For disabled travelers: Fishing Has No Boundaries

wheelchairThis is the second part of a series about efforts that address the challenges of traveling with a disability.

It is not unusual for people who fish to rise before dawn, plan a weekend around angling and trade “one-that-got-away” stories with friends.

This happens in Fond du Lac, too, but with one group there’s a big difference: The people who fish can’t do so on their own because of physical or cognitive limitations. Some use wheelchairs to board boats. Others need help adding bait to a hook.

In 2012, at least 100 volunteers made it possible for 64 people from as far away as Milwaukee and Oshkosh to fish on Lake Winnebago for a weekend. The guests boarded 29 loaned boats – pontoons, cabin cruisers, small watercraft – and caught an average of 75 fish per boat.

Most of these perch, bluegill and sheepshead were released, but enough of a catch remained to keep cleaners busy from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The filets were iced and sent home with the people who caught them.

The program, Fishing Has No Boundaries, began in Hayward after fishing guide Bobby Cammack broke his leg in 1986 and wondered how others sidelined by injury found a way to fish. Now there are 28 chapters in 14 states. Wisconsin has the most chapters and participants.

The 2013 Fond du Lac event will be that chapter’s 10th. Volunteers lend a hand on water and land, captaining the boats, preparing meals, assisting guests and helping in myriad other ways.

Each participant paid no more than $50 for two days of fishing, meals, a T-shirt and good memories. That’s less than one-half of the actual cost to put on the event, and coordinator Jeff Hefter says sponsors also sometimes absorb the registration fee for financially strapped guests.

“This wouldn’t be possible without the local donations,” he says, and there are many. River Haus sports shop donates bait. The city of Fond du Lac waives its boat launch fee. Brothertown Indian Nation donates a bus to shuttle people between the bingo hall and boat launch. More than one dozen other sponsors are acknowledged on the back of event T-shirts.

Circumstances are similar elsewhere. Kathy Overman of Hayward, the national Fishing Has No Boundaries coordinator, says these events last one to three days. Chapters almost always are in need of more volunteers, boats and donations; Fremont and University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh chapter are in need of revival.

In Fond du Lac, participants gather around 7 a.m. for hot breakfast sandwiches, then wait for their assigned boat and shuttle to the Lakeside Park dock. People in wheelchairs tend to be matched with roomy pontoons. Then captains maneuver their boats wherever they please along the 22-mile-long Lake Winnebago shore.

“Timmy – you watchin’ that bobber?” Jeff hollers, while his boat patrols the lake and troubleshoots. Tim Pergande of Fond du Lac widens his smile and nods. Soon he adds a yelp and laugh, as the bobber bounces and disappears.

Sometimes volunteers bait the hook, place the line and help the guest reel in his catch. Several helpers are from the Lighthouse Anglers fishing club and know just how to tap the lake’s bottom and stir up the mud to cause a feeding frenzy.

Participants might fish eight hours during the weekend; this year pizza will be delivered on the water at lunchtime.

“Once they’re here, they come back,” Jeff says. That applies to both the people who fish and the volunteers. “Some people schedule their vacations around this because they see how happy they make people.”

“I used to do a lot of fishing tournaments, but I get a lot more of out this,” says Tom Gendron, one of the Fond du Lac event’s original volunteers. Steve and Betty Wiskow volunteer because they like the notion of getting to know repeat visitors from one year to the next.

The program has been around long enough that a few former volunteers now participate as guests because of multiple sclerosis or other ailments that restrict mobility.

Ron Brzozowski of Hales Corners is a lifelong fisherman who suffered strokes in 2007. Wife Lisa accompanies him to Fishing Has No Boundaries events, where he still occasionally reels in a big one, like the 19-inch walleye caught on Lake Mendota with the Madison Chapter.

Monty and Pam Hunt bring around 20 people, ages 40 to 70, to Fond du Lac from the Milwaukee area. “It’s an absolute favorite trip,” Pam says. “We love the fishing, the volunteers, the joy on the (participants’) faces as they catch fish.”

In the 2012 group was Brian Clark of Milwaukee, who chose to celebrate his 50th birthday this way. For some people, Pam notes, “simply getting on a boat in itself is an awesome experience.”

For Jeff, these fishing weekends are humbling because the guests live simply but happily. “They are so easy to please,” he says.

The first Fishing Has No Boundaries was held at the Lake Chippewa Campgrounds on the Chippewa Flowage in 1988, and at least 1,500 people have participated there since then. The program recently was featured on the Discover Wisconsin television show:

For more about the national program:, 800-243-3462. The next Fond du Lac event is Aug. 24-25; call 920-904-1500 for details about how to volunteer or participate.

Here are the other Wisconsin events that remain this year. Pre-registration is required.

Aug. 17-18: Paradise Shores Resort Hotel, Lake Holcombe, organized by the Chippewa Valley Chapter, 800-228-3287.

Sept. 7: Lake Shore State Park, Lake Michigan, Milwaukee Chapter, 414-224-0600.

Sept. 21-22: Hudson’s Lakefront Park, St. Croix River, St. Croix Valley Chapter, 651-214-0124.

Additional Wisconsin chapters are in Hayward (which goes to the Chippewa Flowage in May, 715-634-3185), Eagle River (Wild Eagle Lodge in May/June, 715-479-9309) and Madison (Governor Nelson State Park in July, 608-417-3474).