ORADELL, N.J. It is hard to determine who feels the most gratitude: The participants or volunteers who for the past 16 years have been part of the Bergen Bassmasters' annual Outing for the Disabled.
What began in 1988 as the club's first community outreach event with 13 participants now attracts more than 130 special anglers and another 150 loyal volunteers, many of whom have no association with the 40 angler club.
On a Saturday in June one of the most anticipated days of the year arrives for the participants, most of whom return each year for the fun, fishing and fellowship. Many are confined to wheelchairs, most are physically or mentally challenged and all come from all ages and genders. Spectrum For Living, Big Wheels, ARC of Bergen County, Heightened Independent People and handicapped Boy Scouts of Bergen County are the participating organizations.
"These people are getting the opportunity to do something they only get the chance to do for one day a year," says Bergen's Brian Mahoney, who coordinates the event with Norm Trass. "They begin looking forward to the outing months before it even happens." But so do the Bergen Bassmasters.
He adds, "For our part, it is the most gratifying thing in the world to see a bunch of guys who are die-hard bass fishermen leave at the end of the day on an emotional high equivalent to winning a major bass tournament."
Mahoney rings in the New Year and then goes to work planning the logistics of the event. Among other responsibilities, he coordinates the volunteer effort and deals with the participating organizations, vendors and sponsors. It is a job that takes six months to complete. And it has been worth it.
On behalf of the club, Mahoney and Trass received the Fay S. Mathison Award, one of New Jersey's highest accolades given for a parks and recreation department event. Additionally, Bergen has been recognized five times as the New Jersey BASS Federation Chapter of the Year.
Bergen County and the surrounding area have embraced the event as well. Some $10,000 in corporate sponsorship funds and donations was taken in this year alone. And what began as a pool of volunteers consisting of club members and families has swollen to 150 people. In fact, more than a dozen responded to the call to help after a Catholic Church printed news of the outing in its bulletin. The outside interest keeps growing each year.
"Word of mouth has increased not only the visibility of the event but the volunteer numbers," says Mahoney. "That is very helpful, but what it also tells us is the event has grown from a community to a countywide effort. That is a great feeling to know so many people are supportive at that level."
When the day finally arrives, Mahoney and Trass join the volunteer workforce at Darlington County Park in Mahwah, N.J., where they collectively assemble tents, barbecue grills, a hayride, the awards stage and, of course, the fishing tackle and bait. By 10 a.m., the buses arrive and the fishing action is soon in full swing on the small lake located in the park. Most of the 200 participants catch fish, including a few largemouth bass. Appropriately, a Bergen member is spaced every few yards between participants, along with other volunteers who provide tips and support to the anglers. Hooks are baited, fish unhooked and high fives and smiles follow.
When the fishing concludes early in the afternoon, score cards are collected and a cookout is held prior to the awards ceremony. Trophies are given for most fish caught and biggest catch, among other categories. Everyone goes home a winner. At the awards ceremony, a medallion is draped around the neck of each angler, with a beach towel embroidered with the Bergen logo provided as a bonus.
The 16th Bergen Bassmasters' Outing for the Disabled is history, but one thing is certain: The volunteers and participants are already looking forward to next year's event.