Fishing blind

On the water at the Anglers International Tournament

 

Near Westmeath, Ontario, the ancient, curving sweep of the Ottawa River has deposited a half-mile of soft, brown sand. Here one finds Nangor Resort, a series of discrete cottages anchored by a main building with a restaurant, lounge and sundry housekeeping units. For the last 18 years, through four different owners, Nangor has played host to a fishing tournament unlike any other the world over.

Not that you'd know it at a glance. Arriving at Nangor during the first weekend of June, you might think you'd stumbled upon a typical Canadian fishing derby. Here's the parking lot, full of trailered bass boats, 225-horsepower rockets bristling with carbon-fibre rods and state-of-the-art electronics. There's the bustling registration table and, to the left, a professional-looking weigh-in station, complete with raised stage, scoreboard and PA system. Ontario tournament veterans might even recognize a few familiar faces: Chris Roy, Bobby Bird and Wincell Spence of the Renegade Bass Tour; Brian Wilson of the South Eastern Bass Open; and Mike Augot, the 2006 Petawawa Bassmasters' Angler of the Year.

But then there are the dogs.

Off to one side, a dozen or more ludicrously well-behaved Labs and retrievers are studiously ignoring one another as they await instruction from their masters. They're all wearing the distinctive harnesses of their trade-seeing-eye dog-providing the first clear sign that this is no ordinary gathering. Not that the name of the event didn't already give it away, however: the Blind Anglers International Tournament, or BAIT, is Canada's first and only fishing competition for men and women who are totally or legally blind.

The tournament is the brainchild of Michael Hayes, a one-time travelling salesman. A little more than two decades ago, when Hayes was 40, his life was altered, profoundly and forever. “I woke up one morning and my right eye was sore and bloodshot,” recalls the tall, angular gent. “A day later, I couldn't see out of it.”

A trip to the doctor resulted in a shocking diagnosis: his eye had been infected with histoplasmosis, a fungus that grows on bird and bat droppings, leaving his retina cross-hatched with tiny scars. The doctors eventually traced the source back to a bout of severe illness Hayes had suffered >>as a three-year-old growing up on a farm in Lowe, Quebec-a farm that contained, among other animals, poultry. Thirty-seven years later, the disease was revealing itself in a particularly terrifying way: he'd gone blind in one eye.

Hayes initially 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.”

Three months later the disease struck again, erasing all but three per cent of the vision in his other eye. With that, he was plunged into a world of shadowy 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 also for my wife and son.”

Shortly thereafter, Hayes joined the Lions Club, one of the world's largest philanthropic organizations, and one with an 80-year history of serving the blind. It was there he floated the idea for a blind fishing tournament. “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.”

To his surprise and delight, the Lions jumped at the opportunity, raising funds and mobilizing volunteers from more than 50 chapters across eastern Ontario and western Quebec. The first BAIT pike and walleye tournament was attended by Canada's angling royalty, people such as fishing TV personalities Bob Izumi and Angelo Viola, and local tournament legend Big Jim McLaughlin. They've since been replaced by a cadre of local pros, most of whom return year after year, guiding the same blind anglers in a tournament that, despite its paltry $400 winner's purse, is in many ways the most important, rewarding and life-affirming stop on the season's competitive angling circuit.

Arriving Friday afternoon, I have no idea what to expect. I certainly don't anticipate being put to work, but as I soon discover, everyone pitches in at a BAIT tournament-even the journalists.

“Mark Anderson…ah yes, you're a shepherd,” says Lion Jim Duff, when I present myself at the registration table.

“I am?”

“Yes, you're responsible for one of the blind anglers, Lawrence Euteneier.” He hands me a form. “Don't worry,” he adds, noting my confusion. “It's easy. All you have to do is get Lawrence to the opening banquet tonight, wake him up at 6:30 tomorrow morning, help him get dressed if he needs it, make sure he gets to breakfast on time and take him to his boat for the 9 a.m. trickle start.”

“I'm a what? A shepherd?”

“Yes, yes,” says Lion Jim. “It says so right here on your form. Off you go.”

I'm a tad concerned. I've never been around blind people before. I track down Hayes in his room. “Yeah,” he confirms, “I signed you up as a shepherd. I thought you'd get a kick out of it.”

“But—”

“Just a minute, let me introduce you to Lawrence.” He takes me by the arm and leads me—how, I'm not sure—to a tall, bearded man accompanied by a most unusual guide dog, a big, boisterous Burmese mountain dog named Maestro.

“This here's Mark Anderson,” says Hayes.

“Pleased to meet you,” I say, sticking out my hand for a traditional handshake that goes unrequited, leaving me stranded in a salutatory no man's land. I mentally kick myself for being a fool: of course, he can't see my proffered hand. He's blind. My awkwardness quickly gives way to fascination, however, as Euteneier outlines his strategy for the next day's tournament, a plan that's as audacious and iconoclastic as his choice of seeing-eye dog.

