Hooked on easy access Aid for disabled: The state's first handicapped-accessible fishing site lets all anglers get down to the stream.

January 01, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff

Art Nierenberg is teaching his son fly-fishing. But an architect, an engineer, a surveyor, a park ranger and the state of Maryland helped him with the lesson plan.

Until this fall, when Project Access was created beside a Carroll County stream, Mr. Nierenberg, 58, couldn't reach any local fishing holes in his wheelchair.

"There was nowhere to go up to a bank and teach my son to fish," he said.

Now, as often as the weather allows, father and son are spending free mornings at Morgan Run, angling for fat brown trout that swim past an 80-foot-long platform.

Project Access, the state's first handicapped-accessible fishing site, was built by volunteers with about $20,000 in donated materials and the blessings of the Department of Natural Resources.

"What they have created here is a gift, an invitation to those who don't believe they can still come out and enjoy nature," said Mr. Nierenberg. "This is an offer to people who have given up that they belong here, who no longer think they're entitled. This is an opportunity for anybody to come out and be part of nature."

At 10, Matthew Nierenberg is accustomed to helping his father. He can operate the chair lift on the family van and deftly put a rod and reel together.

"I have never really caught a fish, but my dad has," Matthew said. "I land them, though. That's my job."

A severe case of polio in his childhood affected Mr. Nierenberg's legs, his right arm and his chest. The founder of Breakthrough Disability Inc., he teaches health care workers "new perspectives in dealing with the disabled."

Fishing, his lifelong avocation, has lured him to many spots across the country.

"When I was a child, my dad always took me," he said. "Years ago, I became fascinated with fly-fishing. It's not just bait and wait. It takes skill."

He uses a motorized tri-wheeler or occasionally, with Matthew's help, a wheelchair. "Helping is not a burden; it's an opportunity and a privilege," Mr. Nierenberg said.

With the energy and impatience of youth, Matthew often races ahead of his father down the gravel path to the fishing platform. Within minutes, he is practicing a cast under his father's eye.

"Not only is he learning to fish, but he is learning about life, staying alert and keeping safe," said Mr. Nierenberg. "He is also learning to look around and see what he can do to help."

Before he moved to Randallstown seven years ago, Mr. Nierenberg had fished at several accessible sites near his former home in New York.

"The sites were so popular people booked appointments weeks ahead of time," he said. "I often brought as many as 30 disabled children at a time to fish."

With no such sites in Maryland, he turned to Trout Unlimited, a national organization dedicated to preserving fisheries. He also connected with Frank Ryan, park ranger at Morgan Run Environment Area since 1988.

Actually, Mr. Ryan had "nurtured the same idea" through most of his 26-year career. He recalled a handicapped fisherman he met on the Patapsco River.

"He had to cast at least 10 feet across land and drag a fish up the bank," he said. "I knew we could do better for him."

An area near Klees Mill Road in Gamber with suitable terrain, fishing and a parking pad was "just the place," Mr. Ryan said. Tom O. Gamper, a Baltimore architect and Trout Unlimited member, created a plan.

"I put the vision down on paper and sold the idea physically, but Art sold the idea on a philosophical and emotional level," Mr. Gamper said.

An initial site survey showed that whatever the volunteers built would be an improvement, Mr. Gamper said.

"Basically, it was a mudhole, a backwash area with a mud embankment," he said. "But there was a good pool for fish."

Since building would take place in a stream bed, the DNR had to approve every step, but officials soon caught Mr. Nierenberg's enthusiasm.

The catch and release stream, which the state stocks frequently, provides an ideal environment for brown trout, said Mr. Ryan. It is open all year to anglers, with fishing limited to artificial lures or flies, like those Mr. Nierenberg keeps pinned on his fishing cap.

"It's fishable for about six miles from London Bridge Road to Route 97," said Blaise Nealon, a Trout Unlimited member who coordinated the project. "You can catch a big fish one week and come back the next week and catch him again."

Not always, said Mr. Ryan. "They are only caught so many times before they wise up. It's a battle that nine times out of 10 the trout will win."

All-volunteer labor and about $20,000 in donations from Carroll County businesses went into the summerlong construction project.

About 250 tons of stone, mostly hand-placed, form a barrier between the stream and the platform. During construction, volunteers filled and placed 400 sandbags along the bank to keep silt out of the stream. Builders used no asphalt or other oil-based products. Gravel and stone, from nearby Medford quarry, match the rich gray of the surrounding rocks.

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