, 2014

Smith team overcomes obstacles
to weigh in winning fish

by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

KILMARNOCK—Sawyer “Joe” Smith of Herndon and Little Bay wasn’t going to let a few obstacles like a dead battery, four-foot waves and a sandbar keep him from weighing in his son’s prize-winning Spanish mackerel.

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Travis, 15, a special needs youth, had reeled in the 2.2-pound fish on his own and proud dad Joe was going to do everything within his power and tournament regulations to get it to the weigh-in station at Chesapeake Boat Basin before the 4 p.m. deadline of the fourth annual Lancaster County Little League Spanish Mackerel Fishing Tournament.

With tears in his eyes at last Saturday night’s award ceremony, Joe recapped the story of how he swam his son’s fish to the dock.

“This meant so much to us,” he said, his voice cracking. “It was his last year to participate in the youth angler category. This was so special.”

Travis is on the autism spectrum with speech and articulation challenges and attends the Options Program for students with special needs at Paul VI High School in Fairfax. He actively participates in the Special Olympics, competing in soccer, basketball, skiing, tennis and track and field. But there aren’t Special Olympics fishing categories.

The Smiths, who have participated in the tournament all four years, had two boats fishing last Saturday, one manned by the Smith’s eldest son, Sander, 17, and the other, Fish Don’t Care, captained by Joe. A 20-year-old 22-foot Angler, Fish Don’t Care, like the other boats in the tournament that day, had taken a beating.

“It was rough,” he said. “It was survival out there.”

All the jostling from 10-20 knot winds and two-to-four foot waves off Windmill Point had damaged some wiring and resulted in a drainage of the batteries.

“We discovered this late in the morning after snagging one of our lines on a crab pot off of Mosquito Point in the Rappahannock,” said Joe. “We had ventured over to the river to simply get out of the...waves on the north side of Windmill Point. When I attempted to restart the boat, I realized the batteries were nearly dead and we couldn’t start the boat.”

Joe and his crew, which included Travis, Kelric Johnson of Herndon and Daniel Chisebwe of Zambia in southern Africa, anchored to avoid being blown across the river. A commercial fisherman tending his crab pots came to the rescue with a jump start and the crew decided to continue fishing. Joe knew, however, he couldn’t cut the boat off because it wouldn’t restart.

With that in mind, they headed back to Little Bay to fish in calmer waters near their home port.

“But Travis and the crew were troopers and were willing to hang on for one more attempt into rougher waters that held the mackerel,” said Joe. “On what was to be our last turn before giving up, we hooked up on our big mackerel. Travis was encouraged to take the rod, which is something he does very reluctantly, if ever at all, while trolling. He had to overcome his fear of stepping up to the rear of the boat in rough waters.”

After catching the fish, the crew pulled the lines about 3 p.m. and took their time coming into Indian Creek toward the Chesapeake Boat Basin. Unfortunately, because of the battery drainage, Fish Don’t Care had lost all of its electronics, including its depth finder. Joe allowed other boats to get by as he delayed his arrival, knowing he had one shot to land at the dock when the engine would immediately cut off.

“As we began our holding pattern on the back side of the Boat Basin near the grain barges, I ran into a sandbar, which immediately cut off the engine,” said Joe. “I also couldn’t raise the engine to free us off the sandbar.”

Sander had been keeping his father up-to-date by cell phone on the youth angler catches and told his dad the current weight was 2.1 pounds. Joe knew Travis’ weighed that and maybe more.

With no other options, he put the fish into a water tight five gallon bucket, donned a life jacket and jumped overboard.

Joe swam the fish about a half-mile to the dock, where his bucket was declared Boat #6, a designation transferred from Fish Don’t Care.

“I was under the dock making my way to the ladder when I heard our winning weight of 2.2 pounds,” he said.

Special Angler

At the urging of high school senior Sander, tournament director Kathy Pittman plans to add a category to next year’s tournament.

“His suggestion was to have a separate category for people with special needs,” said Pittman. “What a terrific idea. Unfortunately, it was too late to implement it this year. However, we will have this category in place for the 5th annual tournament.”

Sander, who is a volunteer coach with the Special Olympics, approached Pittman with the idea in July.

“We had hoped to have seen it through for this tournament,” said Joe. “We feel that a ‘Special Angler’ award would encourage other captains to actively involve the special needs community to saltwater fishing and the beauties of the marine environment. Sander’s research had indicated no [mainstream] saltwater fishing tournament has ever done something like this”

It’s also doubtful any dad ever swam his son’s winning fish a half-mile to shore in other saltwater tournaments. But the end result, a huge smile on Travis’ face as he clutched hard his winning plaque, was more than worth it.

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