Colour Photo: By Bruno Schlumberger, The Ottawa Citizen
Michael Hayes was the originator of the Blind Anglers International Tournament, now in its 18th year. He's also busy organizing curling competitions.
Blind anglers take the BAIT:
Annual fishing derby hooks participants from as far as London and Lake Placid, but it wouldn't exist without the ceaseless efforts of Ottawan Michael Hayes
PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
BYLINE: Mark Anderson
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen
It would be both inaccurate and unjust to peg the success of an event as long running and logistically complex as the Blind Anglers International Tournament (BAIT) on the shoulders of a single man. Indeed, the annual fishing derby, currently underway an hour west of Ottawa in Westmeath, Ont., relies on the efforts of hundreds of volunteers from Lions Clubs throughout Ontario and Western Quebec, as well as dozens of professional and semi−professional anglers who donate their time, boats, gas, fishing gear and expertise. St. John's Ambulance is involved, as is the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Canadian Guide Dog School. The Nangore resort provides lodging and facilities, the town of Westmeath puts on lavish opening and closing ceremonies, and the ladies' auxiliary furnishes a four−star buffet. And then, of course, there are the visually impaired anglers themselves, the scores of men and women from as far away as London, Ontario and Lake Placid, New York, who've been participating in the tournament for the last 18 years. In short, BAIT is an exercise in collaborative volunteerism. But it's fair to say the tournament wouldn't exist without the efforts of a single, exceptional man, an Ottawan who, in the words of Lions Club spokesman Al Page "doesn't let a handicap get in the way of life, and never, ever stops."
Michael Hayes was a 40−year−old traveling salesman when his world was altered, profoundly and forever. "I woke up one morning and my right eye was sore and bloodshot. A day later I couldn't see out of it." A trip to the doctor resulted in a shocking diagnosis: opto−histoplasmosis, a fungus that grows on bird and bat droppings, and in the case of Mr. Hayes, left his retina criss−crossed with tiny scars. The doctors eventually traced the source of the disease back to a bout of severe illness Mr. Hayes had suffered as a three−year−old growing up on a farm in Low, Que. The farm raised poultry, among other animals. Thirty−seven years later, the disease was revealing itself in a particularly terrifying way: Mr. Hayes had gone blind in one eye.
He took the blow with equanimity.
"I'd worked all my life, logging more than three million miles as a professional driver and salesman. Now I had lost the use of one eye. Fine, I'd still be able to work, still be able to drive and earn a living." Disease Strikes Twice Three months later the disease struck again, erasing all but three per cent of the vision in his other eye. With that, Mr. Hayes was plunged into a world of darkness and despair. "I'd wake up in the middle of the night screaming, the bedclothes soaked in perspiration. It was a really awful time, filled with bitterness, anxiety and depression, not only for me, but for my wife and son."
Initially, he was reluctant to seek help or take advantage of the services available. "I didn't want to go to CNIB. I had the impression they'd give me Braille lessons and a white cane, and maybe a tin cup. Then someone told me if I registered with them I could get access to the greatest collection of talking books in the country, as well as a free bus pass.
"That resonated, because I'd gone through the audio books at the public library, except for the romances, which I didn't think I could abide."
As a client of the CNIB he met a member of the Lions Club who encouraged him to come out to a meeting. "I ended up joining the Lions, which turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me, because it gave me a community and a sense of purpose. The physical consequences of a loss of vision for an adult are fairly easy to understand and deal with these days, particularly with the technology available. The difficulty is overcoming the debilitating emotional effects."
