A tournament trail for able anglers

 When Richard Warwick first saw the guy whose boat he'd be fishing in, he was worried. The man had no arms. "I didn't know how we were going to do it," he remembers thinking at the time. He wasn't just worried about fishing. Warwick was competing in a tournament, and his partner was supposed to be the guy running the boat — because Warwick is a paraplegic. Still, not having the use of your legs is one thing, but fishing without arms? Over the course of that day, Warwick got an education. "He could flip with his feet better than a guy with arms," he says. "He could tie a lure on the line; he tied knots better than I did. He could do anything. "I caught two fish," Warwick adds. "He lipped the fish, took them off the hook and put them in the livewell. All I did was open the lid. He just amazed me, all day long." When he and his partner that day, Jim Goldman of Wayne City, Ill., got off the water, Warwick's fellow competitors were curious about how it went. "I told them it was no problem," he says. "Jim impressed me very much." Warwick's experience is virtually the same as what able-bodied anglers go through when they first fish with a disabled angler.



















Dispelling myths

 In case you're wondering what it's like to fish with a person who has a spinal cord disability, here are a few facts: "Other than the fact that he or she has limited or no mobility around the boat, a disabled angler can be and usually is independent in the back or in the front of the boat," says PVA's Bruce Scott. "If your fishing style is run and gun, it may take a little more time. You'll need to give the angler notice so he has time to get out of his chair and into the seat." He adds that a disabled angler "may not be able to help you lip or net bass, but you might need to help him." PVA angler Van Holder says, "About the most I ask someone to do is grab me a Coke out of the cooler." And when it comes to falling out, "remember that boating safety is followed at all B.A.S.S. tournaments, and this is no exception," Scott says. Hal Hart, an able-bodied angler, notes that "these guys' upper bodies are so strong that if they grab something, they have it. They're not going to fall out."

 Neal Lazarus, an able-bodied angler who has been assisting at PVA tournaments for about 13 years, says, "In all honesty, when I was first asked, I said I didn't know anything about disabled people. But I learned that they're not any different than any other boat partner." Hal Hart, a Hephzibah, Ga., angler who has been helping the PVA trail for two years, agrees. "When you first meet, there's this feeling like, 'What do I need to do?' But then you find out that this guy can do anything, and you don't have to worry about it." "If you don't believe it," Lazarus says, "get your butt kicked (fishing) a few times." The trailThe tournament at which Warwick and Goldman met was held last year on Illinois' Rend Lake and was the third on the B.A.S.S. — sanctioned Paralyzed Veterans of America's (PVA) National Bass Trail. Just as you would expect from anything B.A.S.S. sanctions, the PVA events are full-on bass tournaments. Everything is there: dawn blastoffs with 100 fancy fiberglass boats racing across huge bodies of water; a full day of fishing, no matter what the weather's like; weigh-ins with banners and crowds; and live release of lots of bass. The only difference is the hand-operated trolling motors. Those are the Open Division tournaments. The Bank Division is just as competitive, and also is a trail, with the same stops. This year, the PVA trail stopped at Texas' Cedar Creek Lake (February), Georgia's Clarks Hill Lake (March), Rend Lake (May), the Potomac River (June), Iowa's Lake Okoboji (August) and Lake Eufaula, Ala. (September). And for the first time, this year the PVA tour is having its Grand National Championship at Florida's Lake Toho on Oct. 25-28. Think that's not serious? That's just one lake short of the BASSMASTER Tour schedule. "A lot of the people on this tour are darn near professional fishermen," says Dennis Nolte, an able-bodied angler from Orlando who, for 14 years, has been helping at fishing tournaments for people with disabilities. Some of the anglers have their own boats (many of them won at PVA events), which they also use to pre-fish the lakes. Others simply fish from the boats of their local partners, who are bass anglers from local clubs often affiliated with the B.A.S.S. Federation. Van Holder, a PVA competitor from Rome, Ga., has been fishing the trail since it began and says the competition has gotten a lot better. "Because of the travel involved, 10 years ago maybe 15 guys fished the whole trail. Now it's closer to 50 guys. So now it's not a matter of beating five or six guys to get in the Top 10, it's a matter of beating 40."



















Observations on abilities

 Last year, I went to my first PVA tournament, as an able-bodied spectator. I'd never spent time around people with disabilities, and going in I had the same worries most of you probably would have: What's this going to be like? What if I say the wrong thing? Can these guys fish? I also had a general feeling of unease, like I was going to a place where I wouldn't be comfortable. All that worrying was a waste of time. The PVA anglers, whether in the boats or on the bank, were some of the nicest people I've ever met — just like most anglers. I don't know why I didn't expect it. Outside of the hours of competition, off-color jokes about "cripples" (they said it, I didn't) flew all over the place. At times, I found myself wishing that the political-correctness police were there. They would've been mortified. Not all of the competitors had served in the military, but in the course of conversations with those who did, I learned something about our military's best and worst. The best are the people who serve - especially in combat. Regarding the worst, let's just say I learned some things about our military and government — how they treat those with disabilities — that shocked and angered me. I was appalled at myself for being so ignorant. Attending the tournament was an emotional experience for me. No crying or anything like that. Maybe it was more spiritual. Regardless, when a writer writes about that kind of stuff, corny words tend to come out. But that's not how I feel about the PVA anglers, nor do they want anything that smacks of sympathy. They didn't get any from me. Instead, they got my respect.