For the last 18 years, the BAIT event has been structured the same way: one or two blind anglers are paired with a sighted expert who contributes the boat, tackle, gas and expertise necessary to fish the competition. Each pair or threesome fishes as a team, with prizes going to the group with the biggest pike, the biggest walleye and the heaviest combined weight for a maximum of six fish.

Euteneier is determined to alter this model by competing solo in the world's first fishing boat designed specifically for blind anglers. He's been working on the system for the last six months, cobbling together three different types of sonar, a talking compass and a special GPS unit, which he hopes will allow him to navigate his 12-foot Genesis IV Porta-Bote without help from a sighted pro. “I lost the last of my peripheral vision when I was 22, and after that I couldn't fish by myself anymore,” he explains. “Last fall, I decided to do something about it, and began work on a prototype blind fishing boat.” This competition would mark its maiden voyage.

Euteneier is clearly excited, as are the rest of the competitors. “It speaks to the notion of independence,” says Hayes. “It's a very human thing to not want to constantly be asking other people for help. When I lost my vision and became dependent on my wife to get around, I felt guilty about asking her to take me places, and she felt guilty about sometimes not being able to because she was working full time.”

Such dependence, he explains, constantly reminds you of your loss, and that's what Euteneier is working to overcome. Says Hayes: “What he's done in developing a blind fishing boat is really incredible.”

Incredible is a word that describes more than one story at BAIT. Penny Leclair, for example, has spent almost her entire life not only blind, but also deaf, the result of a genetic condition known as Usher syndrome. She attended her first BAIT tournament four years ago, competing with her legally blind husband, David, and pro Wincell Spence, a retired high-school principal. Two years ago, against all odds, she won the big pike trophy with an 11-pound monster. “She couldn't cast and was getting frustrated, so I put a worm on her hook and had her drag it behind the boat,” recalls Spence. “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, there goes my favourite bass rod.' But when I went back there to help, it wasn't the motor but the tournament-winning pike.”

As it transpired, Leclair had hooked a small perch, which the toothy leviathan had then grabbed and was holding onto. “The pike was so intent on keeping its meal, we were able to net it,” says Spence. As if that weren't miracle enough for one day, 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 manifest themselves. “For the first time she was hearing things like the slap of waves against the boat, the sound of geese honking,” says Spence. “It was absolutely magical.”

And then there are Mike Augot and Mark Miller, who, along with two other anglers from Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, dub themselves the Afghanistan Bassmasters. For them, competitive bass fishing is a welcome reprieve from the war in the Middle East. That Augot and Miller take time from their busy schedules to compete in the BAIT tournament shouldn't come as a surprise. Indeed, the Canadian military has been instrumental in supporting blind Canadians for close to a century—returning First World War veterans organized the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, while Second World War vets founded the Canadian Council of the Blind.

What is surprising, to outsiders at least, is the extreme gentleness with which professional warriors such as Augot and Miller interact with their blind charges. For the past eight years, Augot has been fishing the BAIT tournament with 64-year-old Grace Leech, who's not only blind, but physically and mentally handicapped. Over the years, they've formed such a tight bond that Leech refuses to fish with anyone else. It doesn't hurt that the pair have had more than their share of tournament success together. “I remember the first time I took her out and she caught a fish, she was almost crying,” says Augot. “She held it in her arms and said, ‘Oh my God, it's alive.'”

Last year Augot and Leech shattered BAIT records with a total catch of more than 52 pounds, including a whopping 17-pound pike Leech had caught trolling a floating Rapala along a weedline. “It was a truly massive fish, and Grace had a terrible time getting it to the boat,” says Augot. “Needless to say, she was thrilled.”

New to the tournament, meanwhile, is Erika Nordstrom, a 44-year-old former bus driver from Ottawa. Fourteen months ago, she came down with a seemingly innocuous flu virus that ended up attacking her optical nerves, quickly eroding vision in both eyes. “In the space of a month and a half, I went from 20-20 vision to almost complete blindness,” says the athletic, statuesque blond, speaking in quiet, measured tones. “I'm still angry, angry at what God did to me.”

It makes intuitive sense that those who suffer most upon going blind are those who had previously lived the biggest lives, and in the history of BAIT, it's unlikely anyone has lived more fully, more adventurously, than Nordstrom. Born in Montana, where she was taught to fly fish by her uncle Wally Columbus-a direct descendant of Christopher Columbus-Nordstrom moved to Alaska with her Norwegian mother when she was four years old. There, they lived in a remote cabin 80 kilometres from the nearest human habitation, a cabin frequently visited by wolves and grizzly bears.

