By Chris Clasby | Photos by Brenden Dalin

The oar blades pulling against the Gallatin River’s
gentle current were the only audible sound as our raft
approached a deep, promising hole. My hammered
brass spinner blade flashed, reflecting sunlight and
indicating a perfectly landed cast between shore and
the foamy surface bubbles formed between back eddy
and the main river channel. I counted two seconds, allowing
the spinner to sink near the river bottom, then
engaged the reel.

Besides the warm sunshine, deep promising pools,
and pursuit of a monofilament struggle, this was
not a typical fishing expedition. Nor was I a typical
angler, but rather a high level quadriplegic sitting in
a power wheelchair on a custom-built accessible raft
frame. I used a “sip-n-puff,” switch-activated cast and
reel fishing rod designed for people without hand
function. The adapted fishing rod drew back when I
sucked (sipped) into a control straw, initiating a mechanical
cast, and electronically reeled in line when I
blew (puffed).

[dcs_img width=”300″ height=”270″ thumb=”true” framed=”black”
author=”photo by Brendin Dalin” desc=”MATOR Coordinator Chris Clasby casts using sip-n-puff adaptive equipment. Mary Watne assists due to low casting batteries on the last of a week’s MATOR
demonstration floats on the Gallatin River.”][/dcs_img]

Since 2008, the Montana Access to Outdoor Recreation
(MATOR) program of the University of Montana
Rural Institute has provided services to enable
Montanans with disabilities to fish, view wildlife and
hunt. Shortly after its inception, MATOR partnered
with the Denver-based nonprofit, accessiblefishing.
, which designs and builds adaptive fishing equipment
for MATOR’s equipment loan program.

When Accessible Fishing’s Director, Peter Pauwels,
visited Montana in July 2009, he brought
adaptive rafts and equipment. In conjunction with
MATOR, Pauwels offered free adaptive floating
opportunities to 18 participants with disabilities,
each accompanied by a friend. In five days, 10
groups floated the Clark Fork River, and many
caught fish. By the end of the week, Pauwels
agreed to build MATOR its own accessible raft.

The following summer, my trip on the lower Gallatin
was the last float of a three-week joint venture
between these two nonprofits, many volunteers,
and more than 40 participants. During the first
two weeks, Bill Stroud, an avid floater and River
Rat Maps cartographer, guided us on sections of
the Bitterroot River, south of Missoula. Then,
floating the Gallatin between Manhattan and the
Missouri Headwaters culminated the adventure.
Because it was in a different part of the state, different
participants were able to join us.

Peter strategically controlled the raft, and I worked
the adaptive rod to retrieve the spinner from the
pool depths. Then a large flash and simultaneous
zip of line stripped my reel. I puffed to engage it,
and Peter’s leeward oar stroke maximized the raft
angle against the fish. The battle brought Peter to
his feet for a better view, oars still at hand. Together,
we landed the 16” brown trout and shared
a moment of elation over our mutual triumph.

The brown returned to the river, we approached
the next hole with anticipation, mentally enjoying
the victory. It was not individual victory, nor a
victory over fish, but a victory over odds shared by
all the participants with disabilities who’d floated
Montana rivers the past three weeks. It was a victory
for two programs geographically 900 miles
apart, but with the same vision. A victory made
possible by volunteers who’d rowed and shuttled,
and by other programs that contributed information,
licensing exemptions, and knowledge of rivers
and camps.

Chris Clasby is the Program Coordinator of Montana
Access to Outdoor Recreation.
The Montana Access to Outdoor Recreation, or
MATOR program, provides services for Montanans
with disabilities:

• Education about adaptive wildlife-associated
• A loan program with a wide variety of adaptive
• Demonstration events throughout Western Montana
• A network of volunteers to help program participants
MATOR and Accessible Fishing will conduct
demonstration events again in July, 2011. They are
planned in the Missoula area and on the Gallatin River.

For more information about adaptive wildlife viewing, fishing
and hunting in Montana, visit MATOR online: is a Colorado-based organization that works closely with
Children’s Hospital and Craig Hospital therapeutic
recreation programs in Denver, helping current and former
patients fish in Colorado, on Wyoming’s North Platte River,
and at Lake Mary at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Director
Peter Pauwels has partnered with volunteers, the U.S.
Army, Shell Oil Company, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service to create an accessible fishery at Lake Mary.