Hundreds of special-needs children are casting a line this week – many for the first time in their lives – at Oak Mountain State Park’s Exceptional Anglers event.
The annual Gone Fishin’, Not Just Wishin’ program is celebrating its 24th year of teaching basic fishing skills to students from Jefferson and Shelby county school systems.
Assistant Park Superintendent David Johnson said Exceptional Anglers is his favorite event at Oak Mountain all year long.
“This event gives students the opportunity to not only fish but also to socialize, connect with one another and just get outside and enjoy the great outdoors,” Johnson said.
In addition to fishing, Exceptional Anglers offers students a day of arts and crafts, storytelling, face painting, inflatables, games and more.
However, it’s the fishing at Oak Mountain’s lake Wednesday through Friday that is the highlight for students and volunteers alike.
“To be honest with you, for most of these children, this is their first opportunity ever to get out and fish. They will catch the first fish of their life and have their picture made with it,” said Mike Clelland, an environmental affairs specialist with Alabama Power. “It’s going to be a memory that will last a lifetime. The volunteers are going to have a memory that lasts a lifetime, too.”
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries organize the three-day event, with support from sponsors. Alabama Power helped start the program and has been a sponsor since its inception.
“Alabama Power has been involved with this great event now for 24 years. It’s grown each year, and students are just as excited to participate in this now as they were in the very beginning,” Clelland said.
In addition to helping students fish, volunteers staffed different stations around the lake. Students fished in 30-minute rotations that included arts and crafts, playtime, music and lunch.
“Without the hard work of our volunteers and the support of the sponsors, this event would not be possible. We are very grateful for their help in enriching the lives of these students,” said Doug Darr, aquatic education coordinator for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.
“These students and volunteers are as excited and uplifted as ever. The fish don’t always bite, but the effort and energy are definitely there. As always, Alabama Power is thrilled to support this great event,” said Kaylon Mikula, president of the Magic City chapter of APSO. “We truly enjoyed the opportunity to serve.”
Johnson likes to tell one story about a student who participated in Exceptional Anglers more than a decade ago.
Johnson saw the student, now a young man, and his father fishing at the marina one summer day and couldn’t help but notice the stringer full of fish they had caught.
“The young man told me he was part of this program with Jefferson County Schools 10 years prior and he had caught his first fish at that event,” Johnson said. “I feel like he was truly inspired by this event to become a great fisherman.”