A Chance to Sit Down

It has been quite busy at home and at work, with little time to rest and less to get things done around the house. I have been on the road, fitting countertops, downlighters, shelving, mirrors and more. There have been some troublesome clients that have delayed jobs and increased workloads. Troublesome more as a result of indecision than actual malice it has to be said, but time consuming and energy sapping none the less.

There has been too much to do, with too little time to do it,  the list of outstanding and ever more pressing chores multiplying exponentially in some weird logarithmic curve of dirty laundry and unglazed bathroom tiles. In short my home is a tip and my time limited, my back and shoulders are sore, I am grumpy because I haven’t been fishing and my muscles and shoulders are tired.

A few weeks back I was invited by Duggie Wessels (Western Province Fly Fishing Coordinator for the disabled), to participate in a “Wheelchair” fly-fishing challenge. Dougie is a “legless fly angler” and not in the merry sense of having one too many at the pub on the way home from the river , but quite literally so. Dougie fishes, where he can, from a wheel chair and this event was for the rest of us to experience just what that was like. Not so much a fishing competition as an experiment for us able bodied anglers to experience the challenges and frustrations of less mobile flyfishers limited by physical disability or injury.

Craig Thom of Stream X flyfishing test drives his new conveyance.

The idea was to fish for three hours, restricted as are Duggie and his mate Mark, to a wheelchair. When the morning came to venture out I have to admit to being less than enthusiastic, as said, the chores had piled up, the house looked like a bomb site, the bathroom tiles, newly laid, were still awaiting their finishing grouting and there were tools on one floor, fishing gear on another and that never ending pile of washing which simply lurks in the washing basket, secretly growing in the dark confines of the wickerwork when left unattended.

But then again, “a man’s word is his bond” and I figured that the minor inconvenience of an untidy home was nothing compared to the frustrations and limitations that these keen anglers face doing something that we all take for granted. The simple pleasure of going fishing, and the object was for us to find out just a little bit about what it was like to walk in their shoes. (I apologize, that’s a  poorly used idiom because Duggie , for obvious reasons, doesn’t own any shoes).

The Author contemplating how to select a fly whilst trapped in a wheelchair.

We convened at “La Ferme” in  Franschoek, on a gorgeous autumn day, a beautifully landscaped oasis of shallow stocked ponds, with level grass banks and reasonable back-cast room. (I was to find that “level ground” is an entirely fictional concept, and that what may appear level from a bipedal perspective isn’t quite the same sitting down propelled on wheels by aching shoulder muscles.)

The Venue looks easily accessible, but in truth , even these manicured lawns hold hidden menace if you are confined.

It is worth noting that La Ferme is one of very few if not the only wheel chair accessible fishing location locally, rather like the concept of “level ground” the idea of “wheelchair accessibility” is equally open to interpretation. Even here, where the slopes are gentle, the ground reasonably firm, and access doesn’t require negotiation of steps and such, there are no wheelchair friendly ablutions, and negotiating slightly sloping grass banks turns out to be more like climbing el Capitan when viewed from a mobile chair.

Dougie had arranged for some local “celebrity anglers” to participate: the likes of Tom Sutcliffe, SA’s preeminent fly fishing author, David Karpul and Matt Rich (both seasoned competitive anglers), Gordon Van Der Spuy (Fly tying aficionado whose alter ego Fanie Visagie provides informative and entertaining fly tying education on line and in print), Craig Thom (consummate innovator and owner of the local fly shop Stream X), Louis de Jager (CPS secretary), Randolf Sloan, Garth Niewenhuis, and Luke Pannel…

The concept being that not only would we all experience the limitations of fishing on wheels but that we might just come up with some good suggestions as to how one could make fishing in such circumstances a bit easier or at least more efficient. (The guys had already come up with a design of a swivel chair that could be fitted easily to a rubber duck style boat, something which could benefit both disabled and able bodied anglers alike).

This boat chair, designed and built by disabled anglers could prove a boon to everyone.

So the rules were set : no using your feet, no jumping out of the chair because you are frustrated that you left your net back at the car . (a rule that incidentally Maddy Rich saw fit to break in the first five minutes). To tackle the day as though you genuinely had no other choice but to stay put in the chair and fish as best you could. Trust me, the temptation to pull a miraculous and Lazarus like resurrection proved to be exceptionally tempting at times.

Competitive angler Maddy Rich brings all his gear, forgets the net and pulls a “Lazarus” in the first ten minutes.

So what was it like? Having thought about it in advance I figured that perhaps casting from a sitting position may be more tricky and limit distance or presentation. In reality that proved to be less of an issue than expected. One is of course lower and movement restricted to a point. Equally it is not that easy to just change from “open” to “closed” stance either.  Something which to us is as minor as putting an alternative foot to the front, requires unclipping the brakes and rotating the wheels into a different position before resetting the brake again, all of which turned out much harder than you may imagine, certainly a great deal more troublesome than moving one foot.

The lack of height also means that obstructions, fences and trees behind one are problematic, and I lived in fear of hooking up on a high branch as climbing a tree to retrieve a favourite pattern was going to be difficult if not impossible. (I figure these guys probably lose more flies than the rest of us, not least because looking behind one is hard to do trapped in this shoulder powered conveyance).

