by Mark Daul
Outdoors in Niagara
Independent Living of Niagara County recently held their seventh annual fishing contest in the Lower Niagara River. The contest was organized by ILNC for clients with disabilities.
When I arrived at the Fort Niagara launch ramp at 6 a.m., a small group of people were already preparing for the event. Ron Hutcheson, owner of A-1 Bait Supply in Niagara Falls, was there with his truck loaded down with bait. Brenda Starks, one of the contest organizers with ILNC, was making sure the morning snacks were all in proper order. As the boats arrived she made sure everyone knew who was going fishing with who, and that's not an easy job. Later, she was the one responsible recording the weights of the fish that were caught and who caught what. When the other ILNC contest organizer, Sarah K. Lanzo, arrived, she brought some sunshine to everyone with her bubbly personality.
At 6 a.m. a southerly wind was blowing pretty hard, probably 30 mph, and there was an overcast sky threatening rain. The chop on the water didn't look good either. Not an ideal day for fishing, but no one backed out. In fact, the only ones at the launch ramp that early in the morning were the fishermen with their boats waiting for their passengers to arrive, ILNC clients. There were no leisure fishermen crazy enough under those conditions to try their luck, only the guys that promised to take the clients out.
By 7:15 a.m. everyone was out and the fish catching started. There was a record 31 clients that went out in 11 volunteer boats.
The fishermen with the boats were mixed - charter captains and other guys that regularly volunteer their time, money, boats, and gasoline for events like these. Everyone comes together, and Lanzo held her hand to her cheek while remarking, "without these fishermen volunteering, we just couldn't do this." She was very grateful.
Despite the weather, the fishing was exceptional. Mark Mieth, fishing with his captain, Tim Hubler, took top honors with a 4.9-pound bass, weighed in by a couple of young state Department of Environmental Conservation personnel that came to do the weigh master's job. In this contest participants are allowed to enter one fish only, and most of those were released. The fish that didn't survive were cleaned for consumption by a couple of fishermen at the park fish-cleaning facility.
Everyone caught their share of fish, and that included a bounty of sheephead that always provides a lot of fun. Crayfish were the top fish catchers, then large shiners and worms as reported by some of the fishermen. Finishing a close second was Independent Living client James Usiak. Usiak entered a 4.7-pound bass. Hardy Mieth, also fishing with Capt. Hubler, landed a 4.4-pound fish to finish third in this heated contest. Hardy and Mark Meith are a father-son duo.
But everyone was a winner of some sort for the day, as seen in the accompanying picture of Kelly Mauka with her great big smile. Holding her 2.4-pound fish is the young lad from the DEC who was one of the official weigh masters, and Jim Janese, a familiar face on the local fishing scene, was the boat captain for the day that Mauka caught her fish on.
I talked with a couple of boat captains and they were all a happy bunch, with some stories to share. Mike Fox had a group out; he said it wasn't until 11:30 a.m. when they finally caught on to handling a rod and reel for the first time in their lives. Fox commented he was very pleased that he was able to take these first-timers out. His 8-year-old son, Jesse was his first mate, and he helped out baiting hooks and doing whatever first mates do. It was a good learning day for him too, helping dad.
Later I was talking with volunteers, Captain Ernie Calendrelli and his first mate, Chuck Brolinski about their day. They said one of their challenged fishermen, a tall slender fellow named Doug Usiak, was blind. Both then excitedly recounted their morning. "This guy ties his own knots, baits his own hook, casts, and he caught most of the fish on their boat in a few hours." Usiak also happens to be the Executive Director of WNYIL. How about that?
Another boat operator, and I didn't get his name, said the client he took out last year turned green in minutes and he had to bring him back on land. But this year that same client caught fish this time around. Now that's a determined fisherman.
In addition to fishermen sharing their boats and experience, Papa Leo's Pizzeria donated enough submarines and eats for the captains and their passengers. This was very generous; everyone got something to take with them on the boat to drink, eat, and enough bait for the morning. The barbeque and the award ceremonies were held at the 3-F Club on Swann Road, where the club facilities were donated for this event. Beans, dogs, burgers and salads were all catered by Joe's Country Catering of Ransomville.
There were over 100 people at the awards ceremony and all were entertained by "Paleface," a six-piece local band that played something everybody liked. Even us old guys liked them! There were basket raffles and a Chinese auction, all donated by dozens of businesses and sincere people. Just after everyone arrived at the 3F Club, the sky opened up and the rain came down sideways. It blew so hard that the doors had to be closed on one side of the pavilion, but in 30 minutes everything returned to normal.
Starks and Lanzo deserve a big round of applause for presenting such a well-organized event for the clients of Independent Living. Without spirited people like these two, there would be a lot more left out of the thrill of fishing. Just like many youngsters who are left out, they would never experience the excitement because "nobody took me fishing." I can hear it now.
Get 'em hooked on fishing, not on drugs. And, don't forget the elderly, they like fishing, too.
Next up, the NRAA Walleye Contest, Saturday, Aug. 25, on the lower Niagara. Contact Creek Road B&T for more details or call Captain Steve Drabczyk at 716-754-2949.