The only way to access my favorite fishing hole was down the worst kayak launch in town. Tucked in the back of a sleepy neighborhood, with no parking lot, I wheeled my boat 300 yards through the woods to find a rickety dock and wooden ramp. The launch may have been sketchy, but it was perfect for keeping other anglers out of my spot.

So, you can imagine my shock when I showed up one evening to find the worst launch in town had been replaced by a steel ramp and wheelchair-accessible floating dock.

The pleasant surprise soon turned to disappointment when I tried to launch. The old ramp was awkward, but it worked. I would clip a rope to the stern of my kayak, lower it down the ramp, walk around to the dock and climb onboard.

The new ramp looked nice, but the bench in the middle of the dock made it difficult to get my boat into the water. To use the wheelchair chute, I had to turn my loaded kayak 90 degrees by lifting the bow over the bench and handrails, then shimmy to the stern and lift it over the bench and handrails. To launch the boat over the side of the dock, I still had to clear the bench and two pilings. If I had someone to help, the launch would be easier. But I mostly fish solo.

Believe it or not, there is a similar ramp at a public access on the other side of town. I found the same problem there. Next to the shiny, new accessible launch, I could see keel grooves through the mud from people dragging kayaks to the water.

Okay, so maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill—after all, an awkward launch is better than no launch. And, of course, assisting people with disabilities to get on the water and enjoy paddling is the noblest cause. But I still have some questions.

So, I tracked down Dean Bowles, a planner at our parks and recreation department. He told me the new launch had been in the works for three years. He said the dock improvement is part of the city’s water access master plan, paid for with city money.

Not surprising, Bowles has never fished from a kayak. A city planner doesn’t need paddle experience to purchase the launch or coordinate the installation of a launch. I asked him if anyone at the engineering firm paddles. “It never came up in discussions,” Bowels says.

I contacted the company making these so-called accessible docks.
Does anyone paddle? Was the dock tested by paddlers? Folks with mobility issues? The company’s director of global recreation had no comment.

Look, I’m not complaining about improved access. With the explosion of paddlesports, cities want to improve the quality of life to draw higher-earning residents. Bowles told me the city plans to improve other launches and build new ones. “We have a lot of water lovers and we want to provide access for the canoe and kayak folks,” he says.

What I hate to see is landlubbers jumping on the kayak fishing bandwagon and driving it the wrong direction. Build the launch, but let’s make sure everyone can actually use it. To solve the dilemma, Bowles proposes, “The next one can have ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) access on one side and open area on the other.”

It’s not just facilities and access, I see non-paddlers defining paddlers all the time. I was in line at the bank, and the picture behind the teller had two kayakers paddling into the sunset. Lovely, but neither was wearing a life jacket. Who cares about saving for retirement if you don’t make it back? We’ve all seen an advertisement featuring male models holding spinning reels upside down.

The problem is, anglers interested in entering the sport get the wrong picture. Or, they’ll be discouraged by quirky designs or bad experiences and quit.

Think I’m kidding? Just look to what Bill and Ted did to surfing. The sport has never recovered from the stoner image.

Let kayak fishing grow, but let’s be sure we are keeping it real.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” ― Dr. Seuss, The Lorax | Photo: Patrick Buzz Hayes

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Ric Burnley
“Thank God my dad wasn’t a podiatrist,” jokes Ric about following in the footsteps of a famous outdoor writer. After graduating from Radford University and serving two years in Russia with the Peace Corps, Ric returned to Virginia Beach and started writing for The Fisherman magazine, where his dad was editor. When the kayak fishing scene exploded, Ric was among the first to get onboard. His 2007 book, The Complete Kayak Fisherman is one of the first tomes to introduce anglers to paddle fishing and hundreds of articles and seminars have brought countless anglers into the fold. When he’s not chasing every fish that swims, Ric teaches English at a school for at-risk teens.

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