Neal Stark, 51, of Davie never served with the U.S. military, but he has dedicated a good part of his time and earnings since 2009 to rewarding service men and women for their sacrifices. The bass fishing guide and tournament champ says he’s “just an American” who offers free fishing trips to those “who are protecting our freedom — and they are some of the finest individuals I’ve ever met.”
Stark connects with potential service member anglers through the Veterans Administration and programs such as the Wounded Warriors. He has several sponsors, such as Bass Pro Shops and Jack’s Sub Shack, who help out with tackle and onboard lunches. He figures he has fished with a couple hundred vets in the four years since he launched Fishing with America’s Finest.
“I’ve made so many friends over the years,” he said.
Among them are 40-year-old Nuna Campos of Hollywood and her 11-year-old son, Logan. Campos, a 20-year Navy veteran, said she was looking for a relaxing pastime after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan when she met Stark through the VA.
“I had to return to reality, but instead of doing something where you get an adrenaline rush, I wanted to do something relaxing,” she said. “I wanted something peaceful and quiet and exciting at the same time. It was like a life-changing thing for me when I went fishing with Neal.”
Logan seems to enjoy the sport as well.
On a recent outing to the L-67C canal in the Everglades north of Tamiami Trail, mother and son caught and released about 50 bass up to about three pounds. Logan — who had never cast a spinning rod nor fished in fresh water before — outdid his mom, catching four fish all by himself using a purple plastic Senko worm. Campos caught three. The remainder of the fish were caught and released with some form of casting or reeling assistance from Stark.
“I like the teaching aspect,” he said.
Stark motored a mile or so up the canal from the boat ramp before breaking out spinning rods and a tackle box chock full of all shapes and sizes of lures. He also had brought a couple dozen live shiners in his live well to ensure some action.
One outfit bore the purple Senko; another had a plastic frog; and the third was baited with a shiner suspended on a bobber.
“That’s the cool thing about fishing,” Stark told his guests. “We have to try all different things to figure out what they want to eat.”
Campos already knew how to cast a spinning rod, but Stark showed Logan the proper finger placement on reel and line, guided his back cast, and demonstrated when to let go of the line.
After a couple of demonstrations, Logan did it by himself — with a surprising degree of accuracy aiming for edge of the bank. But then he hesitated — not sure what to do with the bait.
“I like to twitch it,” Stark said. “I call it ringing the bell — let them know you’re here.”
Following a couple of practice retrieves, Logan felt a tug on the Senko. He looked questioningly at Stark.
“You can’t leave the line loose because you can’t feel the fish nibbling,” Stark told him.
Logan reeled in some line and the rod tip started dancing.
“You’ve got to hit him hard!” Stark said.
Logan reared back, and reeled, rewarded with his very first unassisted largemouth bass, estimated at about a half-pound. He said he was “scared” to touch it, so his mom obligingly held it up for photos before putting it back into the canal. A few minutes later, she caught and released a bass about the same size.
“We’re in competition now, Logan!” she challenged, laughing.
The bass action remained steady for most of the afternoon. While Campos delighted in trying the noisy, splashy retrieval of the plastic frog, she didn’t get any bites on it, so she switched back to the Senko.
“It’s too cute,” she said.
Meanwhile, Logan was running ahead in the unassisted fishing challenge. And after reeling in a couple dozen bass, he lost most of his fear of touching them, posing for snapshots holding the tail.
When the three finally called it a day shortly before 6p.m., Logan declared himself winner of the mom-son competition by a score of 4-3. No doubt, a rematch would be in the future.