FLW Outdoors" program.