BY BOB SEMERAU
DANA POINT — The adage, “It takes a village” could not be better applied than it does with the organization Fish for Life (FFL).
A dozen years ago, FFL founder Jim Holden took a young friend with cerebral palsy out fishing, and an idea was born.
“Why not take a boatload of special needs kids out for a complementary day of fishing and show them the love and support we all want to give,” thought Jim those many years ago. Soon, the organization was formed, and the first outing aboard Dana Pride became a model for many other trips to come.
The most recent effort had 30 individuals, all with some type of special need, fishing alongside a parent or guardian and under the guidance of experienced fishing team leaders.
The day began as guests arrived at Dana Wharf Sportfishing to check in with volunteers and receive their Fish for Life t-shirts. California Department of Fish and Wildlife representatives, Carrie Wilson and Mary Patyten, unfurled a huge American flag across the stern of the big boat, only adding to the festivities.
At the appointed hour the group assembled for a lovely rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, sung beautifully by young fishing guest, Kalise Mayahula. A novice angler, Kalise, fished alongside her mom Grace Yhap throughout the day on the water.
Marking the occasion, brief welcoming speeches by Dana Wharf Sportfishing’s, Donna Kalez, the mayor of Dana Point, Joe Muller, SAC president, Ken Franke (a major contributor), and assorted fishing folks from around SoCal saluted the guests and the efforts of Fish for Life.
A red carpet was rolled out as the event’s very special guests and parent/guardians were announced in turn, then brought aboard the 65-foot sportfisher, Dana Pride.
Once aboard, all came to the stern for a group photo, just before the dock lines were thrown and waves and broad smiles all around, the boat eased away from the dock.
A huge load of sardines had been picked up at the bait receiver before the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol boats escorted the group out of the harbor with a plume of water shooting 50 feet into the air from the on-deck fire system.
Some kids were old hands at this, having been out with FFL previously. Two young men, Gabe Richardson and Tanner Rogers, put on quite the show, proudly flexing their hard-won muscles from daily workouts.
After a short ride northward, Captain Tom White set up anchor at a spot just off Salt Creek Beach. Rental rods had been provided by the landing and in short order the team leaders helped get baits in the water.
Along for the trip were two celebrity personalities. Cartoonist and “Curtoon Time” TV host, Curt Visca, as well as movie and TV stunt man, Kyle Pacek, could be found joking with the kids, handing off fish or generally adding to the celebration.
Prior to the start of the fishing, California DFW reps, Wilson and Patyten, made California Fishing Passport books available to each guest fishing aboard Dana Pride. As fish came over the side, anglers could bring their catch to the knowledgeable pair and get the fish identified and logged into their own passport book. Species, date, and location were noted before an official stamp is applied to seal the commemorative event.
First to hookup was strongman Gabe, landing a feisty kelp bass from the depths. Other shouts of, “I’ve got one,” came from around the boat as anglers that had never been aboard a fishing boat, began to feel the tug of fish from below. The happy faces and hearty laughter both from the guests and their parent/guardians created quite a scene as each fish was celebrated before being released once again. Young Dalton Copsey managed both a mackerel and a calico bass with help from FFL Board member David Gitter and Phil Hunkins.
Aboard to help with fishing duties, the Dana Wharf Lady Anglers (DWLA), a group of women dedicated to getting fish and getting together to swap fish stories, were at hand to assist each honored guest. By the end of the day, every special needs guest had caught fish they would remember for years to come, thanks in part to the invaluable assistance of volunteers like the DWLA.
Despite having a mid-morning snack and some welcoming treats at sign-in, kids tummies began to rumble around noon. A sumptuous feast of meatballs and pasta along with sandwiches and chips helped fuel the kids for the afternoon fishing to come. The white-shirted galley crew did a great job of preparing food and getting it out to the kids and volunteers with ease.
During a brief lull in the days action, a visit by a fantastic guest had the kids leaning off the port rail when a real-life mermaid visited the group and waved as she lazily swam alongside Dana Pride for all to see. The lovely creature from the depths of the sea hitched a ride from a nearby boat and awaited the return of the group back at Dana Wharf Sportfishing.
A call for lines up and the boat headed farther along the coast where common dolphin cavorted in open water. The spectacle drew laughter and cheers from the group as the mammals rode the bow wave and leapt into the air, adding another memorable experience for the kids and their families.
The time came for the return to the docks and gear was stowed before medal-awards for each participant were ceremoniously handed out.
A last bit of excitement at the docks gave a final memory as the assembled guests used squirt guns to ward off a nefarious pirate that had taken our fair mermaid prisoner at dockside. Successfully winning her release, the group paused for photos with the pair of magical characters as they disembarked, heading for home.
Daily struggles can be all-consuming for special needs kids and their families. The day on the water allows the healing power of sun and sea to work its own magic on each. The efforts of an organization like Fish for Life provides an excellent opportunity foe sharing some of that magic, giving lasting memories for all who participated.
Fish for Life is expanding to the East Coast with a newly established group in New Jersey, having their first outing in the coming weeks.
“We hope to have other ports of call for our organization in the coming years, giving this experience to an even greater number of worthy individuals so they can take home memories for a lifetime,” said FFL founder, Jim Holden.