Patoka Lake hosts fishing event for those with disabilities



Meagan Seiler sat in her wheelchair at the end of the dock, fishing pole dangling over the railing, a worm trailing in the slightly murky water of Patoka Lake.

Fish were behaving in a snooty, aloof manner throughout most of the hours that passed, contemptuously ignoring bait.

The event on a slightly windy but also somewhat sunny day in southern Indiana represented an annual gathering of Wheelin’ IN the Fish.

Partially sponsored by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and others, also known as a disabled fishing day, was an opportunity geared to women like Seiler.

“I think it’s good they have places where you can go in wheelchairs,” Seiler said.

But to Seiler, 19, of Evansville, this type of awareness is only a small type of challenge she might face on any given day in any given place where the designers of buildings and rooms do not have accessibility on their mind.

As someone with spina bifida, Seiler cannot walk and is always conscious of those slights, which she takes personally.

“There are always things others will take for granted,” Seiler said. “It’s easy for them.”

Spina bifida is a birth defect occurring when the spine and spinal cord do not properly form.

The placement of soap dispensers too high in ladies rooms was one thing that bugged Seiler. High curbs or door blockages are encountered.

She was grateful for the disabled fishing day, but in other aspects of life, sometimes, she faces the impossible when an appliance or system requires two hands to use when at least one hand is necessary for rolling her chair.

“They don’t see the obstacles we see,” Seiler said.

One shared obstacle for a disabled angler and an able-bodied angler is convincing fish to take the bait.

“I’m determined,” Seiler said. “I’m going to catch something.”

Wheelin’ IN the Fish

The 18th annual fishing event at Osborn Boat Ramp usually includes free boat rides, but that was scratched due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Usually, there are 100 or more participants with families or caretakers, but this year, perhaps frightened off by the virus ramifications, just 25 people signed up.

“We had to change things up a little,” said Ralph Purkhiser of West Baden Springs, associated with the Southern Indiana Center for Independent Living.

But cancellation was not in the cards, either.

“One of the tenets of independent living is recreation,” he said.

Prizes are generally earned in competition, but everyone received prepackaged goody bags. Social distancing was observed during lunch and on the dock.

Patoka is a showcase fishing body, the second largest reservoir in Indiana, smaller than only Monroe Lake, and at 8,800 acres spreads across parts of Dubois, Crawford and Orange counties.

It is a resort destination surrounded by getaway and vacation cabins, and although Seiler and others near her were not persuading many fish to make foolish mistakes and chomp hard on hooks, in theory, the lake is jam-packed with such available swimmers.

The lake was flush with stocked bass, bluegill, crappie and walleye. So where were they? Hiding on the bottom? Resting on a log?

Seiler was a low-key angler but was not convinced the fish were lying low.

“I think they’re smarter than we think they are,” she said.

No one caught a big one

Seiler was accompanied by her fishing father, Dion, who has taken his share of quasi-exotic fishing journeys for bigger fish, mother, Dawn, and older sister, Erica.

Mom was mostly an inactive caster, but Dion and Erica caught their share of bluegill that pulled down their orange bobbers and were reeled in. They were tiny, though, definitely not keepers at perhaps 6 inches in length.

Occasionally, some teeny-weeny fish latched onto a hook but was ridiculed by a member of the family as being smaller than the fish at home in the aquarium.

One young man named Jimmy, an annual regular, roamed the shoreline, clambering over rocks, and being on the move, he seemed to figure out ways to corner more fish than others.

He pointed to a bucket that was starting to fill with fish that would be fed to birds at a nearby nature center. Not that any of his catch were Moby Dick-like in size, either.

Although the Seilers were newcomers, Jimmy and others were regulars who would not miss a Wheelin’ IN the Fish day.

Gloria Harbeson, a senior citizen, used to come with her late husband. She decided to keep coming to the event without him. Harbeson said she is legally blind and she also used the same wheeled walker he had so she could get around the dock.

One year, Harbeson won a trophy but gave it to her grandchildren. The fish she caught this time resembled those hauled out by the Seilers, meaning it was a small one.

“I was embarrassed by it,” Harbeson said.

At mid-day, with the fish seemingly mostly on hiatus, it was not difficult to be distracted, so when an eagle flew overhead, it was something special to comment on and most casting paused.

Seiler wants that fish

Seiler has only periodically fished at a neighbor’s lake and at summer camp but said life in a wheelchair has one thing in common with fishing — the need for patience.

“That’s one thing that comes in handy,” she said of this activity.

Seiler has attended Camp Riley, a camp for children with disabilities that emphasizes outdoor adventure, where she has performed rock climbing (all work relying on arm strength) and done a little fishing.

“I’ve never eaten a fish I’ve caught,” she said, a common experience for avid anglers.

Not that Seilers is someone who avoids fish, at meals devouring salmon, shrimp, crab and cod.

“I like being outdoors, as long as there’s not a lot of bugs,” she said.

As time passed this day, though, Seiler worried she was going to depart Patoka Lake empty-handed, not that any fish caught, from those minuscule bluegill to a 1-pound bass, were big-uns to brag about.

“I’m convinced the worm got off the hook and I’m just sitting here,” she said at one point over the frustration of inaction, thinking she might be using phantom bait.

The bobber didn’t sink. The water didn’t ripple. It was the kind of thought to drive an angler crazy.

Finally, well into the afternoon, Seiler’s line did a dance. The bobber shook. She reeled. This was not a mighty fish requiring either rock climbing shoulder strength or two hands at all times to retrieve from the lake.

With her reeling and the fish and worm pretty much glued together on the hook, a bluegill came up from the deep.

Meagan Seiler got her fish.

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