Wheelchair-bound fishermen catch whopping fun at Tuna Classic

<I>Submitted photo</I><BR>Jake Merriman smiles on the deck of the Pacific Dream July 31. Merriman and four other paralyzed men were a part of a charter fishing boat group that participated in the Oregon Tuna Classic in Ilwaco.

ILWACO - Jake Merriman sat on the deck of the charter fishing boat Pacific Dream and smiled. It was the first time in more than a year that he had been fishing and he was enjoying every second of the experience.

The ocean spray misted everyone on board, and it was cold, but he gamely sat at the railing, trying to catch an albacore tuna.

It was early on the morning of July 31, and he was out off the coast of Washington with a group of friends and family to participate in the Oregon Tuna Classic tournament stop in Ilwaco. Merriman's uncle, Tom Merriman, owns two charter boats based in Ilwaco through Pacific Salmon Charters, and he sponsored the group in the tournament.

But for the Pacific Dream Tuna Rollers, the Oregon Tuna Classic was just part of the reason to get out on the ocean.

For five members of the group who were paralyzed and confined to wheelchairs, getting up at 1 a.m. and going fishing was about proving to themselves and others that they could do it.

For Jake, it was also about reacquainting himself with a favorite pastime. He is a quadriplegic, meaning he's paralyzed from the chest down. He was injured a year ago, and since then the 25-year-old from Portland only dreamed about one day being out on the water, doing the thing he loved.

"The best part of the day was being on the deck with a reel in my hand," he said.

It took some time so he had the strength to even grip the fishing rod for a few hours. At first he only picked things up with two hands because he didn't have enough strength in both arms. He spent months strenuously working in rehabilitation, and puzzled over how he was going to hold the reel in his hands.

"When the trip was first suggested, I was trying to figure out how in the hell we were going to do it," he said.

Finally, he settled on sitting so he was facing the back of the boat, parallel to the railing and sticking the rod across his lap, through the armrest to lock it into place.

And even though he didn't catch a tuna, he said just having a line in the water was a big step.

"Here Jake was, tuna fishing a year after," said his mother, Stephanie Merriman. "It was pretty emotional. Everything was just so special."

"It was nice," Jake said, "it showed I could still do it,"

'You just lose it all' The injury happened July 31, 2009.

"In one day my life changed 100 percent," Jake said. "Nothing is the same."

He was at a friend's house in Washington. They were planning a whitewater rafting trip and were gathered by the pool in the backyard.

It was an above-ground pool and somewhat shallow, but Jake and his friends would still dive in.

"It's something I've done 100 times before and had no problem with," he said.

Jake misjudged his dive and hit his head on the bottom.

"I just went a little too deep and lost everything," he said.

Within seconds his friends knew something was wrong. They pulled Jake out of the pool. His older brother, Nick Jr., called their parents, Nick Sr. and Stephanie at home around midnight with the news that Jake had been airlifted to a hospital in Washington.

They drove to the hospital, and upon seeing his mother, Jake asked her if it was a dream.

Then the family received the news.

"The doctor in charge of the first hospital read the report, walked in, told Jake that he would never walk again and walked out," Stephanie said. "From the first moment Jake knew what was ahead of him, he was OK with it. He accepted it with dignity."

The process begins Jake was transferred to OHSU in Portland, where he spent 30 days in the ICU. During his time there, each lung collapsed and he contracted pneumonia. He couldn't even cough to remove the build-up in his chest, and his parents had to constantly attend to him.

"With an injury like this you just lose it all," Stephanie said.

Eventually Jake improved enough to be transfered out of the ICU, and he was moved to Good Samaritan Hospital's rehab unit. There, he was taught how to live as a quadriplegic. A month later - all that could be afforded under the family's insurance - he was sent home.

But even home had to change.

The family's old house was in the southwest hills of Portland and not even remotely wheelchair accessible. His grandmother had a single-level house on the market in Tualatin, and the family relocated.

There, his sister Matea would cut out "Get Well" notes from a website profile created for him, and she would put them on a poster board. There were so many that eventually it was too large to fit in his room.

After settling into the new house, Jake stayed positive and worked at relearning things he once done without even thinking about.

