BAGHDAD (Reuters) - It’s early on a Sunday morning and the fish aren’t biting, but Warrant Officer Stormy (“like the weather”) Ripley is enjoying a moment of calm as she casts her line into a lake encircling Saddam Hussein’s former palace.
“Anything that will get me close to the water helps me relax,” says Ripley, who spends her days at headquarters in Baghdad trying to trace missing-in-action soldiers. “There’s something innocent about it in the midst of all this war.”
Welcome to the weekly gathering of the Baghdad Angler’s Club and School of Flyfishing.
This week’s lesson is being taught by Warrant Officer Leslie “Scott” Henry, a 19-year veteran helicopter pilot who investigates air crashes as Aviation Safety Officer when he isn’t wrangling feisty asp with his Kastmaster lure.
Iraq is a great place to catch freshwater fish. The country’s national dish is carp, barbecued outdoors in the capital at restaurants along the banks of the Tigris.
For some of the U.S. troops stationed at the giant complex of bases built around Saddam’s lush marble palaces on the western edge of Baghdad, Sunday morning fishing has become a weekly ritual, a way to unwind and think about home.
The club has a Web site — baghdadflyfishing.com — filled with photos of troopers and their fish. In nearly all of them the soldiers are grinning ear to ear.
Fishing stories, like war stories, are more convincing when backed up by proof.
“You need that photo, or if you say you caught a 24-inch asp no one’s going to believe you,” says Henry.
You don’t need your own gear. In February, Joe Mercurio, host of a Florida TV fishing show, flew in to Baghdad for Operation Catch Fish, staging a fishing tournament and donating rods and tackle from the show’s sponsors.
The best place to catch fish, says Henry, is in the lake that surrounds Saddam’s half-built marble “Victory Over the United States” palace, now part of a U.S. base.
There are two kinds of fish to catch: carp, which feed on the bottom and are best caught by dangling bait, and asp, a predator best caught by casting a lure near the surface.
Henry is an asp man.
“Carp eat off the bottom. They’re garbage fish,” he says. “They’re just not very sexy.”
A group of fishing novices, including a Reuters reporter, started Sunday’s lesson trying to catch carp. For bait Henry provided wads of bacon swiped from the dining hall and, as an experiment, a small rubber squid he filled with Philadelphia cream cheese.
But pretty soon the group is casting sleek mirrored lures in an effort to snag an asp. It takes skill to reel in the mirrors so that big fish mistake them for tasty smaller fish.
The Reuters correspondent catches one that thrashes frantically on the hook, but it leaps back into the lake before a photo can be taken. So you’ll just have to take Reuters word for it: it was as big as the reporter’s arm.