For more than 20 years Bob Collette made a living by guiding people to fish in Minnesota, Texas and Florida. The Nisswa native was among the second generation of guides to work for Nisswa Guide Service, and he began guiding when he was 14.
Twenty-six years ago the first of two events occurred that might have ended Collette's fishing career. He dove into a shallow pool and suffered injuries that left him a quadriplegic. Then, in 1994, while having bladder surgery, a large amount of bacteria was released into his bloodstream and he contracted septic shock syndrome. All of Collette's fingers and toes had to be amputated.
Injuries like that would permanently sideline many outdoorsmen, but not Collette. After each incident he got back into the field as soon as possible. In the fall of '94, while rehabilitating from his amputations, he shot a deer. "I was pretty tickled," he said. "That was as exciting as the first deer I ever shot."
Collette, 47, still guides today but his focus has shifted. Now instead of leading clients to fish he leads handicapped people to equipment that can help them fish despite their disabilities. Collette's business is named Wheels Afield, which he copyrighted in 1975 as the intended name for a magazine for handicapped people. That idea ended when Collette realized that magazine publishing would leave him no time for guiding.
Collette said many handicapped people believe they no longer can participate in outdoor activities. "It amazes me to hear people say they can't," he said. "I try to leave that word out of my vocabulary altogether. Maybe I can't do it as fast or as well, but I'll get it done."
Helping handicapped people get it done is what Wheels Afield (692-5331), the only service like it in the nation, is about. It operates as a division of North Central Medical Supply in Brainerd and presently has about 12 clients.
Skeeter Carkhuff and Julie LaValle, owners of North Central Medical Supply, supplied Collette with the capital and clients he needed to get started. The clientele is "small but growing," Collette said, and most are into fishing. Collette finds the gear and teaches the methods to help them fish.
"A lot of them don't know what's out there," he said. "One guy thought he could only troll for northerns. But I set him up with an electric reel and an Easy Cast (a spring-loaded casting rod) and now he can fish for crappies. There's knot tiers for people who have very little finger dexterity."
Adaptive equipment is available for people who enjoy other pursuits. Bowlers and tennis players can get special chairs. Collette said he's still discovering what products are available. He doesn't, however, push gadgets on his clients.
"That's what happened to me when I first got hurt," he recalled. "There's usually some modification you can make to an existing piece of equipment that doesn't cost a lot of money. Not everybody in a wheelchair needs an electric reel. A Zebco 33 and a rod holder Velcroed to the inside of the arm works great, especially for ice fishing. The trolling motors Minnkota makes that can be lifted with a rope are another example of equipment that can be used by handicapped people.
"I have a network of people in wheelchairs and I'll call them and ask, 'I got a guy who needs this. Can you recommend something?' It's almost more of an exchange of information than a service. But eventually we would like to have some products."
But the first step, Collette said, is to get handicapped people involved in a sport. After that they can decide at what level they want to pursue it. Some fishermen might need only a simple rod and reel suitable for fishing from a dock. Others might want a custom-rigged boat. Collette said he's owned about 20 custom-designed boats and that if a handicapped person wants to rig one he will help the design. Next year he said he will contact a local marine dealer about building a pontoon boat on which he can take handicapped people fishing.
Thursday on Gull Lake Collette showed how well a handicapped person can fish. He operated his Ranger boat, Zercom graph and Minnkota trolling motor from a special center-mounted console, hooked his own minnows and landed his own fish. A nearby observer would never have known he was handicapped. "I can't understand how anyone wouldn't want to be out here," he said. "There's people who can move around a lot better than me but for whatever reason they don't think they can fish. But there's no sport a handicapped person can't participate in at some level. The experience is just as gratifying even if you're sitting in a wheelchair."
Collette said he envisions Wheels Afield becoming a nationwide business. Its website, www.ncmedicalsupply.com, had over 200 hits last week.
In the meantime Collette continues to research products that may be useful to his clients. Last week he bought a new scooter that has enough ground clearance to allow him to participate in one of his favorite sports: stream trout fishing. "I'm going to take it down to Stony Brook and play around," Collette said. "I'll probably end up getting stuck."
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