EMIGRANT (AP) -- Fishing didn't stop for John Sjolund just because he lost the use of his legs.
The 28-year-old from Spokane, Wash., has been confined to a wheelchair for the past three years after a construction accident damaged his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down.
But Sjolund, an avid outdoorsman who's been fly fishing since he was a teen-ager, found that with the right equipment and the right attitude, anything is possible.
''This is the first time I've been on a river since the accident,'' Sjolund said as he prepared to head out on a guided fly fishing trip on the Yellowstone River. He bought a pontoon boat in May and has been fishing some lakes near his home for the past few months.
''I've continued my hunting and now that I've got the pontoon boat, I've continued my fishing,'' Sjolund said. ''It's just a matter of finding a way to do it and making it happen.''
Making it happen is easier than most might think, as many outfitters are more than willing to take physically disabled people fishing.
Pete Fredericks, owner of Bear Creek Angler, said he hopes to start accommodating more disabled people, like Sjolund, on the river.
''We want to start catering to more people like this,'' he said. ''We're even going to start doing this with the blind. To my knowledge, no one has ever advertised that before.''
Robin Cunningham, executive director of the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana said there are a few outfitters across the state who specialize in being able to accommodate the disabled.
''Over the years, we've slowly developed a list,'' Cunningham said. ''I don't recommend anyone in this area because no one has come forward saying they want to specialize in it.''
At FOAM's annual meeting, Cunningham said he always encourages outfitters to take emergency medical training courses and they often discuss how to better accommodate disabled anglers. He said people make suggestions on how to modify boats to be wheelchair accessible.
''It isn't just the money incentive, you know how we'll take money from anybody,'' he said laughing. ''The point of this is the customers. It's a service industry. These people want to do it.''
Cunningham said nationwide about 10 to 15 percent of people who fish have physical disabilities, although in Montana he only gets about five calls from disabled clients a year.
''I've been doing this since about 1976,'' said Dave Kumlien, a Bozeman outfitter through Montana Troutfitters. ''I've had numerous people with various disabilities. ... I can't say that I specialize in it or that I get many calls.''
Over the years, Kumlien has taken people recovering from polio or strokes out fishing, people in wheelchairs and even one blind man.
''I didn't know he was blind until he showed up for the trip,'' Kumlien said. ''I immediately thought, how is this going to work? But it ended up being a pretty interesting and emotional experience.''
The man had been able to see when he was young and knew how to fly cast, so Kumlien said all he had to do was be his eyes, narrating direction and distance. The experience inspired Kumlien and he said he's never been hesitant to take a disabled person fishing since.
''If they are willing to go and it's something we can manage without putting people at risk,'' he said, then he's willing to try it.
Other outfitters in town seem to have the same attitude. While they don't get a lot of calls from disabled anglers, they are happy to serve those who are interested.
''There's a lady who went out today who had a stroke,'' said Dayne Larsen of The River's Edge in Bozeman. ''She had lost some movement ... She was actually an accomplished fisherman before the stroke.''
Larsen said typically the disabled people who call had fished in the past, before they had some sort of disabling accident or illness, and want to continue fishing.
Sjolund said not all outfitters are understanding and accommodating when it comes to guiding a paraplegic man.
''In the past when I've looked there's a lot of guides who are worried about it, they are worried about liability more than anything, and the basic mechanics of it,'' he said. ''Pete's willing to work with me on it.''
Fredericks chose to put into the Yellowstone at Grey Owl because of the area's relatively flat, easy water access. Sjolund wheeled himself right to the water's edge, where the boat was anchored waiting for him.
''A big part was selecting an area that's fairly easy to get in and get out,'' Fredericks said.
With the use of a flat board positioned like a slide between the edge of the boat and the seat, Sjolund lifted himself into the boat and scooted into his spot at the bow. His wife, Mindy, helped lift and position each of his motionless legs while Fredericks steadied the vessel. The group disassembled the wheelchair and took it along so Sjolund could get out of the drift boat for a shore lunch.
''These boats are nice and big and wide,'' Fredericks said. ''There's not too much to worry about.''
The trip, a birthday gift from Sjolund's mother-in-law, was a success. Sjolund said he caught more fish than he could keep track of.
''I felt very comfortable,'' he said. ''I was impressed with how accommodating Pete was today. He was concerned but he didn't make an issue of it. He just made it a great trip.''
(Distributed by The Associated Press)
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