Still Fishing: BMD Profile

Thanks to a little help from a tablecloth, a scissor jack and his wife Mary, Curt Sweely is one heck of a fisherman.

Of course, Sweely has been one of the fishing-est fishermen on East Coast lakes for decades, with a boatload of trophies and titles to show for it. The only thing that’s changed is his approach.

Wielding a rod and reel for about as long as he can remember, Sweely, 54, used to fish mainly with his buddies near his home in Lawrenceville, Pa., until shortly after he graduated college with a degree in business administration that led him to a career in corporate accounting.

The year he graduated was also the year he learned he had a neuromuscular disorder that later was found to be Becker muscular dystrophy.

Curt and Mary Sweely
Curt and Mary Sweely

Changing fishing partners

As Curt’s muscles weakened, he spent less time fishing with his pals (he didn’t want to ask for their help in getting around), but no less time fishing altogether. He and his dad became partners on the lakes, and the son’s soon-to-be-legendary bass-finding savvy and technique with a rod kept other anglers hustling to keep up.

Then, in 2004, his dad died in a tragic accident. That could have been the end of Curt’s fishing except for the intervention of the woman who’s been Curt’s wife for 32 years.  She donned her late father-in-law’s hat and climbed in the boat. “Let’s go,” she said.

Carefully planned adaptations

When it’s time to head for the lake, Curt cruises out to the couple’s pick-up truck in his power wheelchair, and Mary helps him into the truck’s passenger seat. When they get to the lake, he gets a hand down from the truck and walks carefully, slowly, alongside it, holding on for support, until he makes it back to the boat trailer.

Curt Sweely fishing
A scissor-jack seat post allows Curt to transfer into the seat and then be cranked up to the proper height for bass fishing.

From there it’s another hang-on-and-step-carefully journey to the rear of the boat.

The boat has low sides, but not quite low enough, so Mary carpeted a 3-inch wooden block for Curt to step up on. With his backside to the boat he holds onto the rail with both hands behind him, pivots and swings one leg up over the side. Then, sitting on the rail, he hoists his other leg up.

Voila! He’s in the boat.

Next, Mary helps him scoot onto an old plastic tablecloth that’s been folded several times, and drags him over to the captain’s seat. Curt quit driving motor vehicles 10 years ago because he didn’t have good control of his feet and leg muscles, but the boat uses only a hand throttle and gear control, and that’s no problem for him to shift.

Once out on the lake at the spot where they plan to fish, the next challenge is for Curt to get into position to cast his line.

With the help of a transfer board, Curt slides from the captain’s console to a chair on the bow of the boat. Only it’s not an ordinary chair.

Like most bass fishermen, Curt prefers to do much of his fishing while sitting on an elevated perch. That’s also the position from which most anglers control a trolling motor, using a foot control to mosey the boat slowly among promising bass hangouts.

Curt can’t maneuver well with a standard chair, so he, Mary and friends came up with an alternate idea. They removed the metal pole that ordinarily would support his chair and replaced it with a scissor jack. The jack is in the down position as Mary helps him get seated. She straps him in with nylon webbing and a buckle arrangement she concocted.

All rise

Clack-clack-clack. Mary uses a ratchet wrench and socket to slowly raise the scissor jack, the seat and her fishing partner to optimum height. Then it’s time to get about the serious business of hauling in bass. Curt’s trolling motor has an autopilot that makes it easier for him to control than if he had to use his feet.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

The Sweelys are quick to assert that they’re not doing anything special in dealing with their challenges, which include helping care for Mary’s mother and Curt’s mother, both of whom have Alzheimer’s disease.

Buoyed by their faith, they live by the motto, “We do what we have to, make do with what we’ve got.”

And that’s their message to others who might feel their disability is a bar to enjoying life. Perseverance and a little ingenuity go a long way. All of which is bad news for the fish.

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