February 1, 2024

Fishing Has No Boundaries Develops Friendships

The annual Fishing Has No Boundaries (FHNB) event organized by the Springfield-based Capital City Chapter hosts a well-orchestrated event. Volunteers start arriving at 6:30 a.m., preparing the breakfast to be served at 8 a.m. There also will be a crew handing out t-shirts and hats and some volunteers fitting participants with life jackets, helping with boat arrivals and conducting safety checks. Some will spend the day driving a pontoon boat or serving as a fishing guide. Yet others snap memorable photographs throughout the day. Nearly 250 people will be in attendance, including 55 participants and their caregivers, for an event that continues through lunch to a wrap-up dinner and awards ceremony. It is a full day of fishing and boating and developing new friendships.

The national FHNB was founded in Hayward, Wisconsin in 1986. Today 18 chapters, including two in Illinois, exist across 9 states.
The mission of the Capital City Chapter of Fishing Has No Boundaries, a 501(c)(3) volunteer organization, is three-pronged: 1. to provide recreational fishing opportunities for all people in central Illinois with disabilities regardless of their age, race, gender or disability; 2. to help fulfill the need for a positive self-image, independence and a genuine feeling of accomplishment; and 3. to enhance the lives of participants with camaraderie and lasting friendships.

Founded in 2016, the Capital City Chapter has more than 200 volunteers. Mary Ann Gebauer and her husband Jeff and son Joseph serve as co-chairpersons. Another six people round out the Board of Directors.

Their first event was held in 2017, and have taken place every year since, except two years during the COVID pandemic. Typically, these day-long fishing outings occur on the third Saturday of September. Registration is required.

“Some participants are apprehensive in the morning as they prepare to board the boats and then head out onto Lake Springfield,” Gebauer said. “This is often the first time some participants have been on a boat, and many don’t know their driver or guide. By lunchtime you can see bonds forming and by dinner everyone from a boat is sitting together, avid in conversation and making plans for next year.”

Gebauer recounted the reaction of two young women the first year of the Lake Springfield event. Not realizing that they would be fishing from a boat, it took some serious coaxing to get them boarded. That afternoon, they were driving the boat and catching fish. At the end of the day, neither wanted to go home. Confidence grew as the day progressed. A bond was formed that lasts to this day as one of those ladies requests the same boat driver every year.

“Watching bonds form is one of the most rewarding results of each event,” she continued. “One husband and wife who were driving a pontoon boat developed such a strong relationship with one participant that they bought the specialized gear he needed so they could take him fishing any time he wanted.”

Gebauer feels fortunate for the annual sponsors who help with various aspects of the event, including the Land of Lincoln Power Squadron, Big Red Bait and Tackle, Scheels, Lake Springfield Marina, Eastside Marine, TRN Club, Mission BBQ and the Springfield Noon Lion’s Club.

Many participants learn about the September fishing event from friends, family members or caretakers. There also are several organizations and group homes in central Illinois that participate annually.

A day of fishing with the Fishing Has No Boundaries volunteers is a highlight of the year for many participants. Some set up a countdown calendar to track the number of days until they can spend another day on the lake. One young lady looked forward to the day so much that she chose a day of fishing over attending her homecoming dance.

The Capital City Chapter of FHNB also organizes a late-spring half-day children’s event at South Wind Park in Springfield.

Designed for children with disabilities from age 6 and up, this event includes breakfast and a safety talk before volunteers help them spread out around the shoreline to fish, and also closes with an awards ceremony.

Despite the amount of time required to organize the events, Gebauer quickly explained how rewarding it is to participate.

“Often when we thank volunteers at the end of the day they immediately turn it around and thank us for ‘a day they will never forget,’” she noted. “One volunteer fishing guide was crying after the event, explaining how special the program was and that we could depend on him as a volunteer for life.”

Upon seeing a call for volunteers Jason DeBoer, Large River Scientist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, thought to himself, ‘since I drive boats for a living and like to help people fish, volunteering with FHNB would be a great way to put those gifts to use.’

“I volunteered in 2022 and fell in love with the organization and the event,” he explained. “What stands out to me is the purity of the joy the participants express when you help them experience something new, whether it is touching a fish, reeling in their first catch or riding on a pontoon boat. I really believe I take home more from the event than the participants. Yes, I’m physically exhausted at the end of the day but my heart is so full.”

As soon as the annual call for volunteers goes out, DeBoer signs up.
“After volunteering the past couple of years, I’d like to think that some of the participants look forward to seeing me as much as I look forward to seeing them,” he expressed.

Tad Locher, an Illinois Department of Natural Resources District Fisheries Biologist for seven counties in central Illinois, explained that the Lake Springfield Fishing Has No Boundaries organization stands at the core of the mission of the Division of Fisheries of providing quality fishing opportunities throughout the state. He serves as a volunteer for Fishing Has No Boundaries.

“I believe in what this fantastic organization is doing to provide quality fishing opportunities for people with special needs, providing for many people what may their only fishing outing of the year,” he said. “This day of fishing provides so many memorable experiences, for both the participants and volunteers. Not only is the excitement infectious but so are the smiles that result after each fish is land landed.”

To learn more about this program go to CaptialCityFHNB.com or visit their Facebook site at Fishing Had No Boundaries Capital City Chapter.

Strike a new year goal of taking someone—perhaps someone who may otherwise not have the opportunity—fishing this year. And if you want to join the hundreds of volunteers working to provide recreational fishing opportunities for anglers with disabilities, send an email to CapitalCityFHNB@gmail.com.

Fair warning! You’re likely to spend your day smiling and leave looking forward to spending another day with your new-found friends.


Kathy Andrews Wright is retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where she was editor of Outdoor Illinois magazine. She is currently the editor of OutdoorIllinois Journal.

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