VICTORY BASE, Iraq — By 8 in the morning it was hot, and Chief Warrant Officer Scott Henry, the custodian of the Baghdad Angler's Club and School of Fly Fishing, sat in the shadow of a palace pillar. More palaces were all around the lake, and directly across from him was al Faw Palace, bigger and uglier than the rest.
Al Faw is 450,000 square feet with 29 bathrooms, according to a U.S. military report. Saddam Hussein used it for a weekend getaway. He had this lake and seven others dug and fed by canals and underground pipes from the Tigris. He stocked the lakes with giant carp imported from Europe, visited no more than eight times and had one of the architects executed, according to the military's guide to the palace.
The brochure suggests that this was because the architect bragged to Iraqi agents about his work but it's tempting, and entirely plausible, to suppose that he paid the ultimate price for bad taste.
Henry had an Abu Garcia spinning rod with 14-pound test line, a circle hook and a tray of cold breakfast sausage: links, not patties. "I tried a couple new things this morning that didn't work," he said. "Flat patties don't stay on the hook very well."
Henry ripped a link into pieces and stuck one on his hook. He cast 20 feet and let it drop. His bait got stripped, but he didn't take it personally; he'd taken six fish in the last hour.
He's 46, was born in Georgia but grew up in Colorado Springs, spent some time with his Army quartermaster dad in Panama and caught a tarpon there at the tender age of 16. Now Fort Bragg, N.C., is home and he goes to work wearing the CW-4 rank his dad retired in.
Henry flew Black Hawk helicopters in the Persian Gulf War. His second tour was in Qatar, chauffeuring Gen. Tommy Franks, then in 2005 he did a stint with the 18th Aviation Brigade. One day, flying low to the Victory Base pad, he looked down: "There were fish big enough you could see them from a helicopter," he said.
So when he got promoted out of the cockpit to a desk job at al Faws as a safety consultant, he brought his tackle and a rod. His desk was next to Lt. Col. Brian Almquist, who was then the club custodian.
Not only were there other American fishermen in the desert in a war zone on the wrong side of the world, they had a club (motto: "Getting service men and women out on the water"), a Web site (www.baghdadflyfishing.com) and enough donated gear from tackle shops and friends back home that anybody who wanted to could sign out a rod and fish.
Henry took over when Almquist rotated out. The Web site offers photographic documentation of the transfer of authority ceremony. They borrowed a general's office, stood in front of Iraqi and American flags and had a picture taken as one generation passed rod and reel to the next.
A regular crew of 30 servicemen and women fish when war permits. Henry gets out two mornings a week.
He's taken catfish, carp and a few of the elusive Saddam bass, which aren't bass at all but asp, a freshwater fish not to be confused with the venomous snake of the same name. He took one on the morning a reporter visited. The fish was a foot long, with diamond scales, a voracious maw and a torn right pectoral fin. He looked a bit like a snook, and Henry knew him.
"I caught him a few times before," he said, and tossed him back into the water with a thwock.
There've been some bad days here. There was a day when a helicopter that was carrying seven Iraqi soldiers and an American crashed in a sandstorm. Everyone was killed, and Henry had to survey the accident scene to determine what happened. "The pilot got disoriented," he concluded.
Fishing doesn't help those days. But it reminds him of home, and that is something.
There's a wife waiting for him there. They used to take his kayak and go out on McFadden Lake, near Fayetteville, he paddling and fishing, she sunbathing. It was an arrangement that suited them both, and with any luck, when he rotates back in April, they'll pick up where they left off.
(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald.)
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