After a ride through the significant chop caused an unusual June north wind, Capt. Bobby Abruscato pulled back on the throttle and idled to one of his favorite fishing spots in Grand Bay, west of Dauphin Island.
Aboard were a couple of special guests, Derrick Warfield and Kyle McCleland, who were quickly hooking fish during the inaugural The Fallen Outdoors (TFO) inshore fishing trip that treated a group of active military and veterans to the beautiful outdoors paradise we call the Alabama Gulf Coast.
Warfield, who resides at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery with his active-duty wife, retired after 10 years of active duty.
Since then, Warfield has taken up the cause that is TFO, which is a support group for active, retired, separated and medically retired military with a focus on the outdoors.
Before this week, TFO, a 501(c)3 charitable organization, hosted veterans and active military on mostly hunting excursions with only a little fishing mixed in.
“Most of our trips are done from Montgomery north,” Warfield said of the TFO’s Team Alabama. “We do a lot of hunting trips. Two weeks ago, we actually did a hog-hunting trip on a farm just south of Montgomery. We went out with three guys running dogs, and we got into about a 200-pound sow. The dogs caught the hog and we dispatched it.”
Needing to schedule events for the summer, Warfield reached out to several inshore fishing guides on the Alabama coast and quickly hooked up with Capt. Richard Rutland with Cold-Blooded Fishing.
“Richard said if there was anything he could do, he’d love to help,” Warfield said. “He said we could go out on his boat and make something happen. Then he said, ‘We need to make this big, something awesome.’”
Two weeks later, Warfield got a call from Rutland, who said, “I’ve got seven boats lined up. How many people can you get?”
Warfield posted the potential trip on The Fallen Outdoors Facebook page that reaches 14,000-15,000 veterans. Initially, Warfield got 25 takers, which whittled down to the 14 who enjoyed a day of fishing on the beautiful Alabama coast.
Rutland, a former president of the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, got commitments from seven other captains. He also got a donation from the Mobile Jaycees, where he currently serves as chairman of the board. Additional boat captains included Abruscato with A-Team Adventures, Patric Garmeson with Ugly Fishing Charters, Wesley Hallman with Bay Sound Charters, Terry Turner, Ben Raines, Joe Geil and Theo Atkinson with Spots, Dots and Scales.
“We just appreciate these captains being able to get these guys who are dealing with physical and mental issues out on the water,” Warfield said. “This gives them a chance to get out, get away from the real world and relax, whether it be hunting, fishing, camping or whatever we can do outdoors. This wouldn’t have been possible without Richard. Richard really pushed it. He wanted to make it really big, and he wants to make it an annual event.”
The Jaycees’ donation for the trip also provided lunch after a morning on the water. The guides took care of the equipment, and bait dealer Maurice Ryan donated the live shrimp.
The anglers hauled in a wide variety of Alabama’s inshore species, including the edible species of speckled trout, redfish, white trout, flounder and pompano. Mixed in for anglers’ enjoyment were the acrobatic ladyfish, croakers and the ubiquitous hardhead catfish.
“We’ve never had an event this big,” Warfield said. “Before, the biggest trip was with five or six guys. This was a huge, huge trip for us, and it wouldn’t be possible without all these captains. What I tell the captains is if you can help out, great. If you can’t, we understand because you have to make a living.”
Warfield said a good many TFO members want to take part in the outings, but time constraints limit the participation.
“Weekends are really, really busy for them, but today was a perfect day,” he said. “It was a Monday, and we had plenty of people who wanted to come.”
Warfield said the organization tries to get the message out about The Fallen Outdoors through outdoors trade shows and social media. Rutland lined up several media outlets to cover the Dauphin Island event, including the Mobile Press-Register and Mobile TV stations WALA and WKRG.
“This was the most media we’ve had for a TFO event,” Warfield said. “Hopefully this will get us out there more and let veterans know there are free or low-cost hunting and fishing trips available.”
TFO was started in the 2009 in Washington state and has grown to a membership of about 34,000 veterans. Warfield said between 13,000 and 14,000 veterans are signed up in the southern region. Visit thefallenoutdoors.com for more information.
“It’s just another way to reach out to veterans,” Warfield said. “Our focus is strictly on the outdoors, whether it’s hunting, fishing, hiking or just hanging out near the water. We just want to make the connections. All of us have our demons. Nobody understands what a vet is going through better than another vet. People look at you and think you’re normal, but inside you’re torn apart. It could be physical injuries. It could be PTSD. And making the transition from military to civilian is totally different. A lot of things in the military don’t translate to civilian life. This trip was amazing. We had veterans come from Florida and Louisiana as well as Alabama. These vets get to meet more people they can lean on. They can definitely make new friendships on trips like these.”
Because of the proliferation of veterans organizations in the past decade, Rutland admitted he was cautious when originally contacted by Warfield.
“I always like to do my homework before I put something on like this,” Rutland said. “After talking to Derrick several times, I looked at my books and realized I had June 10 open. He said he could probably get 15 to 20 vets to come, and I started calling my guide friends to see who might be available. It really came together nicely. This is my busy time of the year, and it kind of got here real quick, but everything came together as well as I could have expected.”
Although June is a busy month for charter captains, Rutland said he’s sticking with an early June date for next year’s event because it’s the best time for the veterans.
“Basically, the whole deal with Derrick reaching out to me is this is kind of a dead period for outdoors activities for the veterans,” Rutland said. “They have a lot of hunting in the fall and winter and a little fishing in the spring. By the time it gets into early summer, he has a slack period until the end of the summer. They really needed to experience the Alabama Gulf Coast. I’m planning to make it an annual event.”
Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier dropped by the ADSFR site to share a lunch of fried fish with the veterans.
“First of all, anytime we can do something positive for our veterans, it’s a good thing,” Mayor Collier said. “When they can incorporate Dauphin Island into it, it’s even better. Who wouldn’t enjoy going out on a nice day and catching fish.”
The Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) provided support for the event, and MRD Director Scott Bannon also joined the group for lunch.
Warfield said the inshore fishing trip definitely exceeded expectations.
“We would have been happy if it had been two people, but it turned out to be a lot more,” he said. “We’re not going to argue with Richard about making it an annual event, because we would love to come back. I can’t say thank you enough to all the captains.”
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.