"You have to brace yourself for pretty much everything," Jake said. "You lean over and you fall. There's no balance."

All the while his parents have been by his side and his mother has stayed at home with him.

"My parents have made this do-able," Jake said. "They've made it OK."

Fishing for recovery Before the accident, Jake was one class away from graduating from Eastern Oregon University with a degree in business management. He had travelled to La Grande to play football after graduating from Jesuit High School in 2004 as a two-time All-State fullback. But football never panned out, and it was his other love - fishing - that took center stage.

During his college years, Jake estimated he spent two to three days a week outdoors on the rivers and lakes of Eastern Oregon. His biggest thrill was fly fishing; he would spend hours alone or with a friend casting lines.

"His love for hunting and fishing is astronomical," his mother said.

In the last year that love was put on hold, as was graduation from EOU. It took him until June to complete his remaining coursework and graduate. He has been attending twice-a-week rehab sessions for two hours, where he is pushed physically to go beyond his endurance to strengthen his muscles.

"It's crazy how much you go through," Jake said. "Everything I've done this past year has been about the injury."

That's why Jake's uncle suggested the fishing trip. Tom Merriman lives during the week in Woodinville and travels to Gearhart, Ore., on weekends to be closer to the two boats he operates. He had taken his nephew out tuna fishing before the accident.

The first time Tom visited him in the hospital he told his injured nephew they would go fishing again.

"Then I was like, 'yeah, we'll see," Jake recalled. "It was a tough time ... I didn't think there was any way in hell."

But Tom persisted and eventually it became a rallying point for Jake and the family.

"I wanted Jake to have something to look forward to," Tom said.

More men invited on trip As the day approached, Tom worked to make his boat accessible to wheelchairs. The Pacific Dream is 56 feet long and has a 19-foot beam, which allowed it to accommodate the wheelchairs and extra personnel needed. He fashioned a steel ramp onto the boat from the dock, and constructed little wooden ramps for the doorways into the lounge.

By this stage a trip was planned for more disabled fishers with similar problems to Jake.

Figuring out how each guy was going to fish was a bit more tricky, Tom said, but then again, it wasn't about how successful they were.

"It was about getting those guys out there and the experience," Tom said. "It wasn't about bringing in the fish."

In all, the Pacific Dream had five guys in wheelchairs on board. Four were quadriplegics and one was a paraplegic, paralyzed from the waist down. A couple of them played in a quad rugby league and had visited Jake in the hospital.

None of the quadriplegics were strong enough to catch any fish, however, and only Chris Millette, the paraplegic, snagged one.

"I thought that the trip went great," said Millette, the general manager of a business in Portland that specializes in making homes and cars wheelchair-accessible.

"It was a beautiful boat and a rare instance where a boat is so accessible. It was also nice to be able to go out with a group of people who have had similar experiences in the past and just relax and enjoy one another's company. I really appreciated the Merrimans making this trip possible."

There was also a problem with sea-sickness - two of the guys weren't able to fish. They tried, but the constant rocking of the boat coupled with the motion of the rolling wheelchairs was hard to get used to.

"I was rolling all over the place," Jake said.

Many to thank But overall the event was positive, said Stephanie. The Oregon Tuna Classic and the community provided special accommodations for the boat. Deb Ferguson of the Uniontown Fish Market catering company in Astoria provided the lunch, and a table was reserved for the group at the post-competition dinner. The team had hauled in five tuna that weighed in just over 100 pounds. Overall, the Oregon Tuna Classic brought in 5,505 pounds of tuna, which was donated to local food banks and charities.

"It's a community coming together to help some of these guys make dreams come true," Stephanie said. "Everyone was so kind. It was really sweet."

After the trip, Jake was excited to progress more. "I want to get out on my own," he said.

In the fall, Jake is going to try and play quad rugby, a wheelchair sport played in a gym, and he wants to go fishing again with the guys he met on the trip. He has a goal of fishing every river in Oregon, and he still aims at completing it.

"Fishing will become a part of Jake's life again, we just need time to figure out how to make this happen," his mother said. "It is another goal that has been set and I'm certain that we can get it this year. This was his first love and I'm sure that it will be again soon."

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