[Author’s Note: I started out to write an opinion piece about blind people and outdoor sports. I got started by writing about fishing and that’s also how I ended aside from a short political diatribe at the end, this piece is entirely about fishing with a focus on fishing without vision.]
People who know me well, actually, almost anyone who has spoken to me in the past few years, knows that I have a passion for shallow salt water fishing from a paddle craft. Hand me any of my G. Loomis inshore rods, a reel loaded with lightweight PowerPro, any of a number of my favorite DOA lures, put me in a canoe, hand me a paddle and I’m ready to set out into any of a number of different mangrove stands, oyster bars, grass flats or to some very secret spots to try to convince a sea trout, redfish or snook to eat the chunk of plastic with a hook through it at the end of my line.
I find that my fishing buddies feel comfortable bringing a blink to their special honey hole – I’m not likely to give anyone else directions to a location thick with fish as I usually cannot remember how we got there. Unlike deep sea fishing, the inshore fishes often move around based upon time of day, tidal flows and to find food for themselves so secret locations depend upon these factors as well. Thus, returning to the same spot on consecutive weekends will not provide the same results as the tide will have changed with the cycle of the moon and the predator fishes that we so enjoy catching will have moved to a locale more suited to their feeding practices. So, even if I memorized the location, I would also need to remember all of the other factors (anything from tide to water temperature to angle of the sun to which color lure to use in which conditions) and find the correlation between all of them in order to reveal a secret spot when the fish pile up in it.
Over the years, I’ve developed my own database of spots and conditions and can usually find fish when it’s my turn to pick the location. Florida’s extreme weather conditions will on an annual basis make certain pages in one’s fishing logbook entirely obsolete. Where once a deep cut filled with fast moving water and sea trout once stood, a single hurricane comes along and now the sea bottom looks like a sandbar. A spot where a sandbar that would slow down the flow just perfectly to cause a buffet of bait fish for waiting snook and redfish that would slam my lure in their feeding frenzy relocated by a storm lost its nice horseshoe shape and the big fish stopped eating there. Even one of my favorite oyster bars disappeared and the redfish who once stalked it went away too.
Fishing for snook, the royalty of our big three fish, requires different skills than do the redfish and sea trout. Snook tend to try to protect their territory and, more so than the others, ambush their prey rather than hunt it down. Snook spend a lot of time hanging around in mangrove roots, sort of like freshwater bass and the structure they seek, which presents an extra difficulty for blind people who enjoy this sport. Specifically, how can a blind person toss a lure into submerged tree roots without catching their line in the tree branches (often called decorating the tree for Christmas)?
]A bit of a side note here, if you enjoy fishing, blind or sighted, fresh water or salt, and get a lure and line caught in a tree, do everything within your power to retrieve it. While fishing line and lures do not hurt the tree, they often cause horrible injuries and even kill birds. In the past thirty years, since the publication of “Silent Spring,” the public outcry about the demise of our bird population and the Federal ban on the use of DDT, birds of all types have returned and some have even developed populations large enough to be removed from the protected list.
A juvenile bald eagle does his hunting at one of our favorite sea trout spots. On some days, when we may not have even felt a tap on our lures, the eagle, who also knows this spot fills up with tasty fish at the beginning of an incoming tide, will circle over our heads. His broad wing span against the wind provides a lovely soundtrack to our slow drift across the flat until he spots his prey. Then, we hear a sploosh like sound as the bird elegantly enters the water. Finally, we’ll be treated to the sound of an animal with a six foot wing span beating against the water until he gains enough air to take off and, with the sound of pounding wings, takes off, trout in his talons to wherever he eats.
If we, as a nation, had not started protecting our birds during the seventies, bald eagles, south of Alaska and Canada would have gone extinct. To me, just hearing the power, terrible, violent, beautiful sounds of one of these great predators makes an entire outing worthwhile. If I come home with no fish but a memory of an eagle, osprey, spoonbill, black or turkey vulture or any of the other myriad flying species that inhabit Florida, I have had a great day on the water. If I also catch a fish, all the better.
So, if you fish, please help protect our birds by taking your line and lures out of trees and, if a fish cuts you off, try to retrieve as much of the broken line from the water as possible. The materials used to make fishing line do not bio-degrade so, while your day fishing might have ended long ago, the hazards caused by your litter will last for years to come.
Stop preaching Chris.
Before my sermon about sea birds, I had been describing snook fishing for a blind angler and how to avoid landing one’s line and lure in a tree. I have a few techniques to attack this problem. If your fishing buddy has vision, ask her to line you up so you point parallel to a mangrove stand. This technique works best at low tide because the snook need to come out further from the roots and will leap at bait that swims by about three feet or sometimes more out from their protective cover. Use a “swimming” lure and cast your lure straight ahead and use your reel to first take up any slack in your line and then, slowly, crank your lure back to you so it can act like the sort of thing a snook would find appetizing. You will know when a snook hits your hook, they grab on like a freight train, so just crank a little to bury the hook in its mouth and keep the line tight. Within a second or two, your reel will start screaming as your fish takes off, looking for safety and the fight is on. Work your rod for leverage to keep the snook out of the tree routes, if you hear and feel it jump out of the water give it a little slack and then crank hard when you hear the splash as it returns to the sea. Pump and crank and enjoy the ride. A good sized snook can pull two adults with a cooler filled with ice and beverages in a canoe some distance before tiring and coming to the side of the boat so you can have your partner take a picture of you with one of the most desired species in game fishing.
