Although the Walmart FLW Tour makes a stop at Beaver Lake every year, the lake always presents new challenges and opportunities for anglers. This year, we were confronted with an all-new stained-water fishery. However, the water color wasn’t the only thing that was different about the Beaver Lake event this year.
Arkansas is my home state, and I was extremely excited to be coming home and hosting an event I’ve been dreaming of for three years. With the help of the FLW Foundation, Special Olympics Arkansas, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and many volunteers, we were able to host a Unified Fishing Derby for the local northwest Arkansas community.
This event focused on bringing the youth of the area together with local Special Olympics athletes to enjoy something that everyone can love … FISHING!
We had a great turnout, with almost everyone catching fish and learning to love the outdoors. I was so very proud and honored to do this for all of these participants. After the event, we received a special note from Terri Weir, CEO of Special Olympics Arkansas, that validated all the effort: “The FLW Foundation and Cody Kelley have really given Special Olympics Arkansas athletes a new passion in fishing. In addition to the participation in the derby, our athletes are thrilled to cheer on Cody Kelley on the 2016 Walmart FLW Tour as our FLW SOAR pro. We are honored to have The FLW Foundation embrace our purpose as an organization that unleashes the human spirit through the transformative power and joy of sport, every day around the state.”
I was also grateful that Forest L. Wood came out to see us at the derby and thanked us for what we were doing. I was very humbled by his words and guidance, and it made me realize how very important efforts like this really are.
In addition to working with Special Olympics Arkansas and helping organize the fishing derby, in 2016 I was granted the great honor of representing the FLW Foundation. The overall mission of the Foundation is to connect youth with their natural resources and promote education, conservation and an active lifestyle. What better way reach these goals than a fishing derby?
Also, thanks to companies such as Steinhauser Rods and DMF Bait. Over the last three Tour stops we have been able to host additional fishing derbies and provide all equipment needed to 150 participants and bait to many more than that. The FLW Foundation Unified Fishing Derbies are a new focus this season and have been a great success at the first three events. The top two winners of the derbies get to go on stage for their trophy presentations “just like the pros,” and it is awesome to see their excitement. Two of them have personally told me it was their “first-ever trophy.” A mother of one of the children told me her son would never be the same, and the whole experience was a “Godsend.” Girls are coming out to participate, very hesitant a first, but ended up winning two of three derbies.
A lot of kids and athletes have never held a rod or a worm, or in some instances have never even been beside the water. Because of the Foundation, they are learning how to bait hooks, care for the fish during release, cast and socialize with their fellow anglers. More importantly, these events are also teaching the parents and caregivers that taking a kid or athlete fishing isn’t as hard or overwhelming as it may seem. This is a huge gap closure. You can see just as much joy on the parents’ faces as we see from the participants.
The derbies are getting people and families outdoors and active, planting a seed of love and conservation of our parks and water systems, and building awareness of the natural resources around them. You will never see anyone at these events without a huge smile on their face. It’s an incredible feeling to be able to give that joy to someone, and it drives us to make plans for bigger, better derbies and farther reach. We always hear, “I didn’t know I could fish here,” “Tell me more about Special Olympics” or “When are you coming back?”
Every single result of these derbies is a positive. We are committed to having a Unified Fishing Derby at every remaining Tour stop this year, including the Forrest Wood Cup at Wheeler Lake. We are raising money at every expo by raffling off a Jackson Kayak that was graciously donated to us. We have partnered with FROSCH Outdoor Travel to cover some of the costs of getting to tournaments so we can host these events. We are actively working with organizations that want to partner with us in 2017 to extend to even a greater audience and hopefully be able to send fishing equipment home with participants.
We feel certain there is more opportunity to provide Unified Fishing Derbies at every Tour stop, down through the Costa FLW Series and even trying our efforts on down through the High School Fishing and FLW College Fishing teams.
The future is really unlimited for the FLW Foundation, and my wife, Savannah, and I are committed to doing as much as we can for a sport I have loved all of my life. This I can say for certain: For every participant that we take fishing, a window to an outdoor, adventurous, active lifestyle is opened, and that is a priceless result of our mission and volunteer work.