• 73°

Fishing tournament: More than bass

Professional bass angler Greg Vinson was the big fisherman on the first day of the “Catch a Smile” Bass Fishing Tournament at Campbell Lakes on Friday, weighing in with a total of 24.9 pounds and hooking the big fish at 7 pounds.

Twelve BASS Elite anglers are participating in the benefit tournament for Outdoors Without Limits and each angler fishes the two-day tournament with a disabled person in the boat.

And, as competitive as the anglers are and, as much they like to land the big ones, the “Catch a Smile” tournament is about something more than fishing.

“It’s all about these kids and adults who are fishing with us,” said Pam Martin-Wells, who is the country’s top professional female angler. “I’ve had my day. This is about them. If I can put a smile on one face, then this has been more than worthwhile.”

Martin-Wells’ “day” includes the women’s all-time leading money winner, induction into the Legends of the Outdoors Hall of Fame and 12-time national champion.

She is easily recognized by Bassmaster fans but it still “floors” her when people come up and ask for her autograph.

“I’m just a small town girl who has had a chance to live my dream,” the Bainbridge, Georgia resident said.

For the disabled individuals who are fishing with the pros, the experience is their dream come true.

Seven months ago, Chance Veasey was a freshman on the University of Georgia baseball but a vehicle accident has left him wheelchair bound.

“Playing sports taught me to adjust to different situations,” he said.

“Now, I’m having to adjust to life in a wheelchair. I’m giving it all I’ve got just like I did in sports. Being out here today has been great. Knowing these professional anglers are willing to give their time to us just makes you feel good.”

Tony Luisi drove 17 hours from Vineland, New Jersey just to fish in the tournament.

“When I read about the tournament, I knew it was something I wanted to do,” he said. “When you have a disability, things like this just mean more to you. To get to fish with a pro like Greg Hackney is something that I’ll never forget. It’s a great experience and worth every minute the drive.”

Luisi said the Thursday night supper for the anglers was the first time he’d had catfish and hushpuppies.

“And, I’m a better person because of it,” he said, laughing.

Each of the disabled “anglers” caught a couple of fish and a couple of them brought in six-pounders.

The “Catch a Smile” tournament is about bringing awareness to Outdoors Without Limits as much as it is about bass fishing, said event organizer Christopher Campbell of Troy, who is a strong supporter of the Pike County OWL Chapter.

“I got interested in OWL through the Pike County Chapter’s Great Adventure deer hunt,” Campbell said. “Kirk Thomas, who is the co-founder and chief executive officer of OWL, asked me if I thought we could put together a BASS Elite fishing tournament. I knew it would be a challenge but I thought we could make it happen.”

Campbell said it took a lot of hard work and the dedication of a many volunteers to make it happen.

“It’s been a good tournament and I’m very pleased with every aspect of it,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun and a real success. Hopefully, it will raise awareness of all the good that OWL does. On Saturday, kids and adults with disabilities will be out here to fish. They will have the opportunity to do what others get to do every day.”

Hank Parker, whose Outdoor Magazine is one of the most popular fishing programs on television, is also a spokesperson for OWL. He said the “Catch a Smile” and “Bream Buster” fishing events will bring greater awareness to OWL.

“This tournament says a lot about these world-class anglers and their commitment to Outdoors Without Limits,” Parker said.

“They have a horrendous schedule yet they have taken time to be here. This tournament will be televised on Hank Parker’s Outdoor Magazine to 3.5 million people from January through May-June. That will be a lot of exposure for OWL and for the ‘Catch a Smile Tournament.’ This is a great tournament. The only ones not smiling out here today were the crickets. And, we’re looking forward to Saturday and another day of great fishing fun.”

The “Catch a Smith” tournament is sponsored by OWL and Campbell Enterprises and will benefit national OWL organization and the Pike County OWL Chapter.