Urban Wildlife Refuge Hosts Therapeutic Fishing for Local Communities in Colorado

By Michael D’Agostino, Public Affairs Specialist, Mountain-Prairie Region

A rainbow appears over Lake Mary at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside of Denver, Colorado. Photo: Ray Fetherman

Fishing on a quiet lake surrounded by golden grasslands under a deep blue sky may not seem feasible on the outskirts of most bustling city centers. For residents in the Denver-metro area, however, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge offers an accessible, and often unforgettable, escape from urban life and personal struggles. For participants in the Arsenal Anglers program, the refuge provides a peaceful place to redefine who they are, or who they strive to be, in the face of physical and emotional setbacks.

An Arsenal Anglers volunteer unhooks a green sunfish for release back into Lake Mary. These fish are a rare catch at the refuge. Credit: Michael D’Agostino/USFWS

Arsenal Anglers is a free, volunteer-run therapeutic fishing program that provides adaptive equipment and hands-on assistance for people of all backgrounds and abilities, many of them local veterans, patients and staff from Craig Hospital and Children’s Hospital Colorado, nursing home and retirement facility residents, or survivors of physical and emotional abuse.

Two local veterans enjoy the summer weather at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge’s accessible fishing dock. Photo: Michael D’Agostino/USFWS

Groups visit on Thursday evenings throughout spring, summer, and autumn to relish the sights, sounds, and smells surrounding Lake Mary, an 8.4-acre, 12-foot-deep waterbody teeming with abundant fish and wildlife that call it home. Any stress participants arrive with quickly melts away as they cast rods, bask in the sun, and wait for a “big one” to bite; and bite they do!

Largemouth bass is the most common catch, although channel catfish, bluegill, yellow perch, and white and black crappie are possibilities too. Defrosted anchovies or smelt serve as bait.

Arsenal Anglers lead volunteer Ray Fetherman helps a local veteran cast his fishing line. Photo: Michael D’Agostino/USFWS

Ray Fetherman, 60, is the lead Arsenal Anglers volunteer and organizer. A retired director of facilities for Colorado’s Veterans Community Living Center at Fitzsimons, he studied wildlife biology during his college years. So for him, helping others while reacquainting them with nature comes naturally.

Arsenal Anglers is also the only program Fetherman knows of in the urban Denver-metro area focused specifically on assisting veterans and patients of all ages and abilities to fish outdoors by providing customized adaptive angling equipment. “Maybe if we didn’t have such a program,” he explains, “they might never get out to fish again.”

Many participants possess limited ability to move their arms, hands, and legs. That’s where the Arsenal Anglers come in, facilitating enjoyable fishing excursions. “We get people who have fished their whole life. And we get other people who have never fished, but see that there’s an opportunity to get out,” notes Fetherman. “And they love it!”

Arsenal Anglers volunteers provide hands-on assistance to visiting veterans and other eager anglers. Photo: Steve Segin/USFWS

The refuge’s close proximity to city and suburban neighborhoods and homes is an added convenience. “It’s great that somebody can drive out there at 3:30 p.m., fish for three or four hours, and then drive back to the facility and not miss their meds or anything else,” Fetherman adds. “You don’t have to drive 1000 miles to find a place where there’s good fishing, good wildlife viewing, and a great outdoor experience. It’s kinda right out there in your backyard.”

Connecting local communities with conservation

Established in 1989, Arsenal Anglers predates Rocky Mountain Arsenal’s designation as a national wildlife refuge in 1992. Over 25 years later, hundreds of individuals with physical limitations have overcome their disabilities through the aid of Arsenal Anglers. Volunteers assist 50–60 individuals annually and have reached more than 500 local residents since 2007 alone.

Many return year after year. “We get a lot of the same families,” Fetherman explains. “Some of the kids might be 18 or 19; they were 8 or 9 when they started coming out there,” he continues. “Some of them don’t even need Children’s Hospital anymore, but they stay affiliated with it as being a past patient at the hospital. So they still come out and enjoy the programs.”

A gentle breeze blows through vegetation surrounding Lake Mary on a warm summer evening in July. Credit: Michael D’Agostino/USFWS

Kids, young adults, veterans, and volunteers alike connect in with nature and each other in lasting and meaningful ways. “Those three or four hours last for, you know, six weeks until they can come back out again. Sometimes they come back out, and when I’m talking to them, they tell me that they’ve been waiting to get back ever since they left… It just adds another quality factor to their life,” Fetherman describes.

Melissa Blair-O’Shaughnessy agrees. She’s the recreational therapy director for Colorado Veterans Community Living Center at Fitzsimons, a Colorado state organization that has brought veterans to Arsenal Anglers for many years. “It has made a tremendous impact,” she says. “The program brings endless joy to those that feel they may not be able to experience the outdoors again.” She organizes groups of 8–12 veteran visitors several times throughout the year.

