Handicapped Fishing Derby: Lititz Sportsmen clinch hooks, hearts at annual event

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Volunteer Julia helps Handicapped Derby participant Gary take up the slack in his line. (Anthony C. Hayes)

The air was electric last Sunday morning along Pennsylvania’s swift-moving Lititz Run as Val carefully reeled in a lively 17-inch trout. Her friends Teresa and Don were there to help land the fish and to cheer Val on, but if you didn’t know the group, you might not understand the triumph catching a trout can convey.

Val had not been fishing since developing a neurological disorder which causes seizures and initially left one side of her body paralyzed. Teresa is diabetic; her boyfriend Don is mildly disabled.

The three friends were at Lititz Run among a group of some eighty-five other Pennsylvanians who live with physical or intellectual handicaps. All had gathered for the tenth annual Lititz Sportsman’s Handicapped Fishing Derby. The moving event was held at Riparian Park in Warwick Township.

Derby participant Carlos volunteered to catch fish for his friends.  (Anthony C. Hayes)
Derby participant Carlos volunteered to catch a few extra fish for his buddy. (Anthony C. Hayes)

The Lititz Sportsman’s Association (LSA) was organized in 1934. The club has a long history of providing educational outdoor heritage programs for adults and youth, with an emphasis on responsible conservation.

John Rice, of the LSA was charged with overseeing Sunday’s event. Rice said he had been awake since 4:00 on Saturday morning.

“The club had to get the fish moved from our pens at the Cooperative Nursery to Lititz Run. We moved about 500 for last week’s Family Fun Day and moved another 750 over here for today’s event. Needless to say, there are plenty of fish to catch.”  (By days end, 255 fish had been caught.)

Rice said the care and feeding of the fish at the nursery is practically a full time job.

“We get the fish as fingerlings in late June every year from the Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission. They’re raised in special pens and given 400-500 lbs. of feed a month. Before we release them on the first day of trout season, each one is measured to be sure they meet the legal size regulations. The ones that aren’t legal are our hold-overs. They’ll stay in the pen for another year. That’s how come you’ll find some caught here today will run upwards of 16″ – 24″.

Like the 17-inch trout Val pulled out of the river.

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Val told the Baltimore Post-Examiner she used to enjoy fishing in her native Vermont. Now a Lititz resident, Val had spent much of the last week anticipating a memorable day in the park. “I thought this would be a very nice event. It’s a good opportunity to spend time with my friends and it’s fun for everybody.”

Val with the catch of the day (Anthony C. Hayes)
Val proudly shows the catch of the day. (Anthony C. Hayes)

Teresa dittoed Val’s comment, adding, “My boyfriend Don and I were here fishing a few weeks ago when we learned about this event. I wasn’t sure I qualified to participate, since I’m just a diabetic, so I asked one of the sportsmen and told him I wear an insulin pump. He said no problem. I’m just glad I can share this day with my friends.”

Don carefully considered all of my queries while keeping an eye on his line and a steady hand on his rod and reel.

“I’ve fished since I was 12. I fish here, at Hammer Creek and Little Beaver. I like it. I’ve caught three so far today. The limit is five. I will probably cook them when we get home.”

Don’s favorite recipes are to bread and deep-fry his catch, or grill it with butter, lemon juice and a little pepper. “It’s really good that way.”

Mike, another happy angler, has participated in the event for the last 4-5 years.

“It’s a great spot to fish. And it’s great to see so many friends I don’t usually get a chance to see. The Sportsmen do a top-notch job with this event. I love trout fishing, but I don’t cook them myself. My dad will grill them with bread crumbs and Old Bay seasoning. That’s how I enjoy them.”

* * * * *

The Sportsmen encouraged anyone who needed assistance to bring a fishing buddy along. Brandon was present to share the day with his older brother, Dustin.

Brandon said he fishes regularly – mostly for bass, walleye and muskie – but also enjoys the more relaxed nature of trout fishing. Sensing a lull in the late morning action, Brandon told Dustin, “Everybody is throwing in PowerBait. We’ll switch it up and throw in something else.”

Deb gets a little help from volunteer Mike. (Anthony C. Hayes)
Angler Deb gets a little help from volunteer Mike. (Anthony C. Hayes)

Dustin was one of the many handicapped participants who said he enjoys fishing, though he doesn’t go out nearly as much as his brother. “It takes a lot of patience.” Dustin observed, “It’s peaceful and it helps you to not be angry.”

I asked Dustin what he thought of his brother Brandon’s suggestion to change the bait in their hooks?

“We have different types of bait. It helps, but it doesn’t.”

* * * * *

The fish may have been a little picky about the bait, but everyone enjoyed the free Kuntzler hot dogs, Sturgis pretzels and Utz potato chips. Businesses such as Rita’s of Lititz, McDonald’s, Burger King and Candy Ology also pitched in goodies for the gift packs given to everyone who participated. Gitzit, Inc., the Bombarder Store and Twoton Inc. all donated fishing supplies.

A number of those who took part in the event traveled with the assistance of special buses. One group of seven participants arrived at 10 a.m. from the Friendship Community. Another group of nine from Acadia, Inc. followed sometime around noon.

Along with the trained professionals from the resident facilities there were twenty-seven helpers on hand, including the contingent of Lititz Sportsmen and a number of volunteers from the community. Two Walmart of Ephrata employees stood on the bank to cast lines for the disabled, as did people from Quality Roofing Supply.

Three Target employees had their hands full with an assortment of other duties. Shannon and Julia split time between the river’s edge and the check-in station, while Joey tried his hand at Fishing Tackle 101.

Julia told the Baltimore Post-Examiner she has been fishing since she was four. Still, she seemed uneasy about baiting participant Gary’s hook with a live meal worm.

“Doing volunteer work is always encouraged at Target,” Joey explained. “Some people from our store on Lititz Pike did this last year, so we heard what a nice event this was.”

Derby participant Bob and his nephew Cody. (Anthony C. Hayes)
Derby regular Bob and his nephew Cody. (Anthony C. Hayes)

Shannon took a very short turn at the fish cleaning station, but quickly gave way to the expertise of LSA members “Robert” and “Billy-Goat”.

“I wanted to do something to help out,” said Robert, “and to tell the truth, nobody really likes to clean fish. I’m a knife collector, so when John asked if I would do the cleaning, I said, ‘Why not’. I’m just glad to pitch in.”

Gary Clark, Jr. volunteered more than 100 hours of his time for the event. He also lent his hook-tying skills to this reporter’s buddy Carlos – a six-time Derby participant from nearby Lancaster, PA.

Bob – another returning participant – was especially encouraged by the efforts of so many volunteers.

“It’s pretty awesome that they could help so many people enjoy themselves. There were lots of fish to catch today. A special thanks to the Sportsmen for all of their hard work.”

The Sportsmen may have missed Bob’s heartfelt comments, as he shared them while waiting for his ride. But no one could have missed the exuberance of Lindsi – the young autistic woman who landed the second biggest fish of the derby.

Proudly hoisting a 16-inch trout, Lindsi exclaimed, “This is the happiest day of my life.”