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David Rainer: An ‘Exceptional’ event all around

Not only did exceptional anglers get to participate in the Exceptional Anglers event Gone Fishin’, Not Just Wishin’ at Oak Mountain State Park a few weeks ago, but a new bait company provided them with lures to land the numerous bass that inhabit the park’s lakes.

The annual event teaches basic fishing skills to students with special needs from Alabaster and Pelham city schools and the Shelby and Jefferson county school systems. The bait company’s  name and mission made it a perfect fit for the event. Exceptional Baits was launched to provide skills for people with disabilities.

A pair of workers at Exceptional Baits sorts the lures to get ready for packaging. (Blake Huynh/Exceptional Baits)

“We help people with disabilities learn job skills, life skills and social skills,” said Equip’s Blake Huynh. “We actually launched our new company at the Gone Fishin’, Not Just Wishin’ event. We are making fishing lures, soft plastic baits, with people with disabilities. We’re also packaging that way, and we’re paying the individuals $10 per hour, no matter how much they can produce so they can learn job skills.”

Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) said he looks forward to Gone Fishin’, Not Just Wishin’ each year and thinks Exceptional Baits is a perfect complement to the Exceptional Anglers event.

“Gone Fishin’ Not Just Wishin’ is one of my favorite events that we put on each year,” Blankenship said. “It makes my heart full to see the huge smiles as the kids catch fish, some for the first time ever. It was also good to meet Blake and hear what they are doing at Exceptional Baits. The fishing event teaches kids how to fish and enjoy the outdoors, and Exceptional Baits is teaching people with disabilities life skills so they can work and take pride in earning a living.

“It sure is good to see that people of all abilities can fish and work and enjoy the quality of life we have here in Alabama.”

Huynh said Exceptional Baits was created under the non-profit Equip (equipservices.org), which has been established since 2018.

“Exceptional Baits is kind of a sister company that comes under the umbrella of Equip, where we can hire people with disabilities, train them on job skills and build that stamina,” he said.

Huynh said several of the current participants were significantly impacted by the COVID pandemic and are now just trying to get back into the routine of working.

Exceptional Baits makes a variety of soft plastic lures in different shapes and colors. (Blake Huynh/Exceptional Baits)

“We’ve had a couple of participants who have come through with a lot of anxiety,” he said. “They were in a routine of working, but after COVID they just struggled to get back into the workforce. We’re trying to build that stamina so they can get back to working regularly.”

Huynh said Exceptional Baits combines his two passions into a productive outcome.

“I love to fish, and I also love to work with people with special needs,” he said. “I’ve been working with people with special needs since 2004, and I just wanted to bring my hobby into something that was new and would benefit them. It’s different, because not many people do this in the world of people with disabilities.

“I think the outdoors is difficult to have access to at times. I know other programs have been created to deal with that. This is just another opportunity for us to reinvest into the outdoors culture that exists in our area.”

Exceptional Baits offers five styles of soft plastic lures – lizards, finesse worms, stick worms, Ned worms and a creature bait called the Grass Grenade.

“We’re working toward producing swim baits and flukes, and we recently just got in some new molds,” Huynh said. “We’re slowly working on building up colors, and we can also do custom colors. We let our participants in the program choose random colors and glitters at times just so they can have a say in creating some new baits. Then we take them fishing to try them out.

“From the Oak Mountain event, we’ve had a few orders already. Our participants have not only gained great life skills from placing the baits in packages, packing them in boxes and adding the addresses, but they also are taking the boxes to the post office, requesting tracking numbers and talking about the rates and how we want to ship it to the customer. Teaching those life skills is one of the great bonuses of the new company.”

Huynh said the individuals at Exceptional Baits, which produces the baits in Birmingham, have a wide range of disabilities, and the job assignments are matched with their abilities.

“The individuals that do the injecting of the plastics are typically higher functioning,” he said. “The people packaging the worms typically have the more severe disabilities.”

Huynh said the participants gain a great deal of satisfaction when they are involved in the creative process.

“The most excitement comes when they create their own color and glitter pattern,” he said. “But they enjoy packaging. It’s a repetitive task. A lot of times, when working with people with disabilities, they excel at repetitive tasks and are able to concentrate and focus on the tasks, sometimes better than their typical peers. We have taken them fishing and plan to do it again soon. Even if they’re not catching anything, they enjoy using something that they’ve made.

“From the financial side, they love to get some money from it. They can make something where they have struggled to get or hold a job. That’s huge for them. And I can see some awesome pride in the ones producing the baits.”

Huynh said the feedback from customers who have purchased the baits online at equipservices.org/exceptionalbaits has been positive.

“They’ve all told us they are high quality baits and are very similar to the major brands when it comes to quality,” he said. “Several of the vendors said they planned to order more. And I have personally been using them and have had great success with them as well.”

Huynh hopes to expand the production and display products at retail shops in the Jefferson/Shelby County areas. Discussions are being held about selling the baits at Alabama State Parks.

“I think the most important thing about Exceptional Baits is all the money that is generated through this is going right back to paying for materials and supplies or funding the paychecks of the participants who work there,” he said. “The money coming into Exceptional Baits goes right back to those with exceptionalities. We are paying them a meaningful wage as well. I love the exposure we’ve had in the outdoor world and the interest they’ve gained in wanting to go fishing more. I had one of the participants ask if we could go fishing next week. He wants to go back to Oak Mountain.”

Huynh said the Exceptional Angler event was the perfect setting for his workers to see the results of their labor.

“Gone Fishin’ is an event I’ve attended multiple years, and I think it’s great to expose youth with disabilities to fishing and get them more comfortable with it,” he said. “Many of the students I worked with in previous years had never even seen a fish up close. When we’re there, most people catch one. That’s huge for the participants to have success when fishing. It’s fun fishing, but if you’re not catching anything ever, you can lose interest. But the event sets them up for success, and they always want to go back. They look forward to it all year long.

“It’s a great time with great volunteers and businesses that support it. And we have fried fish, too. I encouraged my students to try it.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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