DULUTH -- Joanne Davidson was leaning on her wheeled walker for balance, about halfway out on the dock, wearing a professional-grade angler’s cap and plenty of sunscreen.
“This is my first time out fishing,’’ Davidson said.
“No, ever. … Well at least since I was a kid,’’ she added.
On a scorching-hot June Saturday, Davidson was one of 24 anglers taking part in Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute Northland fishing "contest" on Fish Lake Reservoir north of Duluth. The event has been held each June for 20 years now, except for a pandemic pause in 2020.
Despite an unrelenting sun, with the thermometer eventually topping 90 degrees, the fishing was pretty good, with slip bobbers and leeches the most popular presentation of the day.
This year the anglers came from as far away as Effie and the Twin Cities, although most are from the Twin Ports. All are adults with some form of disability, or loss of function — from brain injuries and strokes to vision impairments, birth defects and developmental issues.
For Davidson, 64, neuropathy and a drop foot have made her a bit unstable, with a few falls recently. But the fleet of easy-access pontoon boats donated by local residents for the event, combined with a small army of volunteer guides and helpers, offered the perfect opportunity for her and others to get out on the water worry-free.
“I’ve been looking forward to this since I first heard about it,’’ said Kay Olson of Duluth, Davidson’s friend and fishing partner. Olson later landed some dandy walleyes with Duluth’s John Lindgren as her guide and pontoon captain.
“For a lot of these people this is the only chance they will have to fish all summer,’’ said Eric Larson, the sports and recreation supervisor for Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute Northland.
It’s a fishing contest by name only, really. Mostly it’s a chance for folks to get together, do a little fishing, spend the day on the lake and catch up with old friends.
“It’s more like a family reunion. It’s the best event of the summer,’’ said Lisa Baron, a former Courage Kenny staffer who comes back to volunteer every year. “We stopped doing it for a while because it was a pretty big effort. But we had so many people wanting us to bring it back that we had to start it up again.”
The event is headquartered at Driftwood Estates, a private campground managed by a nonprofit club made up exclusively of members of the Duluth-based 148th Fighter Wing of the Minnesota Air National Guard.
Down the lake a bit, Jim Zumbusch of Maple Lake, was smiling over his 19-inch walleye caught. Zumbusch drove up just for the event and seemed to have a knack for walleyes and panfish.
On another pontoon boat, Andy Cragun and the Rev. Ben Hadrich, both of Duluth, were on board with Eric Kaiser and Mary Lou Donovan as volunteer guides. Hadrich is an old pro at fishing but has been hit by multiple strokes in recent years and isn’t as stable walking as he was when running marathons and triathlons. After the most recent stroke, last September, he’s also lost much of the use of his left arm, making holding a fishing rod and reeling in a fish a bit of a problem. Hadrich, 37, a Catholic priest, spent months in the hospital for inpatient therapy.
But Courage Kenny brought in some new battery-powered automatic fishing reels for this year’s fishing event, and they worked.
Hadrich was first on the board with a fat 23-inch walleye.
“God is great!’’ Hadrich said after Kaiser netted the fish for him.
Hardich would later reel in a 21-inch northern pike, too, using the same reel, but not without some theatrics on the pontoon boat.
“At one point the line was all the way over the boat’s canopy top and wrapped around the light pole,’’ Kaiser said. “But everybody pitched in and we got it in the boat.”
Hadrich was beaming.
“It’s a great day,’’ he said.
The fishing contest is just one of many outdoor recreation programs offered by Courage Kenny’s Adaptive Sports and Recreation Program in the Twin Ports — everything from archery and yoga to rock climbing, soccer, sailing, paddling, swimming, biking and downhill skiing — all adapted for clients with disabilities.
Larson notes that a big percentage of the population will, at some point in their life, have to deal with some sort of loss of functionality that may impede their ability to enjoy the outdoors.
“We’re doing this for people’s quality of life, to get people out there,’’ Larson said. “If we can bring some semblance of normalcy to their lives by adding outdoors recreation, then we’ve succeeded.”
Judging from the big smiles on participants' faces, it looked like the fishing contest was working well — even though the annual fish fry after the contest had to be scuttled this year in exchange for boxed meals because of COVID-19.
“The need for people to connect to the outdoors doesn't end when you become an adult ... You might grow up but you normally don't grow out of a disability,” Larson said. “And their disability should not be the reason they don’t get outdoors.”
(Jim Zumbusch went on to take first place in the contest with a 19-inch walleye and several big panfish. Kay Olson took second place with two 16-inch walleyes and a 19-inch walleye. The third prize, which goes to 15th place each year, went to Hadrich for his big walleye.)
For more information on adaptive sports
To learn more about Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute Northland’s Adaptive Sports and Recreation program, go to account.allinahealth.org/events/53545 or contact Mark Hanna at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-726-4834.