Soldier has Iraq fish tales to swap


August 22, 2004|By CANDUS THOMSON

Lots of people have rockfish stories.

Austin Conners has Iraq fish stories.

That's what happens when the government issues you new marching orders and sends your unit on an all-expense-paid trip to Baghdad.

Conners, who has family in Howard County, is a Specialist E-4 in the Army. He provides communications services from the "Green Zone," the nerve center of the new Iraq.

His dad is a retired military man working for the state of Montana, where fishing and hunting are a part of growing up.

"I just celebrated my 23rd birthday," Conners wrote me. "I have been a fisherman since I can remember. Between hunting and fishing, my dad has been there to show me the way. I remember him taking me fishing to the Hidden Lakes in the mountains for golden trout for my birthday years ago. From fly fishing the mountain streams of the Rockies to trolling for salmon in the Puget Sound in Washington state, my dad has shown me quite a bit."

Kevin Conners also has fond memories of those early years.

"Before he could walk, I would carry him in a backpack occasionally when I went fishing. He would watch quietly over my shoulder," he said.

The younger Conners caught his first fish just before his third birthday. Kevin Conners still has the photo of his son holding a 14-inch brook trout he took from a small spring creek in a pasture just south of Bozeman.

Each year for Austin's birthday, father would take son fishing. Their favorite trip was to a high mountain lake just north of Yellowstone National Park that held golden trout.

"Even though it was July, we would have to wade through snowdrifts the last half mile to reach the lake," Kevin Conners said.

Hot, dusty Baghdad is no match for the sweet, crisp air of Montana. But a fisherman's got to do what he's got to do. So naturally, when Conners landed in Baghdad in April, he went looking for the local Lefty Kreh. Coming up empty, he went on a scouting mission.

He didn't have to look far. On Saddam Hussein's palace grounds are manmade moats filled with water pumped in from the Tigris River. One night after chow, Conners noticed some boiling action every time the cooks threw stale bread in the water.

"At night, it's like a hatchery," he wrote. "I threw a few pieces of bread in the water and they were gone in 20 seconds."

Conners e-mailed his dad for some fishing gear, a scale and some stink bait. When it arrived, he went to work.

"I found a place where they seem to accumulate to try and get food from passersby. ... This spot is an obvious one. The best way to catch them is with your basic `kid gear,' the ways you remember fishing when you first started. A simple hook on line with a chunk of bread crust seems to do the trick. That's how my biggest ones were caught.

"My pole is a 6-foot-6 Shakespeare Ugly Stick [best pole ever made, in my mind], with a Spidercast reel spun up with 40-pound test Stren Super Braid at a 10-pound diameter, courtesy of my dad. Starting out, I was using 5-year-old, 6-pound monofilament from trout fishing. That didn't work too well, as you can imagine."

With the right gear, Conners began reeling them in. The biggest ones have been about a yard long and weigh about 42 pounds.

Judging by the pictures, they appear to be carp, but Conners says he's hauled in some other fish, too.

"There are catfish, but I have not seen one over 6 inches, very skinny like an eel. I did catch one fish that was quite interesting. I wish I would have had my camera to take a picture," Conners wrote. "Had a trout-type head on a whitefish body, but it had teeth! I'm talking about lake trout- to northern pike-sized teeth. Very mean fish at that, very aggressive. And the most recent one seems to be a new type, almost like a tarpon."

Conners fishes mostly at night - duty calls and the daytime heat is atrocious.

"It's been between 105-119 degrees daily. The fish don't seem to be too active, naturally, and you would be hard pressed to find me looking for them, although I have done this on occasion."

Fishing pressure isn't too great, Conners says.

"I have seen more locals and civilians fishing than GIs," he writes. "According to the locals, catching a fish is a blessing. [That's] the reason I give all my catches to them."

In return, they make suggestions.

"I actually get pointers from people passing by. `Hey, you know where I would fish if I were you?' and `You're not going to catch anything big here. You should try over there.' "

He hopes to be home in October and with his dad in Montana for some fine fishing and deer hunting.

His dad, Kevin Conners, has been scouting out the bucks on the family's 20-acre homestead. There's a bachelor herd of 13, about 2 years old, that will probably be four- and five-pointers by fall.

Until then, Conners will try to keep cool and keep his head down. Except, of course, when the big ones come calling.

"Work does keep me busy nearly seven days a week," he wrote. "But as you know, you can always find time to fish."

Tight lines, Spc.Conners.

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