CAMP BAHARIA, Iraq -- Pfc. Carlos J. Nayola doesn’t have combat stress. That’s because he’s got a fishing rod.
“Fishing relaxes the soul and helps me get away,” said the 19-year-old warehouse clerk from Lynn, Mass.
Nayola, along with a few of “New England’s Own” Marines from 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, sit at the shore of Lake Baharia a couple nights every week. The murky water ripples its way to the lake’s edge where it crashes in small waves on the rocky shore. There, sweat-stained Marines serving with Regimental Combat Team 5 laze away the evenings waiting for something to snag their attention.
“It brings a touch of home that much closer to Iraq,” said Lance Cpl. Robert J. Veglucci, a 30-year-old field radio operator, from Shirley, N.Y.
The man-made lake, dug during Saddam Hussein’s reign, was part of what the Ba’ath party called Dreamland, a vacation getaway spot for Iraqis loyal to the dictator. It was once filled with amusement rides and lighted streetpaths. Now, the bungalows that line the lake’s edge house Marines. Driveways are filled with armored humvees, heavy-barreled machine guns jutting out.
And the lake is now a draw for faithful anglers.
Marines in desert camouflage trousers and olive-drab t-shits were silhouetted against the glistening water. It’s a scene that repeats itself. As the orange desert sun dips, Marines tied away their stresses, knotting hooks and sinkers.
They use simple rods and reels, the sort that can be bought for a few dollars at a department store. They don’t bother digging for bait. They just reach into the latest care package from home.
Small, greasy pieces of “Slim Jim” Spicy Smoked Snacks are ripped from the bright packaging and carefully threaded on to barbed hooks.
“One of the Marines who was stationed here before told me about the bait trick,” Veglucci said. “I like beef jerky and apparently the fish here do too.”
“It is actually kind of funny,” said Lance Cpl. Eric T. Shaw, a 22-year-old supply administration clerk from Leicester, Mass. “I find myself eating and enjoying the same thing I am trying to trick the fish into eating.”
A Marine repeated the ritual. He gripped a five-foot graphite pole and snapped it forward, sending the chunk of beef flying into the warm breeze over the water. A moment later, it splashed on the surface, then slowly sank into the hunting grounds of catfish, carp and eels among others lurking about.
It’s not exactly the graceful casting about of a fly fisherman, but it’s a combat zone. They enjoy what little angling they can dredge up. The Marines take their positions, leaned back on the water’s edge. And they wait.
For some, it’s therapeutic.
“Patience is the key,” Veglucci said, who considers himself an avid fisherman back home. “You’ll never catch a fish if you try to rush and that is the best part about it. It forces you to relax and your mind just drifts off.”
“Sometimes I think that is the most fun part of fishing, when you are sitting there waiting for a fish to bite the bait,” said Lance Cpl. Jason R. Yates, a field radio operator from Rockland, Maine. “Nothing else matters. It’s just you and the water.”
Not every one in the group of fisherman here are familiar with the waiting game.
Noyola called home and asked his father to send some gear after watching his peers so that he could join them and learn about the sport. He’s still figuring out knots and tackle, but like his catch, he’s hooked.
“It is something that I have always been interested in, but never had a chance to do living in the city growing up,” he said. “Who would have thought that Iraq would be the place that I learn to fish. I think it’s great.”
The sun glittered off the water. Shadows grew longer and the night sky was settling in. So far this night was leaving the anglers empty-handed.
“It’s the excitement of not knowing that keeps you coming back for more,” Noyola said. “You never know if you are going to catch the big one or if you are not going to catch anything at all.”
Yates slowly reeled in his line, ready to pack it in for the night. Suddenly, his eyes grew wide as his fingers softly plucked at the eight-pound test monofilament fishing line for reassurance.
“Yeah, I got one,” Yates said.
Yates wound in more line, bringing the catch to his feet.
“It’s a little one, but it’s still a fish that I caught off of beef jerky in a combat zone,” he said. “That’s just weird.”
Marines crowded around his bitter smelling trophy, congratulating him before releasing it back into the lake to swim again.
A dozens more casts slapped the water and several sticks of jerky sank somewhere in the depths of the lake. Night was upon them and the Marines grew restless. They gathered their gear and thoughts and made their way back towards their barracks.
“Any day fishing is a good day,” Veglucci said. “It’s not always about catching anything, matter of fact most of time I don’t care if I do catch a fish. But as long as I am fishing, enjoying a passion of mine, that is all that matters.”
“Even if I walk away empty handed, I really don’t,” Noyola said. “Every time I fish I create more memories and it gives me the personal time I need to get through the deployment.”