Spring will here in a couple months and the best fishing will start. Sadly, not everyone will be capable of going. The loss of lower body and sometimes upper body usage makes many sit and dream of their days afield.
Do you have a loved one that is physically challenged and loves to fish? Here are a few tips that will get that angler back on the water. I have watched wheelchair-bound adults cry from the happiness of fishing – a pleasure they thought was gone forever.
Fishing with a physically-challenged angler is not always easy, but certainly possible. After all, there are never problems, only solutions as two men taught me over the past couple of years. They overcame what thousands considered impossible.
Most fishing docks are not wheelchair friendly, especially slopes that lead to docks. Most sit at 45 degrees or steeper, making going to the dock easier than going back up. The exception might be if a wheelchair’s brakes were not functioning properly. Then the ride down might be extremely bumpy and quick with a rough landing.
Wheelchair-bound individuals have another challenge to face. Climbing into a boat without the use of legs is difficult. I had never considered this until I watched the remarkable Larry Bollom, of Branson, Missouri, negotiate a steep ramp at one of his favorite trout fishing holes, Lake Taneycomo.
Bollom loves fishing alone for Lake Taneycomo rainbow trout but was told that was an impossibility. He proved them wrong with a sense of pride and great delight. I met him several years ago to watch him launch and start fishing without help.
Soon the pontoon pushed through the cold water. Bollom quickly settled in for a day of fishing – something many in wheelchairs believe that is lost to them forever. In fact, he believed the same thing only a few years ago.
The veteran fisherman cast toward a submerged shelf with salmon eggs on a tiny gold hook. The tiny foam bobber soon twisted on the surface, evidence that a trout was nibbling. The trout took the bait, creating a fine fight on Bollom’s light tackle.
The line stretched tight like piano wire through each run. The determined angler leaned into the side of his wheelchair when the trout made one last desperate run. The 2 1/2-pound rainbow trout soon slipped into a waiting net. The fish was returned after a few photos.
Bollom once thought that his world was through when injuries from a car wreck planted him in a wheelchair. “Finally, I realized that nothing was over until I said it was over,” he said, “and the training began.”
He started with basketball and eventually moved on to rugby, tennis and softball. Getting in shape eventually brought him back to his favorite sport, fishing. He had to retrain a different set of muscles.
Several years of exercise and practice have made it possible for Bollom to stand on the running board of a boat or pontoon trailer, then push himself up.
He quickly learned how to back his trailer down a boat ramp, tie off the boat and drive his truck and trailer out of the water. Then he returned to the boat in his wheelchair and pushed himself up again. His upper body strength was accomplished by a good workout program.
Today he has a boat and pontoon rigged for wheelchair convenience. He invested in a trolling motor that trims up and down so that he can handle it from his chair. An autopilot control allows him to fish while the motor runs – devices that allow him to fish alone anytime he wants – something many only dream of.
“Many that say they couldn’t do this probably can,” Bollom said. “They just don’t try. Anybody can fish, no matter how disabled they are. I know guys who compete in bass tournaments without arms. They use electric wheels and other devices. Some even use their nose and face to cast, retrieve or fight a fish. How you do it depends on your disability. But I learned to do what it takes. You can too.”
Randy Benear, of Dunbar, West Virginia, broke his neck in a motorcycle accident in 1980. He had a spinal injury that allows limited use of his hands and no usage of his lower body. He did not even think about fishing until 1992.
“I was sitting by myself at the rehab center and starting devising a way to fish again,” Benear said. “Someone had given me a combination button hook and zipper pull that I never used. But it did work great for scratching my head. I had the thing on my hand one day and realized that I could use it to turn the handle of a fishing reel. I experimented with it in my backyard, learned to cast and retrieve. Soon I was fishing.”
His friends did a few modifications and soon he was hooking fish. He developed a C-shaped device made with a leather sheath to cast and retrieve. He uses this device on handicapped docks made for wheelchair convenience. Occasionally he joins friends to float down small rivers in boats or inflatable rafts.
Benear warns that wheelchair anglers who want to try boat fishing learn that safety is a must. Never attach a seat belt or harness to your chair. A chair overboard would sink like a rock. The individual tied to the chair would not be able to escape and would easily sink to the bottom.
Lifejackets are important. Benear also attaches life lines from his body to the boat. Dehydration is another problem he faces. Quadriplegics don ‘t sweat, so he has to be cautious of dehydration. But he conquers all problems to pursue his favorite sport.
“You are fooling yourself if you think you will catch a fish on the first cast,” he said. “Just be patient; recovery is a work in progress. Don’t get discouraged when equipment modifications don’t work exactly like you wanted. Consider it part of the challenge and try again. Remember that no one gets it right the first time.”
Hunters in wheelchairs will find opportunities available as well. Conservation areas in Missouri and across the United States built wheelchair friendly hunting blinds for deer, turkey and waterfowl. These are generally situated in productive areas where a successful harvest is possible.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.