They then moved to Japan, Hong Kong, Taipei, Norway, back to the U.S., and finally Canada, where young Nordstrom became a Canadian citizen at age 10. Six years later, she enrolled in skipper school at Vancouver's Douglas College, learned to navigate by compass, sextant and stars, leased a 33-foot fishing boat and, at age 17, became the youngest commercial fishing captain in B.C. history.

In 1982, she joined the U.S. Navy as a navigational petty officer and sailed the world for two years. Docked in Taipei, she fell in love with a teak sailing yacht and was granted a six-week leave of absence to sail the vessel back to Canada. Unable to find a crew, she set out by herself, ran into a fierce storm and flipped the boat completely upside down. “When the yacht righted itself, I was in the water, being dragged at the end of a 50-foot rope, feeling like shark bait,” says Nordstrom. She eventually pulled herself back on board, only to find her radio and electronic navigational gear had been knocked out; she made it home using celestial navigation.

Since then, Nordstrom has sailed some of the most challenging and dangerous waters on the globe. She's repelled pirates with firearms. She has a long, jagged scar down one arm, reputedly from a knife fight she won't talk about. And now? Now she gets around with a white cane, and admits to being terrified crossing busy streets.

Tomorrow, she competes in her first BAIT tournament, on the tournament's first all-female team.

I remember anticipating plenty of adversity at the 2004 World Fly Fishing Championships in Slovakia. The rivers were unfamiliar, my grasp of Czech-style nymphing was rudimentary at best, and the competition posed by Europe's most accomplished grayling specialists was daunting, to say the least. I could see it would be a tough week. What I couldn't see was that, well, I wouldn't be able to see, that I'd be standing on the shores of the River Vah in the dim light of dawn, struggling to thread a length of hair-like tippet through the eye of a gnat-sized fly. What the frig? My eyesight had always been a perfect 20-20. I squinted. I closed one eye and screwed up the other. I made another pass with the tippet, and scored another clean miss. Sigh.

Since then, I've taken to wearing dime-store glasses whenever I'm confronted with a restaurant menu, newspaper or low-light fly-tying situation. I haven't been to see an eye doctor; my condition, I figure, is no more or less serious than retinal flattening brought about by the accumulation of years. In short, I'm getting old. But what if my eyesight continued to deteriorate? What if I awoke one day unable to see anything at all? How would I survive? More importantly, how would I be able to fish?

I suspect my other senses-hearing, touch, even smell-would come to the fore in compensation. Still, how could accidents be prevented? For answers, I search out three of the pros-Roy, Bird and Spence-whom I find quaffing beer and kibitzing in front of their Ranger bass boats on the eve of competition. My question about safety elicits an explosion of laughter. “I've been fishing the tournament for 18 years, and I've seen it all,” says Bird. “The blind anglers have caught me, they've caught trees, they've caught each other and, on occasion, they've even caught fish.”

Still, either through luck or preparation, there have been no serious injuries in all the years of competition. The number one rule, the three pros agree, is to expect the unexpected. “My first year, I'll never forget,” says Roy. “I was fishing with two blind anglers, and I was scared stiff. We got out on the water, and one of them says, ‘Look, do me a favour: if you see me looking a little green, pop one of these nitro pills under my tongue.' I'm like, holy Jeez, what have I got myself into!”

Then there was the time a blind angler refused to sit at the front of the boat because he was afraid the waves would jar his glass eyes out of his head, causing them to roll around the deck like marbles. Or the considerable distraction posed by a comely female angler with a penchant for doffing her top mid-competition. “The other blind anglers didn't get much out of the show, but the pros sure did,” says Bird, laughing.

That night, bunked down by myself at nearby Cedar Grove Cabins along the shores of the slow-moving Ottawa River, I try to fall asleep, still consumed by the thought of what it would be like to be suddenly stricken blind. And again I'm concerned not so much with how I would survive, but with how I would be able to fish.

The next morning, the dawn sun burns a heavy fog off the river: it's going to be a hot one. By 7 a.m., Nangor Resort is buzzing with activity. As the blind anglers and their canine companions take breakfast in the restaurant, the pros launch their boats with the aid of a local farmer and his tractor-yet another person volunteering his time to make the BAIT tournament a success. Bird finds me down at the beach, where the bass boats are lined up like sharks, awaiting the 9 a.m. starting gun. “You really want to know what it's like fishing blind?” he asks me. “Come on, I'll take you out.”

I root through my car for a suitable blindfold and come up with a long athletic sock: perfect. Then I join Bird and photographer Fred Cattroll for a short, fast run out into a weed-choked bay. I tie my makeshift blindfold around my eyes and Bird leads me to the bow-mounted swivel chair. He takes my wrist and puts the butt of a spinning rod in my hand. I feel the weight of a large, in-line spinner dangling from the end of the line. “Cast it out there,” says the pro.

“Where?”

“Straight ahead. This bay's full of little hammer-handle pike. You should be able to catch one on every cast.”

