TFO Ambassador Joel Stewart by Rick Pope

In my 50 plus years of fly fishing and 25 years in the industry, I’ve met all sorts of incredibly interesting people, made some lasting friendships and heard stories from all sorts of fly fishing luminaries. Get ready for a really good life story on Joel Stewart, Captain (USN).

Back in early 2005, my first introduction to Joel was through a mutual friend and frequent fly fishing bulletin board contributor, Ed Laine. I found out through Ed that he knew of a Naval LT transferred to Baghdad’s Camp Victory surrounded by several of Sadam’s palaces … and lakes, which Joel soon discovered had various warm/hot water fish swimming around. On a whim, he had brought along a fly rod and soon found out that the carp and various carp like species would, in fact, take a fly. As soldiers rotated in and out of the facilities, Joel’s fly rod attracted a ton of attention and interest.

Ed let me know that Joel wanted to start the Baghdad Angler’s Club and School of Fly Fishing so that he could share fly casting and fishing techniques with soldiers during their down time at the camp. “They need some rods and reels” per Ed and TFO was perfectly positioned to help them out with 5 weight outfits. Several months later, Joel sent me a very prized photograph of a group of soldiers in battle dress with M4s … and fly rods … standing on the bank of one of the palace lakes. Take some time and check out the Baghdad Angler’s Club and School of Fly Fishing as I know you’ll find the pictures and stories entertaining.

After Joel’s tour ended in Iraq, he served as Navigator on the USS Makin Island (LHD 8), a Wasp Class amphibious assault ship. Through a couple of years circling the globe, Joel kept me entertained with all sorts of saltwater fly fishing adventures that of course, requited the use of an arsenal of rods and reels beyond the 5 weight class. Joel reminded me that when he first met Lefty Kreh and Flip Pallot at an event in New Orleans, Lefty peppered him with questions about the various locations, species and opportunities Joel had experienced. I doubt very much that Lefty even mentioned his time in WWII and the Battle of the Bulge. They became good friends – once again drawn together by their passion for fly fishing and desire to share knowledge with others.

At that same New Orleans event, Joel also met Captain Ed Nicholson (USN Retired) who concurrent with Joel’s fly fishing efforts in Baghdad, Ed started Project Healing Waters for wounded veterans in recovery at Walther Reed Army Medical Center. Once again a close friendship ensued and Joel continues to support PHWFF at every opportunity. In fact, Joel’s book written about his fly fishing opportunities – A Fly Rod in My Sea Bag – is full of great stories plus, all profits go to support PHWFF and their over 50 active chapters throughout the US and internationally.

But let’s first go back to Joel Stewart’s origins in Great Falls, MT where he was raised as the oldest of four – one brother and two sisters. Joel’s father worked at the Great Falls Sporting Goods Co. which sadly closed around 1980. This was the genesis of his Christmas gift when he was twelve … an early seventies vintage 3 piece South Bend glass rod and an automatic Perrine fly reel. He worked hard at casting and managed to attain great distances (at the time) of up to fifty feet. Through high school, Joes worked part time at the Mountain Bait & Tackle where he “sold everything from night crawlers to dry flies”. As fly fishing began to consume him, Joel’s epiphany moment was catching an 18 inch native cutthroat trout. Although a bit ridiculed for targeting carp with his fly rod on the fabled Missouri River, he loved the challenge and the fight, little did he know that these experiences would serve him well in the Baghdad palace lakes. Years later, Lefty Kreh’s 101 Fish book, published in 2012, validated Joel’s enjoyment of “a fish is a fish” approach to what would become his exotic and global fly fishing adventures. For Joel, this closed the circle he started by targeting carp in the Missouri River as a teenager.

Upon his 1985 graduation from High School in Great Falls, Joel enlisted in the Navy so that he would eventually be able to apply college benefits and hopefully become the first member of his family to get a college degree. After his enlisted duty ended, he and his wife Barbara agreed that a career in the Navy held great promise and this proved to be the case. Although less than one in a hundred Navy enlistees are ultimately promoted to the rank of Captain, Joel’s dedication and interpersonal skills allowed him to do just that. His progression has been as impressive as any I’ve ever known.

Just this past year, Joel returned from an assignment in Bahrain where once again, he found opportunity to bend his favorite TFO A2 fly rods. You’ll enjoy this article Joel wrote for the Amberjack Fishing Journal on fly fishing for queenfish in Dubai. He is currently stationed at the Army War College in Carlisle, PA. Upon completion, he anticipates assignment to amphibious operations in San Diego where he expects to ultimately retire. With 33 years of service in the US Navy, 19 of those at sea, he deserves some time off as well as a big THANK YOU from all of us for his service. He plans to return to his favorite fishery in Montana’s fabled Bob Marshall Wilderness in order to chase his favorite wild west-slope cutthroat once retired and who knows … he just might find carp out there too!

Joel will join TFO in our booth at the Virginia Fly Fishing and Wine Festival in Doswell, VA January 12 & 13 – then he will join us again in Edison, NJ January 25, 26 & 27th. If you have a chance to attend either of these great fly fishing shows, please be sure to stop by and meet one of what Lefty called “a truly great American”.


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