One recurring participant who attests to the program’s importance is 65-year-hold veteran Mike Lundy. “It’s a relaxed and calm atmosphere,” he explains. “For my personal benefit, it’s nice to get out into the fresh air, around water… I feel free to do what I want to do,” Lundy adds.

A sunfish swims in an aerated aquarium tank after it was caught during an Arsenal Anglers event in July. It was later released back into Lake Mary. Photo: Michael D’Agostino/USFWS

First-time participant Allen Sherrell, 74, shared similar sentiments after visiting with other veterans in July 2017. “It was a good experience to be in nature and catch a couple of fish,” Sherrell notes. “I was stationed there a long time ago with the 244th combat engineers. It was enjoyable to be back and catching fish. It’s unique as they assist those that need extra help!”

A long-lived fishing legacy

Honey Masters, 73, is long-time volunteer. She first joined Arsenal Anglers when her eager 9-year-old grandson became a refuge volunteer. He’s now in his 20s and still visits the refuge with family. Masters, meanwhile, has been fishing since she was a child. “My daddy used to take us fishing all the time,” she says. “And when I found out about this program, I just had to do it.”

The volunteers’ energy and participants’ enthusiasm ultimately encourages her continued involvement. She generally arrives 30 minutes early to prep for each week’s evening visitors. “We have all the rods, we have the hooks, the bait — that’s what I do. I set up the rods and I put on the weights and the hooks. If an angler loses theirs to a fish — if the line snaps or something — all they gotta do is grab another rod,” Masters adds.

Fishing around Lake Mary affords elderly, sick, or disabled participants an opportunity for excitement, levity, and playfulness, notes Masters. “Some of them just giggle so much when they just even see the fish, whether they caught it or not,” she adds, especially children.

Two largemouth bass swim together in an aerated aquarium tank. They were caught by the Arsenal Anglers during a July 2017 event and soon after released back into Lake Mary. Credit: Michael D’Agostino/USFWS

Masters remembers an earlier (and stricter) time too, when the land was still under Army jurisdiction in the 1980s. Anglers needed to get fingerprinted to obtain clearance to go fishing on the Arsenal. In those days, people waited in line up to two days to obtain a coveted annual fishing pass. Photos and personal recollections indicate fishing has been an important aspect of the Arsenal’s history since at least the late 1970s.

The Arsenal’s angling programs have long emphasized catch and release. Masters touts her own personal mantra: “C.P.R — catch, photo, release.” Fish slide safely back into the water, while visitors maintain their memories.

Peter Pauwels, an original co-founder of the Arsenal Anglers program, also recalls early days fishing under Army oversight. “The Arsenal was a very treasured fishery by local anglers,” he explains. “Sergeant Gene Hogan was in charge of the fishing program to accommodate the community. He was a very drill sergeant-like individual and he ran a very tight ship,” Pauwels continues. “It was a prized pass to get because just about any day you went out there, you were likely to catch a 4 to 7 pound bass if you had any angling skills at all. And that’s very rare in Colorado.”

Left: Arsenal Anglers co-founder Peter Pauwels teaches two young adults how to thread fishing line in the early days of the program. Right: Arsenal Anglers co-founder Peter Pauwels helps a young girl release her fish back into Lake Mary during the first years of the program. Photos courtesy of Lynne Holman.

Pauwels created Arsenal Anglers in 1989 along with two revered local fishermen, now both deceased. “Joe Filippini and George Uyeno were very respected anglers in the Denver community,” Pauwels explains. Uyeno and former President Dwight Eisenhower were fishing buddies.

“Those guys were such institutions in the Denver angling community that, when we started the club, because they were there, we kind of had instant credibility,” Pauwels continues. “When the fishery is of really high quality, the fishermen who frequent will also be of high quality. So the Arsenal has always had a great following within the angling community.”

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee helps a young girl reel in her fish on a floating dock at Lake Mary in the early days of the Arsenal Anglers. Photo: Courtesy of Lynne Holman

High-tech fixes aid anglers of all abilities

Pauwels’ most notable Arsenal Anglers contribution is still used today. He created several different types of adaptive fishing rods. Each aids individuals with varying degrees of disability. Pauwels built the equipment, a cornerstone of the program, himself in his small company’s manufacturing shop. He cleverly combined knowledge of mechanical engineering and occupational therapy, which he studied in college, although he didn’t major in either. “I just took the courses that corresponded and it worked out very well,” Pauwels says with a chuckle.

As a young man, Pauwels had a girlfriend who worked at Craig Hospital, while his college roommate was a quadriplegic who had been a patient at the same facility. Pauwels later become a long-time volunteer at Craig Hospital, where the adaptive rods are now stored. Arsenal Anglers borrows the adaptive equipment for refuge visitors as needed.

