By Kevin Redding
On Saturday, the St. James community continued to show their appreciation toward active members of the military as the eighth annual Soldiers on the Sound Fluke Fishing Tournament hit the waters of Smithtown Bay.
Since 2009, the tireless efforts of the event’s organizers – all volunteers – make for a day of gratitude for those in uniform, camaraderie and smiles, and, of course, friendly competition out on the fishing boats. With each passing year, the event gets bigger and better, drawing in more boats, contributors and donations, to help give back to those service men and women who sacrifice their lives everyday. This year’s tournament was its biggest yet, drawing 61 boats, all donated and hosted by local captains and mates, and 150 registered soldiers, representing the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and the 106th Rescue Wing of the New York Air National Guard based in Westhampton.
After fishing, all soldiers returned to the Smithtown Bay Yacht Club, where they were treated to a large barbecue, a hot food buffet and a slew of raffle prizes generously paid for by companies and individual donors. The prizes included gift cards, coolers, speakers, 40” flat screen TV’s, Billy Joel tickets and a weekend vacation at the Hawks Cay resort in the Florida Keys, to name a few.
According to the event’s president and founder, Mark Garry, the only thing asked of the soldiers is that they have a good time.
“That’s what it’s all about – everybody hugging and high fiving, and thanking us sincerely,” he said. “They’re gonna go and eat like rockstars. We buy 800 cigars to give them. They have food, sodas, beers. It’s good, it’s very simple and rewarding.”
The conception of the event hit Garry when he was watching war coverage on the yacht club TV and saw soldiers reduced to lying in the sand, resting their heads on their helmets. He immediately went to work, focused on honoring those currently serving our country and giving them something relaxing to come home to. It didn’t take long for he and his “army” of volunteers to get the event underway, calling on everyone from military liaisons to boat captains to fundraisers.
“I’m retired Air Force and I knew the unit out in Westhampton,” said Skip Heine, the only founding member with a military background. “Mark called on me and we invited them the first time and they’ve been involved since. It’s great because back in the Vietnam days, you were not revered at all by the public, so it’s nice to see the people that protect get the recognition.”
Even though he didn’t have the best of luck catching fluke, active Marine Felix Torres was grateful for the event.
“To me personally, I feel like this is a great thing,” he said. “To have whole bunch of soldiers and Marines and Navy guys all go out together and fish, have a good time…it just shows how together we all are.”
The winning fluke of 6.4 pounds was caught by Captain Andy Smith and his boat crew, which included Air Force Mjr. Jesse Fritz and Tech Sgt. Nathan Dean.
“We’re very fortunate to have a community-based program like this,” Fritz said. “Being a military member out here on Long Island, there is not support like this everywhere so it’s amazing to be part of something like this, to be part of the community and see the support. Yes, it’s a fishing tournament and it’s fun but it means so much to see the support and how it all ties into the community. We’re very grateful.”