As the sun began to rise over Belton Lake, streaks of orange, pink and purple rippled through the water, while 261 boaters made their way onto the lake Saturday at Belton Lake Outdoor Recreation Area during the 14th annual Fishing for Freedom tournament.

The event kicked off with a dinner Friday evening, where 1,200 people were served, then anglers gathered at the Carp Boat Dock early Saturday morning to prepare for the tournament. There was a lot on the line with cash prizes and the grand prize being a brand new 2019 Triton TRX189 boat, valued at $32,495, powered by a Mercury 115 HP engine.

Adrian Barnes and retiree Andrew Eads won the highly sought after prize, with a weigh-in total of 15.72 pounds.

Tournament director Jeff Cook, founder and executive director of Faith Angler Network, has been involved in the tournament since day one and sees this tournament as a way to say thank you to service men and women.

“This is truly a way to say thank you. We’re here to support our service men and women, the armed forces, all branches, retired, active duty,” Cook said. “We are all passionate about fishing. It’s our thing, so being able to put an event together that kind of incorporates our passion and gives our service men and women a chance maybe just for  a little distraction, a day away from whatever. Whatever it could be, this is what we are here to do.”

Cook was happy to see new anglers come out to see what Fishing for Freedom was all about and make lasting memories.

“Today, they are out there on the water. Some have no fishing experience, but they’re with someone that does and they’re having fun and they’re making friends.”

Rick Smith, who was tournament director, has been involved for 12 of the 14 years Fishing for Freedom has been held at Fort Hood.

He feels that Fishing for Freedom is a great tradition that greatly impacts those that participate.

“I was talking to a Soldier earlier today. He started fishing it seven years ago when he was stationed at Fort Hood. He’s now retired, but he came all the way from Dallas so he could take a Soldier fishing,” Smith said. “He had never bass fished before when first came out. He didn’t know anything about bass fishing. He’s so hooked now he’s got his own bass boat.”

Smith believes that fishing is a great mental reprieve and that it’s very important for Soldiers to experience that.

“It’s estimated 22 Soldiers everyday kill themselves because of PTSD and just trying to cope with life when they come back to the states. If we can help with that at all, just saving one life makes all of this worthwhile,” Smith said. “You’re out in God’s country. You’re out on the lake you get to see the sunrise. This morning we had a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem. All of that together it just makes you happy to be alive and if you can develop some friendship and share the good news with others, that’s all the better.”  

Even if a team walked away without winning one of the cash prizes, they left with something money could never buy.

“The smiles on the Soldiers faces – the wonderful stories we hear,” Smith said. “It’s just amazing – the stories and the friendships that are made that last a lifetime.”