Early participants in the Arsenal Anglers program used a wheelchair accessible floating dock to fish on Lake Mary. Photo: Courtesy of Lynne Holman

Many of the modified fishing rods use electric reels with varying degrees of automation. Depending upon the abilities of the patient, the rods are adjustable and customizable. Some individuals simply have grip issues, which minor modifications to a standard rod can improve. Others require more creative solutions.

Take for example, the “sip and puff” system, created for people paralyzed from the neck down. “It is for a quadriplegic like Christopher Reeve,” Pauwels explains, referring to the late actor. “He would operate his wheelchair by sipping and puffing on a tube. And we could [similarly] mount this fishing rod on the wheelchair and operate it by sipping and puffing on a tube.”

Alternatively, a joystick can be integrated into other fishing rods for those with limited hand and arm motion.

Veterans and volunteers enjoy the peaceful tranquility of the water, wildlife, and vegetation in and around Lake Mary. Photo: Michael D’Agostino/USFWS

For Pauwels, watching participants successfully catch and release fish from the refuge’s docks along Lake Mary was always the biggest payoff. “A lot of them didn’t think that they would be able to participate in outdoor recreation like that anymore,” he explains. It’s one of many impactful, and often unquantifiable, successes Arsenal Anglers has provided for individuals, families, and entire communities.

Arsenal Anglers volunteers and veterans immerse themselves in the refuge’s calming natural surroundings. Photo: Michael D’Agostino/USFWS

“When I think of the cost of our docks — and when you amortize that cost out of all the people that have been able to enjoy the outdoors because of them — then that cost seems so small,” Pauwels concludes. In some instances, patients have even been wheeled down to Lake Mary’s accessible fishing docks in their hospital beds to reconnect with nature, he adds.

Pauwels has since moved on to new endeavors. He now provides wheelchair accessible rafting trips on the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers.

For Fetherman, the rewards and returns for Arsenal Anglers continue. “I keep coming back because I just think it’s great that we can get these people with physical disabilities — who probably never thought they might be able fish again — out there fishing,” he says.

More than just fish — aerial, terrestrial, and aquatic wildlife abound

In addition to angling, there’s plenty happening above the water’s surface too. Surrounding the program’s two wooden wheelchair accessible docks, shortgrass prairie and montane habitats immerse veterans and patients in iconic Colorado vistas. Volunteers, caregivers, and refuge staff all savor Lake Mary’s simplicity and serenity.

Arsenal Anglers volunteer Ray Fetherman displays a channel catfish caught by a local nursing home patient. Photo: Gaby Roffe/USFWS

“Fishing is exciting in itself, but there’s usually lots of wildlife activity going on,” Fetherman explains. A mule deer doe occasionally swims to an island in the middle of the small lake to care for her young, safe from prowling predators. Ospreys soar through the sky seeking to snag a fish in their sharp talons, as agile cormorants dive underwater. Pollinating insects frequent fragrant milkweed along the lakeshore, while songbirds tweet, trill, and twirl through the air.

In addition to fish, a variety of wildlife abound at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife refuge, including birds and mammals. Photos: bald eagle (upper left), western kingbird (upper right), white-tailed deer (middle left), coyote (middle center), mule deer doe and fawn (middle right), white-tailed deer fawn (lower left), snowy egret (lower right) by Ray Fetherman

“I think the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does a great job in managing these refuges and making space for animals to thrive,” Fetherman adds.

He is also astonished by the great influx of new visitors in recent years. Several hundred thousand people from across the country and around the world annually explore the Arsenal’s impressive 15,000-acre expanse.

“Even early on with our fishing programs, you just didn’t see many people around,” he notes. “Now, you know, the whole time we’re out there there’s just people coming and going,” Fetherman continues. “I think that’s obviously for the better because more people are finding out about it and more people are taking advantage of that little oasis in the heart of the city.”

An Arsenal Anglers volunteer is ready to cast his fishing line, while a nearby veteran eagerly waits for fish to bite. Photo: Michael D’Agostino/USFWS

Rocky Mountain Arsenal ultimately provides as much for people as it does for wildlife. And the outcomes are easy to see. “Some of these guys, when they get off of these busses in their wheelchairs, they’re just grinning from ear to ear,” notes Fetherman. He anticipates “offering the [Arsenal Anglers] program as long as we have the volunteers to keep it running.”

If Masters had her way, she’d expand Arsenal Anglers’ reach even further. “I think it would be great to get more people out there more often,” she says with a smile. “It keeps us all going.”

Learn more about fishing opportunities at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and find your closest refuge by zip code to further explore the National Wildlife Refuge System.

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