Lions Club Awards
The Lions Club gave Mr. Hayes an outlet for leadership skills the career salesman never knew he had. His first year as a member, he was voted Lion of the Year by his chapter; the second he received the District Governor's Award; the third an International Leadership Award. He also planted the seed of an idea: why not have the Lions take a few blind people fishing every once in a while? "Fishing was one of the ways I used to deal with stress before I went blind, and I missed it. I thought it would be fun and emotionally rehabilitative to get not only myself, but other blind people out on the water." With the blessing and support of the Lions, Mr. Hayes began scrounging around for cut−rate fishing tackle. His search took him to the Voyageur Depot tackle shop on McArthur Avenue, where proprietor Paul Tessier suggested he get in touch with Tom Brooks at Shimano of Canada Ltd., one of the country's largest wholesalers of angling gear. Mr. Brooks in turn suggested that instead of the Lions Club attempting to outfit blind anglers from scratch, the club might look to partner with Ontario's extensive network of professional and semi−pro tournament anglers.
"As it turned out, there were about 300 of them down at Rideau Ferry, competing for $50,000 in prize money," says Mr. Hayes. "We went down, presented our idea for a blind fishing tournament, and they basically said 'how many boats to you want?'" Thus, the first pike and walleye derby for the blind took place, 18 years ago today, attended by many of Canada's most celebrated anglers, including Bob Izumi of the nationally televised Real Fishing series, Reno and Angelo Viola of Fish'n Canada, and local tournament legend Big Jim McLaughlin. ."The pros loved the idea from the outset," says Al Page. "Not only was it a way for them to give back to the sport they love, but since the BAIT tournament takes place in advance of bass season, it gives them an opportunity to tune their boats and motors, test their equipment, and generally get ready for tournament season."
Many, like retired school teacher and semi−pro angler Wincell Spence, have continued to participate year after year. "My first year I was scared to death," says Mr. Spence. "I had no idea what to expect, how to fish with two blind anglers in the boat. After I got over my initial jitters, though, I was hooked right away. They're just such an amazing group of people, not only the blind anglers but the Lions, who come up here year after year and work their butts off all weekend." As for the logistics of fishing with visually impaired anglers, Mr. Spence says the strategy depends on their level of experience and degree of blindness. "Some are completely blind, some have tunnel vision, some have peripheral vision. At this time of year, my main strategy is to position the boat so the anglers cast within 10 to 30 feet from the shoreline."
It's sometimes easier said than done. "I had one guy who was a very experienced angler, and he could cast a mile. At least a half−dozen times we had to beach the boat to retrieve his spoon from the bushes. Other times, the anglers can't get the hang of casting at all, at which point I simply move the boat along and have them troll."
Such was the case last year when Mr. Spence was guiding a woman named Penny Leclair, who was not only blind but deaf from birth. "She couldn't cast and was getting frustrated, so I put a worm on her hook and had her drag it behind the boat. An hour before the end of competition she said she had a bite, and when I looked back the rod was bent double into the motor. I thought, 'oh no, she's caught the propeller,' but when I went back there to help it wasn't the motor but the tournament−winning pike." As it happened, Ms. Leclair had hooked a small perch, which the 11−pound pike had grabbed and was holding onto. "The pike was so intent on keeping its meal, we were able to net it," Mr. Spence recalls. As if that wasn't enough of a miracle, Ms. Leclair suddenly began to hear things. Six months before the tournament she'd received an auditory implant, the effects of which were just beginning to be felt. "For the first time she was hearing things like the slap of waves against the boat, the sound of geese honking," says Mr. Spence. "It was absolutely magical."
Blind Bonspiel Planned
As for Mr. Hayes, his days as an organizer are far from over. Four years ago he was encouraged to join a group of blind curlers here in Ottawa. His team ended up winning not only the league championship at the Ottawa Curling Club, but the Ontario provincial championship in Kingston. Since then he's been working on organizing a national blind curling championship, with representation from every province in the country. The bonspiel is tentatively set for the first week in February, 2007. "I can't say my life's perfect," he reflects. "The anger and depression come back from time to time. But I recharge myself very quickly by interacting with other blind people and with the Lions. If I can get some inspiration and encouragement in a positive environment, that's all I need to keep going." And that, in the end, is the goal and reality of the blind anglers tournament. "For some of our blind anglers, this is the highlight of their year. They're old and frail and they never get out of the house except for this tournament. For others, it's opened their eyes to new possibilities, new sports like curling or bowling. Either
way, it's a hoot."