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Fishing with America's Heroes

"I always had to do something that meant something" Those words were spoken by Sergeant Robert Gil Jr. when reflecting back on what led him to his eight years of service to our country. He certainly did more than most would both on the battlefield and back at home. Sergeant Gil is no stranger to the Manhattan Cup, and year after year both as an angler and our Veteran Coordinator he touches many lives.

Robert's struggle and the struggles of so many veterans are far too often overlooked. 22 Veterans a day take their own lives as a result of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injuries, and a myriad of other causes as a result of their brave service in defending our way of life. On Friday June 7th at the 2019 Manhattan Cup, there were 22 veterans that were full of life, hope, and pride.

As 25 boats made their way out of Liberty Landing Marina on a spectacular June morning, the first of numerous tributes to our veterans could not be missed. The FDNY's Fire Fighter II greeted all of the Manhattan Cup anglers with nothing short than a breathtaking display, her water cannons at full blast with the city skyline in the background.

Moments later the tournament would be underway with just about all of the boats heading south to the NY BIGHT. As most approached the northern tip of Sandy Hook, NJ they were met by just about every other boat out fishing in the area. The crowd and finning bunker that weren't being harassed had many of the competing boats head further south, while a few stuck around. Both decisions it turned out would be rewarded with thrills, trophies, and those kind of fishing memories we all hold close to the heart.

Robert Gil, aboard Release Boatwork's 43' express walkaround with Captain Frank Crescitelli at the helm, was one of 22 veterans fishing the tournament. Like just about every warrior that's been part of the Manhattan Cup, there was much more than fishing going on. The friendships renewed, new ones formed, and that magical mix of calm and adrenaline our waters hold is what has always made this day of fishing something so special. Cruising south at 40 knots, there was going to be something special in store for him and the rest of Team Fin Chaser.

The bend of the pole, and scream of the drag had all the doings of a typical striper take. A big striper. Having only had their lines in for a short time, it seemed like the winner would be one of the first fish caught. As they often do, the fishing gods delivered a perfect curve ball. A 53 pound fish would most certainly be a lock for the top spot in the tournament. One problem was this 53 pound fish didn't have any stripes, or tackle wrecking teeth. A school of black drum was out of their neighborhood, much further north than anyone would expect. It was too good a bite to leave, and for a few hours Robert, Frank, and the rest of the boys would be astounded at one of the craziest couple of hours of fishing they had ever experienced. Jokes abounded back at Liberty Landing that maybe for 2020 there would be a black drum trophy. Until then, their trophy of an epic day wouldn't be on the mantle, but would be one of the best fishing stories in their arsenal.

The intel and local knowledge on the Bass Appeal for Team Manhattan to Montauk, kept Captain Adrian Moeller's Steiger 31' Chesepeake on the hunt around the Sandy Hook area. Pre fishing for the tournament had pointed to a strategy of staying by the bunker. Some moves were made when porpoises swam by, a pretty amazing site with Manhattan's skyline in the background. They were the competition that day though, along with a few seals. Waiting for some tide, we bounced around to different pods of peaceful bunker enjoying what would be some short lived downtime.

Waters just to the west of us erupted with bluefish. Twin Yamaha 300's will get you where you're going real quick, and within the blink of an eye were in the center of the mayhem. One on! Two on! Three on!! A few of us had fished together before, and a few hadn't. Like in most challenges, it's the harder ones that bring out the best. The inevitable when into blues in the 15-20lb class range is chewed off lines, chaffed leaders, and heartbreak that the winner was swimming below with a circle hook or surface plug in the corner of its mouth. The heartbreak wasn't dwelt upon, there were backups for the mangled gear, and a constant rotation of readying the backup setups to the backup setups. An hour and change later, with 21 bluefish on our tally sheet the bite went away. The best bluefish session any of us ever had in our lives just happened and we reveled in it. It would turn out the big one, 20.85 lbs would take the lure division for bluefish.

Somewhere north of Team Fin Chaser and south of Team Manhattan to Montauk, the 2019 Manhattan Cup winner was swimming and about to make a mistake. Not a mistake that would cost her life, like so many 40 pound class bass had made on their migration this spring. Clark Harris, guided by Captain Brian Rice of Jersey Devil Sportfishing, was into a beauty of a striper. By the standard calculation of weight and girth, his catch of an 43 pound bass would be the winner. That fish, and her years of breeding ahead, gave a win to everyone on board and everyone who shares a passion for this tremendous resource we're blessed to have swimming in our waters.

There was another bass caught that day that would swim away, leaving her mark on the brave veteran that caught her, and celebrate the legacy of a warrior who made the ultimate sacrifice. From 2004-2005 while most of us enjoyed the privilege of freedom and liberty with our friends and families, Efrain "Cutthroat" Diaz was serving as a sergeant in the Army in Baghdad. A world away from the other side of the world where he put all of our lives ahead of his own, his 30 lb class striper was the fish that awarded him The 1st Annual Christopher Raguso Memorial Award.

Chris was killed while serving with the 106th Rescue Wing of the Air National Guard, supporting troops in Operation Inherent Resolve. His courage, sacrifice and selfless nature was to always help others as a first responder in the FDNY and Commack Fire Department, as a father, a friend, and a son. Chris' father, Captain John Raguso was in attendance and every person in the room was blessed to hear firsthand of Chris' life. His life, his strength, his courage, along with those same attributes that 22 veterans at the 2019 Manhattan Cup exhibit is something everyone involved in this epic day were in awe of.

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