Baby Steps

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There is a huge fishing constituency comprised of anglers who love the sport, but have a great variety of physical disabilities. And now, we are pleased to present the first in a continuing series of articles devoted to the fishing disabled by Chris Hofstader and his wife Susan. Even if you are an angler with no disabilities, I think you should find this series worth reading.

Learning to Fish With Your Disability:
Lesson One, Baby Steps

By Chris Hofstader
“Wha-da-ya think yer doin’?!?” Yelled the young man standing near me on the Weedon Island fishing pier.

“Uh, casting?” I replied timidly.

“Well, all you did was scare away the mullets I was going to net,” continued the young man. “And what are you doing with that stupid jig on your line? They’re only good for pompano and there ain’t any of them around here.”

Apparently, my first solo attempt at casting sent my jig nearly straight up into the air and roughly five feet forward. Having been scolded by this young man, I reeled my line back into a terrible tangle and started to feel both embarrassed and frustrated. The young man took note of my predicament and started helping me undo my problems. He realized that I was blind when I unfolded my cane and he introduced himself as Stephen and said he was an intermediate level fisherman.

I explained to Stephen that I bought the rod the day before and that the salesman recommended the jig. Stephen worked out my tangle and rigged up my rod with a hook, a chunk of lead and put a live shrimp on for me. He spent the next few hours teaching me many of the basics of fishing from a pier. Thus began my relationship with a series of helpful strangers who have provided me with an invaluable set of instructions about fishing in our local waters.

For a person with a disability, learning to fish can seem like an insurmountable task. How can I tie a knot if I only have one hand? How can I cast to fish I cannot see? How can I get to the spots if I can’t drive? Can the boat accommodate a wheelchair? These questions all have answers and the good news is that fishing becomes increasingly accessible to people with disabilities with each passing year.

Baby Steps: The first Things You need to Learn

Since Susan and I started writing these articles, I have received many emails describing the adventures, joys and frustrations of fishing from people with disabilities. My personal experience is that of a blind person so I am relying heavily on information others send me about additional handicaps. This article is going to address the very basics and it is likely to be as helpful for people with no disability as it is for people like me. Some of these concepts will seem obvious but I will assure you that many people, including myself, will take every opportunity to overcomplicate any situation.

Step 1: Assess Your Personal Limitations

Everyone, with or without a disability, has his or her own set of limitations. Unfortunately, most of us have the tendency to amplify our shortcomings and ignore our strengths. When I first took up fishing as a hobby, I made a large number of completely false assumptions. Specifically, I believed that a blind person could not tie knots, that I was more likely to get jabbed by a hook, that I couldn’t get a shrimp out of the bucket and that I would be a hindrance to my fishing buddies. None of these turned out to be true.

As a blind person there is exactly one thing I cannot do: see. People with mobility impairments cannot walk or move some other parts of their bodies. Deaf people cannot hear. These are the only limitations that separate us from able-bodied individuals. So, it is important for those of us with a disability to refine our list of the things we cannot do to those things that absolutely require the actions we are incapable of performing. After that, the rest is easy.

For instance, a blind person should not drive the car to the dock. In Florida a blind person gets a free hunting license but is not permitted to drive an automobile. This makes sense; blind drivers would likely hurt others. I’m not too sure about the blind hunters though. We should also avoid driving the boat as well as performing other tasks that absolutely require vision. With the above exceptions I have yet to find a fishing related task that I could not learn to perform.

Deaf people, those with mobility impairments and other disabilities need to similarly reduce the set of activities they believe they cannot do to those they actually cannot do. This can be scary and, as one who has experimented a lot lately, it can produce very rewarding results.

As the Nike slogan tells us, “Just do it!”

Step 2: Ask Questions.

This area is filled with many very knowledgeable fisher-people. These folks have years of experience fishing in these waters and can provide you with an encyclopedia filled with helpful information.

When I started fishing, I did so by going to the various local piers. There, I met dozens of very nice and extremely helpful people from all over the world. I learned a ton from these people but would have likely added no information to my collection had I not asked questions. I find that the typical pier fisherman is very friendly and more than willing to help out a beginner. So, if something is puzzling you, ask the person nearest you if they know the answer.

Bait houses are terrific sources of information. I cannot tell you how many little things I learned from the people at Trappman’s, Mastry’s and the people in the Skyway pier bait shops. Wherever you go to buy bait, you will find experts in our local fisheries. Ask them questions and they will happily provide useful answers.

Another great source of information is Captain Mel’s radio show and the terrific Forums on this web site. If you can read this article, you can join the forums and learn a ton from many very friendly people.

Step 3: Practice

“What you practice is what you get good at.”

When I first started in this sport, I struggled with many different tasks. Tying knots came especially slow to me. I would be out on a pier and nearly in tears from the frustration of trying to keep a hook on my line. To over come this problem, I bought about a mile of 10-pound monofilament at Walmart and started tying knots in my living room. I tied thousands of knots and today I am proud to say that I can tie a uni or surgeon’s knot with the best of them.

You can improve many of your skills with lots of practice. You can cast repeatedly off of a pier, in your back yard or in a local park. You can put jig tails on in your living room until you get them just right. You can work with hooks, swivels, sinkers and other hardware in the comfort of your home so you can get the feel for using these items without wasting any time on the water.

Step 4: Study

There are volumes and volumes of information about fishing in this area and around Florida in general. I have found the Captain Mel’s web site and its daily major article, fishing reports and other information is tremendously helpful. The local newspapers all run fishing articles and there are many great books and videos on the topic.

Susan and I both enjoyed Frank Sergeant’s series of books about the fish we target in the Tampa Bay area. I enjoy the various television programs on our local channels and I read Florida Sportsman and other periodicals about fishing in Florida. None of these are specific to fishing with a disability but all are very useful tools in your fishing education.

Step 5: Relax

As I mentioned at the top of this article, many of these concepts seem pretty obvious. When added together, though, these first four steps can seem fairly overwhelming. I’ve recommended that you do some serious soul searching to determine what you can and cannot do – a task that I have struggled with since losing my vision. I have told you to ask the help of strangers – an activity difficult for we macho type, ego driven American males. I have told you to use some of your personal time repeatedly tying knots and casting a line in your backyard – a thoroughly boring way to spend time. Finally, I suggested that you study – a thought we gave up when we graduated from school.

Now, I am going to add one more suggestion: relax. We fish to have fun. We fish to forget about our troubles, our jobs and the other issues that cause us stress. Do not permit yourself to allow fishing to become a source of anxiety but, rather, use it to provide relief. The steps I list above need not be done in a single day, week or month. Take your time, enjoy the sport and, once in a while, enjoy a nice fresh fish dinner.

This sport has many rewards and I hope that these articles can inspire more people with disabilities, people like me, to get out onto the water and enjoy Florida’s terrific natural resources.

If you have any comments, suggestions or ideas for future articles in the Fishing and People with Disabilities series, please feel free to write to me anytime.