The second technique that a blind person can employ for getting a hook into the water at root level avoiding the tree requires the use of a fly rod. Fly casting, unlike using a spinning or bait casting reel uses the weight of the line rather than the bait for momentum. Thus, an angler can measure out exactly the amount of line he or she wishes to toss. If a blind person has a sighted buddy fishing alongside, the sightie can estimate the distance to the roots or once Project Paddle Odyssey has made a laser range finder talk, a high tech gadget can measure the distance with great precision. Then, while stripping the line off of your reel, you can find the exact length you want. It is helpful to get some of that gooey stuff that Maxi sells to mark your line every five feet or so to help you estimate length more accurately.
Fly fishing, says my good friend and fishing partner John Callahan, “makes the difficult task of snook fishing ore difficult” so I don’t recommend it for the impatient among us.
Mark Nichols, founder and CEO of DOA Lures, a PPO sponsor and real nice guy, once said that people have historically told others that to catch fish, one must think like a fish. Nichols rejects this notion and instead says, “To catch fish, one must think like bait.” So, to succeed in this sport, imagine that you live in the body of a Spanish sardine, a three inch fish, and a thirty inch redfish, with its mouth agape is approaching quickly.
A child of another wise Florida fisherman I once knew asked him, “Dad, what do fish think” The fisherman pondered for a while and replied, by saying, “Fish only care about two things, can I eat the things I see or can they eat me. So, they go through life thinking, can it eat me, can I eat it, can it eat me, can I eat it…” Life as a fish must be pretty exciting as they spend all day hunting or as prey.
Once, while being interviewed on the Cap’n Mel Florida Fishing radio program, Mel asked me, “What’s the hardest thing about fishing blind? Is it the knots? Avoiding hooks? Selecting a lure?” I replied, “None of those, Mel, you’ve seen me do all of that.” “There must be something that’s more challenging for a blind angler,” insisted my friend and host of the nation’s most popular fishing show. “Yes, one thing, getting a ride to the put in spot whenever I feel like fishing which is most of the time.” We laughed together and returned to topics of paddle fishing, wade fishing, favorite lures, species and nothing more about blindness. Fishing, inshore or off, takes a soft touch and good tactile skills. More often than not a sighted person can’t see the fish they want to catch any more than a blind person. To get really good at fishing, whether you can see or not, requires practicing as often as possible, getting onto the water with more experienced folks and learning to enjoy the quiet, the sea air, the many pristine environs, the birds, bs’ing with your buddies and learning as much as you can. Even world champions get skunked from time to time so never worry about not catching fish and always remember that you choose a hobby to have fun. If you just want to eat fish, it will always be much easier and less expensive to buy a nice filet at your local fish market than it will be to buy tackle, get onto the water, find the fish, catch the fish, clean the fish and then go home to cook the fish. Fishing, for those of us who love the sport, is a passion. If you were to add up what most of us spend on gear, clothing, tackle, boats, gas and everything else that comes with fishing, you will probably learn that a fisherman pays about $600 per pound for the filets we bring home. The pleasure of a day on the water, the excitement of the fight, the shriek of a happy eagle is, as the commercial says, priceless.
So, if you can’t see, can only see a bit or can see perfectly, give this great sport a try. Contribute to PPO and conservation organizations to ensure that your grand kids will also have the opportunity to enjoy this sport.
Project Paddle Odyssey, the non-profit started by my wife Susan and I, continues to limp forward on a nearly non-existent budget. If you find the idea of independent participation in paddle sports by blind people interesting, please visit the Paddle Odyssey web page by clicking on the link in the group of businesses and organizations at the top of this blog.
If any PETA members read this blog and object to my enthusiasm for sport and game fishing, they can kiss my boney white but. The only PETA I care about is called, “People for Eating Tasty Animals” and I will not put down my rod and reel to please those hippy-dippy anti-vivisectionist eco sprout Nazis. If they want to fight for a cause, how about civil rights for humans with disabilities, how about fighting against the genocide in Sudan, what about torture of political prisoners detained by so many different nations, what about world hunger, child abuse, peace, fighting racism and discrimination against all people, etc.
Also, I would like to remind the PETA freaks that sporting people, men and women who enjoy hunting and fishing, contribute more than any other identifiable group to conservation and environmental organizations. In fact, the oldest conservation organization in the United States, The Isaac Walton Foundation, was founded by sports people in the nineteenth century to promote the conservation of our already shrinking wilderness. Sporting organizations like Ducks and Trout Unlimited raise large sums of money and actually buy up wet lands and land adjacent to rivers and streams to permanently preserve them as natural habitats. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has done far more to reintroduce elk to the wild and to grow the elk population than any other agency, public or private.
The kill from people who hunt or fish is dramatically less than the reproduction rate. So, we sporting folks give our dollars to protect habitat and there is a large net gain in the numbers of animals in water on land than before. PETA people, however, find that chasing people while we fish or hunt is the answer to the problem I ask just how many wildlife reserves they have built, how many wet lands have they bought, what are they doing to preserve the habitat other than annoying a couple of quiet guys in kayaks trying to enjoy a Florida morning?