The following is a condensed version of a blog first posted on Fish and Wildlife Service News blog site.
Fishing on a quiet lake surrounded by golden grasslands under a deep blue sky may not seem feasible on the outskirts of most bustling city centers. For residents in the Denver-metro area, however, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge offers an accessible, and often unforgettable, escape from urban life and personal struggles. For participants in the Arsenal Anglers program, the refuge provides a peaceful place to redefine who they are, or who they strive to be, in the face of physical and emotional setbacks.
Arsenal Anglers is a free, volunteer-run therapeutic fishing program that provides adaptive equipment and hands-on assistance for people of all backgrounds and abilities, many of them local Veterans, patients and staff from Craig Hospital and Children’s Hospital Colorado, nursing home and retirement facility residents, or survivors of physical and emotional abuse.
Groups visit on Thursday evenings throughout spring, summer, and autumn to relish the sights, sounds, and smells surrounding Lake Mary, an 8.4-acre, 12-foot-deep waterbody teeming with abundant fish and wildlife that call it home. Any stress participants arrive with to the lake, quickly melts away as they cast rods, bask in the sun, and wait for a “big one” to bite; and bite they do!
Largemouth bass is the most common catch, although channel catfish, bluegill, yellow perch, and white and black crappie are possibilities too. Defrosted anchovies or smelt serve as bait.
Ray Fetherman, 60, is the lead Arsenal Anglers volunteer and organizer. A retired director of facilities for Colorado’s Veterans Community Living Center at Fitzsimons, he studied wildlife biology during his college years. So for him, helping others while reacquainting them with nature comes naturally.
Arsenal Anglers is also the only program Fetherman knows of in the urban Denver-metro area focused specifically on assisting Veterans and patients of all ages and abilities to fish outdoors by providing customized adaptive angling equipment. “Maybe if we didn’t have such a program,” he explains, “they might never get out to fish again.”
Many participants possess limited ability to move their arms, hands, and legs. That’s where the Arsenal Anglers come in, facilitating enjoyable fishing excursions. “We get people who have fished their whole life. And we get other people who have never fished, but see that there’s an opportunity to get out,” notes Fetherman. “And they love it!”
The refuge’s close proximity to city and suburban neighborhoods and homes is an added convenience.
“It’s great that somebody can drive out there at 3:30 p.m., fish for three or four hours, and then drive back to the facility and not miss their meds or anything else,” Fetherman adds. “You don’t have to drive 1,000 miles to find a place where there’s good fishing, good wildlife viewing, and a great outdoor experience. It’s kinda right out there in your backyard.”
Connecting local communities with conservation
Established in 1989, Arsenal Anglers predates Rocky Mountain Arsenal’s designation as a national wildlife refuge in 1992. Over 25 years later, hundreds of individuals with physical limitations have overcome their disabilities through the aid of Arsenal Anglers. Volunteers assist 50–60 individuals annually and have reached more than 500 local residents since 2007 alone.
Many return year after year. “We get a lot of the same families,” Fetherman explains. “Some of the kids might be 18 or 19; they were 8 or 9 when they started coming out there,” he continues. “Some of them don’t even need Children’s Hospital anymore, but they stay affiliated with it as being a past patient at the hospital. So they still come out and enjoy the programs.”
Kids, young adults, Veterans and volunteers alike connect in with nature and each other in lasting and meaningful ways.
“It has made a tremendous impact,” said Melissa Blair-O’Shaughnessy, the recreational therapy director for Colorado Veterans Community Living Center. “The program brings endless joy to those that feel they may not be able to experience the outdoors again.”
Blair-O’Shaughnessy organizes groups of eight to 12 Veteran visitors several times throughout the year. Veteran Mike Lundy is a regular.
“It’s a relaxed and calm atmosphere,” he explains. “For my personal benefit, it’s nice to get out into the fresh air, around water … I feel free to do what I want to do.”
First-time participant Allen Sherrell shared similar sentiments after visiting with other Veterans in July.
“It was a good experience to be in nature and catch a couple of fish,” Sherrell notes. “I was stationed there a long time ago with the 244th combat engineers. It was enjoyable to be back and catching fish. It’s unique as they assist those that need extra help!”
Honey Masters is a long-time volunteer. She first joined Arsenal Anglers when her eager 9-year-old grandson became a refuge volunteer. He’s now in his 20s and still visits the refuge with family. She generally arrives 30 minutes early to prep for each week’s evening visitors.
“We have all the rods, we have the hooks, the bait — that’s what I do. I set up the rods and I put on the weights and the hooks. If an angler loses theirs to a fish — if the line snaps or something — all they got to do is grab another rod,” Masters said.
In addition to angling, there’s plenty happening above the water’s surface too. Surrounding the program’s two wooden wheelchair accessible docks, shortgrass prairie and montane habitats immerse Veterans and patients in iconic Colorado vistas.
A mule deer doe occasionally swims to an island in the middle of the small lake to care for her young, safe from prowling predators. Ospreys soar through the sky seeking to snag a fish in their sharp talons, as agile cormorants dive underwater. Pollinating insects frequent fragrant milkweed along the lakeshore, while songbirds tweet, trill, and twirl through the air.
“Fishing is exciting in itself, but there’s usually lots of wildlife activity going on,” Volunteer Ray Fetherman explains. “I think the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does a great job in managing these refuges and making space for animals to thrive.”
About the author: Michael D’Agostino is a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie region. The article is a condensed version of a blog first posted on Fish and Wildlife Service News website. To read the full article, click here. .