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Special Needs + Fishing = Fun

By John Weiss, July 19, 2023

People with special needs, state conservation officers and others, line the fishing pier at the pond in Sylvan Park in Lanesboro in June. (Photo by John Weiss)

Special Needs + Fishing = Fun

LANESBORO — Nancy Qual watched as her bobber serenely sat on the small pond in Lanesboro’s Sylvan Park. Next to her was Minnesota Conservation Officer (CO) Annette Kyllo.

They chatted. You know, fishing small talk to pass the time. The morning of June 7 was cool and quiet, a nice day for fishing and chatting. Qual knew she needed help. “I’m just a beginner,” said the resident of Austin’s Learning, Inclusion, Fun and Empowerment home for people with special needs.

Then the bobber bobbed.

Set the hook, Kyle told Qual. She set the hook. 

Fish on!

The morning turned giddy for Qual who wasn’t quite sure what to do, but kept on cranking the reel. She landed a small sucker, not one of the 1,500 rainbow trout the Department of Natural Resources had recently stocked. No problem, it was a fish!

Grinning, Qual and Kyle had their picture taken. Qual admitted she wasn’t sure what she should do with the fish on. “I got a little scared, I haven’t fished in a while,” she said.

But when she had a chance to fish with state COs in the first of three days of special DNR fishing days at the pond (that day was for people with physical or mental impairments; Thursday for senior citizens and Friday for PossAbilities out of the Twin Cities), she said yes. There’s something catchy about fishing, but it’s hard to explain, she said. “I don’t,” she said. “Fun.”

Ah, that critical three-letter word: FUN. It popped up many times that day in conversations with people who were there to fish, accompany the anglers and the COs who were paid, but didn’t have to be there, to bait hooks, help cast and chat.

Education is Key

Kyllo, who is stationed in Rochester, said education is part of her job, not just enforcing outdoors regulations. “I enjoy spending time and hearing about their experiences and seeing fishing through their eyes a little bit,” she said. The fish was a sucker, often called a rough fish as opposed to the exalted walleye, bass, panfish and trout. “I think sometimes a lot of us don’t get excited when we catch a sucker but we should be,” she said. Then she added: “It’s fun to see the excitement.”

There’s that word again.

Nancy Qual of Austin wasn’t sure what to do when reeling in a small sucker. Helping is state Conservation Officer Annette Kyllo. (Photo by John Weiss)

She taught Qual a bit about fishing but – here’s the second critical part – Qual taught Kyllo a lesson. The CO saw “just the joy of living. it’s kind of refreshing, they just have a joy of living,” she said. “This is a fun change of pace.” Also, she doesn’t deal with the challenged people often so she learned a bit more about them, how they think, react.

Sue Lamkin, Qual’s direct support professional, agreed such days are a big deal for those who are developmentally challenged. “They get a big kick out of these events, they love these events,” she said. “I think that it’s wonderful these conservation officers, they are teaching and they are learning things, they are learning how to deal with people with different abilities.”

For some, the day was one for new memories, and maybe rekindle old ones. “I’m sure they remember from younger days when they would go fishing independently,” she said. If they are doing something by themselves, such as hooking and reeling in a fish, “it makes them feel better,” she said.

Annual DNR Fishing Event

Melissa Wagner, the area fisheries supervisor in Lanesboro who coordinated the three days for the DNR, said such events are part of the DNR’s outreach efforts. “We do public education, just like I give talks,” she said. “Outreach education is a huge part of it … I wish we did more.”

Mitch Boyum, a veteran CO, said he’s helped there for many years. No one seemed totally sure when the event started, but being there is part of his job. It’s “for education and come down and help a few people catch fish,” he said. “Education is part of our job…and it’s a good way to get rapport with the community.”

Laura Hoffmann of Austin, got instructions from veteran state conservation officer Phil George in how to reel in a fish. Hoffman said she enjoyed the special day, and fishing. “It relaxes me,” she said. (Photo by John Weiss)

The first anglers from LIFE had the COs to themselves for about an hour, then things got very lively – fun but lively – when people from several other groups showed up, nearly all at once. Included were four from Houston County, two from Maple Leaf Services in Rushford, about 20 from PossAbilities in Rochester. Soon, COs were helping maybe 60 or 70 anglers bait hooks, cast, net a few trout and fillet them to be sent to various facilities for special meals.

Sarah Storandt, PossAbilities program director, was thankful for the chance for her people to get out, experience new things. “We have some people who never fished before,” she said. Her organization’s goal is to integrate their people into the community, and being out fishing helps. “They love to be outside and hang around with their friends. It’s something we all look forward to,” she said. “I love to be able to watch the individuals experience new things and be outside.”

Kelli Pierce, activities director of Fillmore County Development Achievement Center, had much the same perspective. Her residents, who have many kinds of physical and mental disabilities, love to come back year after year, she said. “They get excited, they love it. You can tell, it will get much louder, they will holler when they catch fish.”

The education part goes both ways, she agreed. COs need how to deal with people with special needs such as the deaf or blind. The DAC staff learns that quickly. “Everyone is different, you learn how to deal with each one, they become your family,” she said. If you’re not accustomed to them, it can be challenging. But don’t take them for granted, she said. Yes, they have different challenges, but they are sharp “they can sense if others aren’t familiar with disabilities,” she said.

“It’s good for everyone,” Pierce said.




John Weiss was a full-time reporter for the Rochester Post-Bulletin for 41 years and wrote the Back Roads column for more than 10 years. His passions include hunting, fishing, birding, nature photography, hiking and just kicking around.

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