Sam Fitness has more toys than many young men of his age, but they serve a different purpose than most.
At 17, Sam had graduated from college and was looking forward to starting his university Bachelor of Science studies early in the New Year ... then disaster struck. He and a bunch of mates were hanging out and climbing a tree, when he fell, landing on his neck and causing the worst possible damage: a busted C5 vertebra.
For the first month, he was breathing with the help of a ventilator and could not talk or eat. Then, while continuing to slowly recover in the Burwood spinal unit, his mind increasingly turned to fishing and how he was going to get back into it – a passion he shared with his parents, Karl and Cheree. However, with limited ability to move his arms, hands and shoulders, Sam had a few challenges to overcome.
“I was hanging out to get back on the water, but was challenged by doubts whether I could pull a fish in by hand,” Sam says.
Fortunately, subsequent surgeries have improved his range of shoulder movement and the grip in both hands; as he slowly grew stronger and the outlook started looking a bit brighter, Sam’s sharp mind turned to fishing.
“Before the accident, I had always enjoyed fishing, but was probably not as passionate about it as Dad, who’s a fishing nut. I realised this was one thing that would give a bit of normality to my life and which I could still enjoy, despite my disabilities.”
Sam now takes every opportunity to get out onto or near the water. If not actually fishing, he is thinking about how he can get more out of it. He has also done a great deal of research and come up with some ingenious ways to catch fish.
When I arrived at his home, there were several tools on the dining-room table, along with a reel handle Sam was working on, adapting it to suit his needs.
At the moment, much of his fishing is based around a Shimano electric reel. A sturdy removable rod holder has been added to his wheelchair and he can operate the electric reel from there. It is quite effective – his latest excursion saw him out with his dad in the family’s AMF trailerboat catching bluenose from 400 metres of water.
The electric reel is also used off the beach. He recently purchased a drone – a DJI Phantom 4 – which he uses to take his line off the beach. He is experimenting with getting live baits out into the deeper water, where he hopes to tangle with the kingfish that cruise behind the surf break.
“The drone has a camera and I’m getting into shooting a bit of footage, which is another interest I’m developing.”
To this end, Sam has posted a short clip on drone fishing from Papamoa Beach on You Tube. You can bet there will be more to come!
The recent purchase of a ‘four-wheel-drive’ wheelchair has greatly increased Sam’s opportunities to fish, especially off the beach.
“The beach has always been a big part of my life growing up and I love being there. Now I can ‘walk’ to the Mount if I want to – hanging out there with my mates again is great fun. There are no kerbs, no corners or rough footpaths, just all that open space.”
A family friend, Kerry ‘Harvey’ Wilson, donated an electric kontiki to Sam, who in turn modified a delivery barrow with the aid of a mate, before adding a tow bar to his wheelchair and a hitch to the ‘trailer’, then fixing the reel to it.
“With the drone and the kontiki, if I can’t get out with Dad, I can still head down to the beach and go fishing.”
Sam has also come up with an ingenious way to fish for snapper, using two rods. The bottom section of one two-piece rod, containing the reel and stripping guide, is held in the wheelchair’s rod holder, where Sam can wind using another adaptation: a ‘glove’ with a purpose-built reel handle already attached to it.
In his other hand, a special leather brace is fitted over his wrist. This has a holder added to it, so the butt of the second rod, sans reel, can be slotted there. Sam fights the fish with this rod, while winding the reel fitted to the butt of the first rod with his right hand. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
Sam also enjoys trout fishing at the nearby Rotorua lakes, but his real passion is for the sea.
“You never quite know what you’re going to catch every time you drop the line down.”
Sam says it is not so much the catching, but the ‘being there’ that is important to him. But having said that, a wide grin comes over his face when recalling the first fish caught after the accident.
“It was only a small 35cm snapper, but I was so stoked – it meant a lot to me!”
Recently Sam went on a fishing ‘road trip’ with five of his mates to Coromandel’s Port Charles, where he got into the water for the first time wearing a lifejacket, going on a sea biscuit as well as getting out on the boat fishing – more steps towards normality.
Sam needs 24/7 supervision, and to this end he has a team of caregivers around him, several of whom have been introduced to fishing.
“Just recently Dad and I went for a fish in the harbour after work, and took along Peter Roth, who hadn’t been fishing for around 40 years. He was stoked to come home with some snapper.”
Before his accident, Sam had caught his first marlin while out with his dad in the waters around Mayor Island.
“One of my goals is to catch another one, and I don’t see why not. It will just be a matter of beefing up the rod holder – it’s a matter of doing what you can with what you have at the time.”
This semester Sam has resumed his university studies, doing a couple of Distance Learning chemistry and statistics papers through Massey University.
“It is a case of having to learn how to learn again.”
Currently Sam says his mind is 10 steps ahead of his body when it comes to keyboard skills, but this is helped with the latest voice-recognition software. All the lectures are on-line, so there is no reason he cannot continue his studies from home.
If Sam puts as much effort into his study as he does finding ways to go fishing, he will pass with honours!
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