When it comes to catching trout, it’s hard to beat the bite at Whiskey Creek Fish Hatchery.
And on this particular day, fishing at the hatchery is free for more than 300 kids with special needs.
Volunteer Tony Cham is helping a youngster catch a trout with a rod, reel and bait. He chuckles as he says, “See any smiles around here?”
This marks the 24th year of “Fishing Day for Kids with Disabilities.” It’s the annual capstone event for the Tillamook Anglers, the nonprofit that has managed the hatchery for nearly 30 years. Tillamook Anglers provides gear, bait and assistance for the kids trying to catch fish from the hatchery’s raceways.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife donated 1,200 rainbow trout for the event. Volunteers even clean and bag the fish with ice.
Volunteer Paula Bear says the payback is easy to see, “Oh it’s the kids and the laughter and the fun — they have so much fun.”
Longtime Tillamook Anglers member Tom Satterlee adds, “Take a look at the smiles on the kid’s faces and you’ll understand. This event makes me feel so warm in my heart.”
The 800-member Tillamook Anglers is all about community service. Every October, scores of members cut up surplus hatchery salmon, bag the filets, seal them for the freezer and deliver thousands of pounds to the local Oregon Food Bank.
Tillamook Anglers President Jerry Dove explains that one of the group’s most rewarding jobs is to ensure the bounty of surplus salmon doesn’t go to waste.
“There are thousands of really fine salmon here that would just die at the hatchery,” says Dove. “The hatchery crew doesn’t have time or energy to deal with them, so we step in and do that for them and for the county’s neediest citizens.”
The best surplus fish are transported to Dove’s mini-processing plant in Tillamook. Extra carcasses are sold through local vendors as crab bait. Salmon eggs are cured and packed into jars.
“We were just throwing the eggs away and I thought there must be value here, so we sought permission from the state to sell the eggs,” says Dove. “And all of the money goes back into our programs.”
Last year the effort delivered more than 5,000 pounds of filets to the local food bank.
Longtime Tillamook Anglers member Tom Stumpf says the salmon makes a big difference to people in need, “The salmon that we prepare and deliver to the Tillamook Food Bank is basically the only source of protein for many families.”
In Tillamook County, more than 60 percent of school-aged children are eligible for food assistance, so the Tillamook Anglers know their efforts help.
“Every time one of those packages goes into the food bank’s cooler that’s another meal, another meal, another meal,” says Kevin Englund, a retired school administrator. “Every Oregon community has huge needs but we figured the solution to hunger is simple: we provide for others who would otherwise go without.”
Back at Whiskey Creek Hatchery, located on the banks of Netarts Bay, the kids are having a ball.
Kimmy Knox says she and her son, Andrew, look forward to the event each year: ”It gives the kids a sense of accomplishment! They throw a line in and pull fish out and that’s very exciting for them. There are a lot of kids here like them so it’s very relatable for them.”
The event is more than fish — it’s also a big day for barbecue! Tillamook Anglers members man stations, cooking and serving grilled chicken, burgers and hot dogs.
Angler Joe Van Meter calls their effort a “privilege.” He says, “You just have to give something back! You can’t just take, take, take.”
“We try to contact as many hospitals, group homes and individuals as we can to invite the youngsters,” says Dove. “This might be the only time some of these kids ever catch a fish. It’s the squeals of joy, the laughter and the hugs you get — it really is an unreal event!”
Oh, it’s real alright. This day is a gift from fishermen who know it isn’t the size of the catch that matters most — but the memories you make along the way!