Showcasing determination, inclusivity and the power of outdoor recreation, Ability Montana hosted Ability Days, where individuals with disabilities get the chance to experience the joy of fly-fishing and explore the beauty of the Madison Valley.
Michael Manhardt is a quadriplegic fisherman. We caught up with him at Camp BullWheel in the picturesque Madison Valley on a historic homestead where the original bull wheel stands.
“Beautiful. I don't know, it was just good company good fishing, good weather,” Manhardt said. “Early July like this, beautiful.”
The bull wheel is the perfect emblem for a group striving for long, active lives.
Extraordinary volunteers assist people with disabilities to independently go fishing from a boat. Through decades of innovative engineering, they've created an accessible fishing haven where guests can enjoy the thrill of ripping lips.
Ability Montana partnered with Camp BullWheel to promote independence and enrich the lives of people living with disabilities. Their recreation coordinator, David Poole, ensures that everyone's recreational goals are met, mainly focusing on fly-fishing and river activities.
“Here at Ability Days, we just want to promote independence, and we want to get people out and on the river to really get into some fish and do some catch-up,” Poole said.
At Ability Days, wheelchair users enjoyed a three-day camping trip that brought people from all over Montana to joke around, trade secrets on how to shred powder on a sit ski and share stories of how they overcome their disability on a daily basis.
“I always said to myself, ‘If somebody can do that, then what am I, like watching somebody else in a chair? I'm like, I have to -- you can do that. I can do that.’” Manhardt said.
“There's so much of that when you're recovering, of like learning and learning, watching people and watching them go about their day and like, wow, that person gets along pretty darn good. You know, it's like it just takes time,” he continued.
The participants, including avid and novice fly-fishermen, are given the opportunity to explore the Madison River from the comfort of one of Camp BullWheel’s customized rafts. The rafts are equipped with steel diamond floor plates that create a solid platform to park your trusted steed.
“We would always go float fishing, and it evolved into this float fishing camp. But initially there were no accessible float fishing craft,” Camp BullWheel founder Peter Pauwels said.
The magic behind Camp BullWheel lies in the dynamic duo of Pauwels and Poole. They design adaptive equipment and position wheelchair fishermen for optimum casting, ensuring every guest has an unforgettable chance to land a catch on a world-renowned fishery.
Guests also enjoy their encounters with the abundant wildlife. A great relationship with the local game warden allows exclusive fishing opportunities in many sections closed to boat fishing and lends more chances to see, or catch, a piece of what the Madison has to offer.
“The pole, you can strap on your hand,” Manhardt demonstrated. “And then that way I can still cast but I don't tie flies, and I don't land fish anymore, which is the stuff I hated. Anyways, and Peter seems to love it. So why not?”
Ability Montana is dedicated to expanding opportunities for individuals with disabilities. They actively seek volunteers, donations and support to maintain and grow their adaptive recreation programs.
The partnership between Ability Montana and Camp BullWheel is an inspiring example of how adaptive recreation can empower individuals with disabilities. Their efforts create an inclusive environment where everyone can experience the thrill of fly fishing and the beauty of nature.
Click here to learn more about their initiatives or how you can get involved.