St. LOUIS, Mo.—The telltale splash of water followed by a tightening of the line and the arc of the fishing rod could only mean one thing. There was a big fish on the hook. Josie, age 9, was the young angler at the bank side of the struggle. The bend of the pole grew sharper. A good two-to-three minute fight ensued, fisher versus fish, as Josie worked the line.
“It kept biting and it almost took the pole. It was playing with me,” she said.
Finally, with a little assistance from a Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) volunteer, she landed the huge fish. When put to the ruler, the monster stretched nearly two feet; 23¾ inches to be precise. It was one of eight fish Josie caught that Saturday afternoon.
She was understandably proud. She posed for pictures with her prize catfish, holding it up with delight from her wheelchair.
Josie was one of 14 participants in a fishing fair for persons with disabilities hosted by MDC in Forest Park on May 21. It was held at one of the education lakes near the hatchery building. Warm temperatures and blue sky provided these special needs anglers with a perfect backdrop for an afternoon of fishing. Ages of the participants ranged from seven to 66.
The fishing fair was organized by MDC volunteer Marilynn Motchan. Motchan is a retired special education teacher who has experience working with many age groups and types of disabilities. She coordinated with the Recreation Council of Greater St. Louis to put on the event.
The Recreation Council is a not-for-profit organization which serves as a "clearinghouse" for information on leisure, recreation and socialization opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities. Motchan organized the program, and the Recreation Council helped get the word out to its members and provided assistance during the event.
“This is an opportunity to give children and adults with disabilities the chance to do something they may have never had the opportunity to do,” Motchan said.
”This is why I like doing these programs . . . to see the excitement on their face and to hear the excitement in their voice when they catch something for the first time; it doesn’t matter what size it is. That makes me happy.”
All fish were returned to the water at the catch and release event. The bait used ranged from worms, to hot dogs, to corn. At least the fish were eating well.
As she digested the day’s records, Motchan reported that the 14 anglers all together caught a total of 66 fish, including a few big bass. The largest though was Josie’s catfish.
Other anglers were having good luck, too. None of Allison’s fish may have approached two feet in length, but she made up for it in quantity—having caught a total of 15 fish. She said she prefers fishing from a bank and uses corn for bait. She also showed off a very crisp, confident and nimble casting technique.
Another participant, Eric, proclaimed himself a self-taught angler. “I naturally just learned how to fish,” he said. He tried his hand at artificial baits that day but seemed to have better luck switching to hot dogs, after which he caught three fish in rapid succession. So what bait is really the best? “It all depends on the fish,” he said.
“Being successful at something helps with self-esteem, and as we all know self-esteem is extremely important,” said Motchan of the fishing program. “It’s how we look at ourselves. They can go back to school, or work, or family and friends and say ‘Oh my god you’re not going to believe the fish I caught and here’s proof; I have it on my camera.’ How much cooler could that be?”
Josie may have had more than pictures to show the next day; she probably also had a sore arm. “It was amazing but I’m very tired. My friends will be very excited for me,” she said.
After two hours of fishing, the participants left and the MDC volunteers and staff who conducted the program finally had everything organized and put away. Motchan said she appreciated MDC letting her develop these kinds of activities.
“In St. Louis there are no programs quite like this for people with disabilities,” Motchan said.
There was no doubt Josie, Eric, Allison, and the 11 other participants enjoyed this one.