Bassmaster Elite Series pro Jay Yelas has experienced fish catches to make one speechless, but he recently discovered the opposite — fishing helped a non-verbal child speak her first words.
“We hear stories like that from the parents all the time,” said Yelas, executive director of the C.A.S.T. for Kids Foundation for the past four years. “It’s something I’m really passionate about.
“I grew up tournament fishing. I’ve loved doing that. I’ve been doing it 32 years, but now I’m just as passionate or more passionate to share the joy of fishing with these less fortunate kids … give them an opportunity to enjoy this sport we call fishing.”
C.A.S.T. (Catch A Special Thrill) for Kids Foundation has been enriching the lives of children with special needs and supporting their families since 1991. In holding 1,075 events, the organization has taken more than 121,000 kids fishing (that includes programs for urban youth) and another arm has put more than 2,000 military veterans on the water.
“The kids we serve are all special needs. They’re either disabled or disadvantaged, ages 6 to 18. Most of these kids have never been fishing; some have never been in a boat,” said Yelas, 54, who admits the reward he receives is bountiful. “Just the smiles and the joy and the hugs, the thank-you cards and letters. The difference it makes in their life and how they get so excited while they’re catching fish. The community and all the volunteers make these kids feel really loved and valued. The events are all about the kids.”
Yelas relates the story of a woman who came to an event with her nonverbal daughter. After a day of fishing, the woman ran up the dock toward Yelas, who asked if their beaming faces were because they landed a big bass.
She responded. “No, it’s way better than that — my daughter starting talking today!”
The woman told Yelas her daughter actually said her first words. The youth was opening the livewell, peeking in at the bass and saying things like, “Hey fishy.” When the girl reeled in a bass, the woman was astounded to hear her daughter say things like “I got a fish” and “I’ve got one.”
“Her parents had never heard her talk before,” Yelas said. “It triggered something in her to get her excited enough to speak. Her mom was just so elated, overjoyed. Experiences like that are priceless.”
It’s in part why Yelas, who lives in Lincoln City, Ore., first accepted an invitation to join the board of directors in 2005. That was just three years after he won the 2002 Bassmaster Classic on Lay Lake and two years after his Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. He worked on the board for 10 years before the founder and executive director retired.
“The board was tasked with finding his replacement, and I decided it was something I’d like to do — help build the foundation and take it to the next level,” he said. “It’s a real privilege and an honor to be the executive director of the foundation. It’s become the largest children’s fishing charity in the country. This year we’ll have about 75 events in about 35 states, just touch a lot of lives and introduce a lot of kids to fishing.”