GRAND FORKS — Living along the Rainy River near Loman, Minn., Joey Buzay gets his fill of fishing for walleyes and lake sturgeon.

Channel catfish, not so much.

That all changed Wednesday night, July 31, when Buzay, along with about 30 other veterans and active military, were treated to an evening catfish trip on the Red River in Grand Forks, courtesy of the Red River Valley Catfish Club and Hometown Hero Outdoors.

“Operation Border Whisker,” the event was dubbed.

Hometown Hero Outdoors offers a variety of opportunities as a way to help “all law enforcement officers, military service members and veterans conquer challenges they face as they attempt to integrate back into society,” the organization’s website states.

Buzay, accompanied by his service dog, Franky, said he learned about Wednesday night’s event through the Hometown Hero Outdoors website and landed the biggest channel catfish of his life at “just over” 20 pounds.

Even without catching the trophy catfish, which he released after a photo, the evening on the river would have been worth the four-hour drive, said Buzay, 55, a U.S. Army veteran who served from 1983 to 1994 in Korea, Honduras, Kansas, Germany and Somalia.

“It was awesome,” he said. “I mean, Hometown Heroes hooking us up with people like this is just amazing. And for these guys to do this for us, it’s just awesome.”

Giving back

Wednesday night’s fishing event was a way for the catfish club to promote the Red River while giving back to veterans and active military for their service and sacrifice, said Rob Raymond, president of the Red River Valley Catfish Club.

The club hosts a Wednesday night catfish league throughout the summer and last year offered a kids’ fishing event.

“As a league, we’re not just all about going out and catching fish,” Raymond said. “And we thought this year, let’s do something a little bit different. Some of these guys are a long way from home; they’re here, they don’t get a chance to do this.

“It’s actually a privilege for us to take these guys fishing — a couple of hours out of our day compared to what they sacrifice for us.”

Jon Falch and Josh Andrews, active military stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base, helped line up participants through Hometown Hero Outdoors, and 14 members of the catfish club provided boats, said Brad Durick, a Grand Forks catfish guide and member of the club’s board of directors.

Good times and perfect weather were on the menu for veterans and active military who participated in Wednesday night's Military Appreciation event hosted by the Red River Valley Catfish Club. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Good times and perfect weather were on the menu for veterans and active military who participated in Wednesday night's Military Appreciation event hosted by the Red River Valley Catfish Club. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

Home of Economy donated bait.

There was some concern about lining up enough boats to get everyone on the water, but that turned out to not be an issue, Durick said Wednesday night.

“We were still getting calls earlier today asking if we needed boats,” he said. “That’s not uncommon for anything in Grand Forks. But they stepped up like they always do, and we made it work.”

Anglers ranged in age from their 20s to 87-year-old Keith Bisson, of East Grand Forks, a U.S. Army veteran who served 17 months in Korea. For Bisson, Wednesday night marked the first time he’d ever fished the Red River.

“I’m not seasick yet,” he quipped.

“Yeah and he’s a (darn) poor fisherman, too,” joked Tony Weber, of East Grand Forks, a league member who hosted Bisson and two other anglers. Weber could say that because he and Bisson know each other, and bull can fly both ways.

Liz Stempinski (left) and Jayne Lee of Grand Forks, along with Stempinski's daughter, Jayne Stempinski, grilled up burgers, hot dogs and corn on the cob for participants in Wednesday night's Military Appreciation event on the Red River in Grand Forks. Liz Stempinski, who owns a catering business, donated the food for the event. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Liz Stempinski (left) and Jayne Lee of Grand Forks, along with Stempinski's daughter, Jayne Stempinski, grilled up burgers, hot dogs and corn on the cob for participants in Wednesday night's Military Appreciation event on the Red River in Grand Forks. Liz Stempinski, who owns a catering business, donated the food for the event. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

Riverside feast

While anglers tested the waters for catfish, Liz Stempinski; her daughter, Jayne Stempinski; and Jayne Lee, of Grand Forks, were busy grilling burgers, hot dogs and corn on the cob for hungry participants. The riverside feast was served up with chips and watermelon.

Liz Stempinski and her husband, John — a volunteer guide Wednesday night — fish the catfish league and donated all of the food. She’s also a caterer, and her offer was a bit of a stunner, Durick said.

“She contacted me a couple of weeks ago and asked if she could bring this grill of hers down here and said that her and her husband were willing to buy all the food, she would cook it and take care of it just to make the event better,” Durick said. “I said 'absolutely.' It’s unbelievable.

“Thanks isn’t enough for what’s happening here that all of these guys are going to get a meal on top of catching a couple of fish.”

Franky, the service dog accompanying Buzay, didn’t go hungry, either, and willingly accepted the burger and hot dog offered him back on shore. A boxer-husky cross, Franky was rescued several years ago from a roadside near Wadena, Minn., where he was found as an undernourished and abused puppy and later trained by Patriot Assistance Dogs in Detroit Lakes, Buzay says.

Joey Buzay and his service dog, Franky, of Loman, Minn., were among the veterans on hand for Wednesday night's Military Appreciation event hosted by the Red River Valley Catfish Club. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Joey Buzay and his service dog, Franky, of Loman, Minn., were among the veterans on hand for Wednesday night's Military Appreciation event hosted by the Red River Valley Catfish Club. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

‘He’s been amazing’

Named for his blue eyes, which reminded his trainer of “Old Blue Eyes,” Frank Sinatra, Franky has been an inseparable companion since Dec. 6, 2011, Buzay says.

As reported in an October 2016 story in the International Falls Daily Journal, Buzay in 2010 took pills to try to end the pain of post-traumatic stress syndrome that resulted from his time as a military police officer in Somalia, where he saw three friends die in battle and was forced to kill enemy fighters in the 1993 battle of Mogadishu.

Without Franky, Buzay says he wouldn’t be alive today.

He spent three weeks at the University of Minnesota hospital, the first two in an induced coma, and then a month at the Fargo VA Healthcare System.

“They said I shouldn’t have made it — my heart stopped a couple of times,” Buzay said. “Then I was just barely hanging on for, like, six months and I met Franky. My whole world turned around.

“I haven’t been on any meds for three years now.”

In sharing his story, Buzay says he hopes he can help other veterans who might be struggling with their military experiences.

“I hate it that so many are still giving up,” he said. “I did, and God kept me alive for a reason. I'm thinking that it’s to help other guys not go down the same road I did. That's why I talk about it. If I can reach just one more vet every chance I get and show that there is hope, and with events like (Wednesday night), I can get the word out about the dogs and what they've done for me.”

Army veteran Joey Buzay of Loman, Minn., caught the biggest catfish of his life Wednesday night, July 31, when he landed this 20-pound cat during the military appreciation event hosted by the Red River Valley Catfish Club. (Submitted photo)
Army veteran Joey Buzay of Loman, Minn., caught the biggest catfish of his life Wednesday night, July 31, when he landed this 20-pound cat during the military appreciation event hosted by the Red River Valley Catfish Club. (Submitted photo)

Fitting finale

This coming week marks the season finale for the Wednesday night catfish league, but there’s little doubt Operation Border Whisker will go down as a highlight for club members and participants alike.

Fishing was better for some than others, but smiles were in abundance.

“We brought in a 15-pounder but the fishing wasn’t that great for us,” said Raymond, the club president who, with his 9-year-old fishing partner, Braden Durick, hosted two military members. “My goal was I was not coming off that river until each of those two servicemen caught a fish apiece, and we did that.”

And so it went on a perfect evening in late July.

“You never know what’s going to happen with the weather on a Wednesday night, but this was beautiful,” Raymond said. “It was a great time.”