I grope for the bail, flip it open and cock my arm. “Is everyone clear?”

“Yep, you're good to go,” says Bird.

I let fly and listen for the splash. It comes sooner than I expect; my trajectory's off, causing the spinner to slam into the water no more than 30 feet from the boat. I reel in and launch another bomb, this one arching too high, with the result that it too lands short. Through trial and error, I begin to gradually refine my throws, casting longer and longer lines. I never do get over my sense of nervousness, though, a persistent feeling that my boat mates are in grave danger, that one of my casts will lodge a treblehook in someone's cheek.

The other thing I don't do is catch a fish. “This is not good,” frets Bird. “You're using my go-to spinner. You should be pulling them out one after another.” The pike have apparently gone off the feed overnight. Bird is not happy. “Winning the competition is nice, but the main thing is for each of our blind anglers to catch at least one fish. People wait all year for this, and if you can't catch them a fish or two, it really hurts.”

We pack it in and head back to shore a half-hour before the start of official competition. Scoring at the 19th annual BAIT pike and walleye tournament, it appears, will be tough. At 9 a.m. sharp, the first boat leaves the dock, roaring off at 70 mph, leaving a 40-foot rooster tail in its wake. The last anglers to leave are Lawrence Euteneier in his 12-foot blind fishing boat, followed by pro Marco Potvin and me, who will be shadowing Euteneier to make sure he doesn't get into trouble. Almost immediately, the difficulty in piloting a boat blind-even one equipped with stereo sonar and a talking compass-becomes apparent.

Powered by nothing more than an electric trolling motor, Euteneier's progress down the bay is slow and erratic as he adjusts and readjusts his trajectory in accordance with the beeps and whistles emitting from his sonar. “The problem,” he calls over to us, “is that I have to try a direction before I can get a correction. It looks like I'm zigging and zagging, and I am, but until I train myself to interpret what I'm hearing from the sonar, it's the only way I can move.”

There are other problems, too: one of the sonar systems appears to have a range well in excess of the 25 feet it's rated for; another is aimed too low, and is picking up waves as if they were obstacles. Potvin and I shout instructions as best we can and, working as a team, we eventually find ourselves in a fishy-looking piece of water where Euteneier begins casting. Sure enough, he hooks his first pike, a small but countable fish of about a pound. And so we work our way down the bay, slowly filling Potvin's livewell with pike and walleye-none of which are large enough, however, to instill confidence come weigh-in time.

The all-women team, meanwhile, is faring better, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Erika Nordstrom, who accounts for four of her team's six fish, including a 2.3-pound walleye that will prove to be the largest of the day. “What can I say? I'm a Pisces. Fish naturally gravitate towards me,” she will later say, accepting her trophy and executing a wiggly little fish dance at the weigh-in. The big win, however, belongs to Mark Miller and blind angler Daniel Gervais, whose six-pike limit tops out at a little more than 14 pounds-nowhere near last year's record haul of 52 pounds, but good enough to take this year's Catch of the Day trophy and the $400 cheque that goes with it.

Two weeks after the end of the tournament, I give Nordstrom a call to see how she's doing. It takes awhile to connect; she's spending most evenings racing boats out of Ottawa's Britannia Yacht Club, where her experience as a competitive sailor is much in demand. I ask her how she liked BAIT, and whether she'd consider returning next year. “I had a blast,” she says. “I kind of figured that a bunch of blind people heaving sharp objects into the water would be a hoot, and it was.”

On a more serious note, she says the company of people in general, and blind people in particular, is a necessary balm to the fear and anger that continue to haunt her when she's alone with her thoughts. “When I'm around other people I do a lot of laughing and joking. But sitting at home not working is really, really difficult. Does suicide come into my thoughts? I'd never do it, I have too much respect for God and life, but I'd be lying if I said the thought doesn't creep into my mind every so often.”

As for Lawrence Euteneier, he's busy refining his blind fishing boat. “I've perfected the stereo sonar, so I'm getting readings from port, starboard and dead ahead. But I need a mechanism to raise and lower the sonar mini-guides to minimize bounce-back from the waves.” He's particularly enthusiastic about a recent phone call he received from U.K.-based blind adventurer Miles Hilton-Barber, who, along with co-pilot Storm Smith, recently flew a microlight aircraft 22,000 kilometres from London to Sydney, Australia. It seems Hilton-Barber wants to add bass fishing to his resumé—which already includes mountain climbing and ultra-marathon racing—and has asked Euteneier to take him out on the water.

When I mention Nordstrom and her ongoing emotional struggle, however, Euteneier becomes pensive. “The real challenge with going blind is not so much the world closing in from lack of sight, it's the psychological box it puts you in,” he says. “You have to push those walls out and go further than you have ever gone before. If you stop pushing those walls, you stop living.”

And fishing.