The real difficulty proved to be simple mobility, yes the lawn was fairly flat, but wheel spin in sandy spots proved absolutely exhausting, and the idea of moving to the other side of the small dam to where the fish were rising felt more like planning a military operation than a simple stroll. Pick up net, rod, flybox etc and balance precariously on lap. Unclip brakes and wheel spin in the sand. Rest shoulders, try again, drop fly box, reverse, wheel spin,  find you can’t reach fly box from a sitting position, reverse, get stuck in sand again, strain back muscles trying to make some contortionist style move to reach aforementioned fly box etc.

Even the youngsters tried out what it was like, here Gordon van der Spuy’s son Stephan (age 10) fishes from a chair. (he caught a fish whilst sitting down too!!).

What would have been a three minute amble in normal circumstances proved to be a 15 minute struggle against gravity and lack of traction, it was rapidly becoming apparent that what we may view as insignificant adjustments  become , when bound to a wheelchair monumental , frustrating and exhausting hurdles.

Then there are some other unexpected complications: the dam in question has a very minor slope at the water’s edge, one that an able bodied angler wouldn’t so much as notice. But now, facing down the slope trapped in a chair, subject to the vagaries of slipping wheels and questionable brakes the slight slope raised all manner of fears and insecurities I hadn’t planned for.  “If I go down there will I get back up?”….. If I fall in what will happen then?  If I had no legs would I drown, submerged and dying in an undignified struggle, tangled in aluminium tubing?

To make matters worse, the construction of these ponds means that there are a few inches of exposed wire mesh all the way around the water’s edge, a wonderfully efficient fly snagging boundary of absolutely no consequence to an upright fisherman with flexibility and mobility on his side. Stuck in a chair, should you hook a fly in this mesh, you are faced with a near death-defying manoeuver; edging the chair dangerously close to the water on the aforementioned slope and having it teeter precariously as you reach forward to retrieve the fly. All the while preparing to make your sedentary belly flop as elegant as possible should the worse happen, images of death wrapped in aluminium tubing still much on one’s mind. The only really viable alternative is simply to suffer the indignity of deliberately snapping off with the fly no more than two feet from you. Two feet , it turns out, can be a very long way trapped in a chair.

These are all things that able-bodied anglers never so much as think about, certainly I never did.

Fishing from a wheel chair isn’t unlike angling from a small boat, one is confined there is limited space and maneuverability, but at least most boats are designed to minimize annoying line traps, with smooth surfaces and rebated hatch cover handles.

The organizers Duggie Wessles and Mark Schwartz did a great job

The chairs offered no such consideration for the angler, it proved to have the line snagging qualities of Charlie Brown’s famous kite eating tree, cross pollinated with velcro. The brakes, footrests, wheels, bolts, spokes and more, maliciously trying to grab the fly line at every moment.  A simple adjustment of casting angle would result in the line trapped under a tyre, in extricating that the fly would hook a spoke, and in reaching for the fly in the spokes the chair would tip precariously towards the water. In short it was frustrating, and there I had been looking forward to a good excuse for an extended period of sitting down.

Yes we caught some fish, and to be honest some of the time sitting down whilst fishing was really rather pleasant, but it highlighted the battles that our less able hosts deal with on a daily basis.

On catching fish, that raised even more questions and problems, how to get one’s hands wet so as to handle the fish? How to try to keep it in the water whilst unhooking (you can’t). How to release the fish safely without risking your own life? Problems presented themselves at nearly every turn. I did at least realise I could wet my hands with the mesh of the net, and could release fish by putting them back in the net and dipping them into the water, but that took a bit of thought.

I should also mention that all participants were “wise/canny“ enough to tackle up before being confined. Try reaching the tip guide of your rod or unspooling tippet whilst sitting. There isn’t enough room, things get snagged, dropped and misplaced. That would have raised the frustration levels further still.

I have never really considered that having four functioning limbs might be a privilege, after all, one assumes that most people do. But it turns out that is the very nature of privilege, one imagines that you deserve your good fortune, that those better off are lucky and those less so either unlucky or in some way deserving of their fate.

Privilege it turns out doesn’t mean owning a mansion, a Maserati and a private section of the Madison; privilege can be as simple as being able to walk. By day’s end I realized that I was far more privileged than I had previously imagined.

To see Duggie and Mark, wheelchair bound compatriots, battle the same hurdles without the choice of getting up and walking at the end of the day, and for them to do so with such good humour and hospitality, that is truly humbling.

A great and interesting day. I suspect that I might take a bit more notice of the steps, the kerbs, the hills, the bumps, stairs and sloping banks in the future. I do hope that more venues will take greater consideration of the needs of people who aren’t as mobile as I am. It seems unfair that should you be unfortunate enough to lose the use of your legs that you should also have to give up your passion for fishing. Of course there are going to be limitations, but there are things that can be done to make at least some fishing more accessible. Boat ramps, wheelie boats, something as simple as a tarmac pathway, can mean the difference between someone being able to enjoy their passion or having to stay at home.

Corollary: In the three days since this event I have seen six cars with wheelchairs in the back, one assumes that they were there all the time, but now I notice them.. I suppose that is the point. 

 

 

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2 Responses to “A Chance to Sit Down”

  1. Craig Says:

    Nice article Tim

  2. paracaddis Says:

    Thanks Craig, food for thought for many I am sure.

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