He added that many of the current competitors learned to fish on the PVA trail and actually started out in the bank division, and many competitors fish able-bodied bass club tournaments at home. "It all boils down to how competitive you want to be," he says. Goldman fished the whole PVA circuit for the first time this year, but has fished tournaments - including Illinois B.A.S.S. Federation tournaments — for years. He says PVA runs "a very, very nice tournament. I give them an A-plus in everything. They run it right, take care of you, treat you like family." Why they do it
If you ask Bruce Scott, PVA's director of Sports and Recreation, the PVA trail is not just about fun - it's also about teaching. "When a person becomes disabled, it's like being a baby and learning how to crawl again," says Scott, himself a paraplegic. "When you suffer that spinal cord injury, it's life-altering. It takes you back to where you almost have to relearn all aspects of life again, and in a completely different manner. "You have to learn to take care of your personal needs," he adds, "but it's way more than that. To be totally involved in life, you have to feel confident you can get up in the morning and compete on life's terms. "I don't know a better way to learn that independence than to be put on a boat with an able-bodied person and compete in a bass tournament. You have to learn the skills of fishing. You have to develop strategies. And you have to learn how to move around in the boat." In other words, "you have to do everything an able-bodied person does, but from a sitting position," Scott says. "Once you've gone through that process, you've gone a heck of a lot further on the way to mastering the skills of life," he explains. "Through that, you gain your confidence and self-esteem — and that is the goal of the PVA National Bass Trail. "A guy or gal who hasn't developed those skills will learn things from other anglers that they'll never learn from a hospital, rehab center, nurse or doctor," Scott says. "I guarantee that if you can fish the bass trail for one season, there's no reason in the world why you can't hold down a job and be a contributing member of society. And if you develop your skills, maybe one day you'll be up there competing against Denny Brauer." "I've only been fishing for about five years," Warwick says. "I didn't get into it until I broke my back, and the PVA trail is one of the things that got me into it. "I fished my first tournament, in June 1995, when I was just a month out of the hospital. I had a great time. From there, I fished a few more, and now I fish the trail." Warwick won his first tournament in June 1998, on the Potomac River. He won a new Ranger 207 with a 90-horse Mercury and MotorGuide trolling motor. "I still fish out of it," he says. Is he getting to be a better fisherman? "Yeah," he says. "Now my tacklebox weighs 100 pounds. I had to empty some of it out because if I picked it up, it would flip me out of my wheelchair." After a good laugh, he says, "With fishing, you can't get worse. Just better." But competitors enjoy the PVA trail for more than just the fishing. "I don't feel disabled on the water," says Gary Dornbrack, an angler from Westville, Okla. "I feel just as mobile as anyone else out there. "I can't pitch or flip as well as I'd like to, but the other stuff — spinnerbaiting, Carolina-rigging — I can do fine." "There's nothing better than competition," Holder adds. "Plus, tournaments are social events. You see all your buddies, and you get to make fun of each other, see who beat whom — it's lots of fun. And it's great to get a paycheck once in a while." "It's a get-together of friends that has a little fishing involved," Holder says. "It's a social event with prizes." The closeness of competitors is evident. At the ceremony where the 2000 PVA Anglers of the Year were announced, Open Division champ Glen Davis choked back tears as he dedicated the award to friend Frank Cravens, who died suddenly in April of that year. Likewise, Bank Division Angler of the Year Gary Holland dedicated his award to John Holder, who convinced Holland to fish the trail in 1999 and also died in 2000. The bass can't tellThere's a message here, one all bass anglers know even if they seldom put it into words. It's that for all the "do or die" competitiveness of bass tournaments — the mad rush to the tackle store to buy the latest lure, taking out a second mortgage to get that new bass boat — we all know that bass fishing is about far more. It's about being outside, bonding with friends and family, and a thousand other important, wonderful things we all feel but maybe don't talk about too often. Possibly the best thing about bass fishing is that anyone can do it. Age, sex, disability or anything else doesn't matter. As Scott says, "The fish don't know you're in a wheelchair." So you don't have to be Mark Davis, Kevin VanDam or Rick Clunn to catch a bass. Even a 10-pounder. The bass don't care who you are. All you have to do is put your bait out there and see what happens. For more informationThe PVA Trail is open to anyone with spinal cord injury or dysfunction, not just veterans of military service. Bruce Scott encourages anyone who feels uncomfortable at the thought of riding in a bass boat to start out in the Bank Division. To learn more, call the PVA's Geoff Hopkins at (800) 424-8200, ext. 747, or go to the web site, www.pva.org. A veterans' service organization chartered by Congress, PVA has for more than 50 years served the needs of its members, all of whom have catastrophic paralysis caused by spinal cord injury or disease.