Casting a line into the water hoping to catch a fish or waiting for a deer to walk in front of tree stand are pleasures many take for granted.
But imagine being confined to a wheelchair or having health issues preventing access to water or hunting grounds. There is one such place in Coosa County that helps all enjoy fishing and hunting — Outdoor Friends Forever. The trimmed pasture and groomed shoreline of a pond provide the perfect reprieve from life for Reba Pace and her son James Holzapfel IV of Gainesville, Florida. The mother-son duo recently moved back to Florida. Holzapfel has been wanting to go fishing for a long while.
“We lived in Texas and the water wasn’t very accessible,” Pace said. “Their handicap ramp, he couldn’t get down to it.”
Jim Hardy has turned his property into a paradise for those in wheelchairs.
“We tried to get it to where it’s accessible for people to get around,” Hardy said.
The bank surrounding the stocked pond at Hardy’s farm allows wheelchairs up to the edge and fun is had by all. The environment made Pace’s six-hour drive worthwhile.
“He’ll be talking about this all year,” Pace said of Holzapfel. “He’s been wanting to do this for so long.”
Doctors wanted Holzapfel to put the fishing off for a while to start a series of surgeries.
“After I get the surgery, I won’t be able to fish for a while,” Holzapfel said. “I said, ‘I’m going fishing.’”
Pace is caught between wanting her son to get better physically but understands the mental and emotional need of the fishing experience with Outdoor Friends Forever.
“He was supposed to have surgery,” Pace said. “(Holzapfel) told the doctor no. He postponed the surgery. He told the doctor, ‘What am I living for?’ If I can’t live, what I’m I living for? So, here we are.”
A few casts in Holzapfel lands his first fish reeling it in and posing for photographs with a teeth shining grin.
“Looky, looky what you got,” Pace said. “Look at you go. This makes it all worth it.”
Braden Jones of Talladega is sometimes a camper but also volunteers.
“He is amazing,” Hardy said. “He wants to volunteer. He doesn’t want to fish himself because he wants to help somebody else.”
Jones is just happy to see everyone taking part in something many don’t think about.
“It’s really awesome, just to come out here and have the kids be able to hunt and fish,” Jones said. “They figure out things they didn’t know they could do. It’s just fun to come out here and help and hunt and fish.”
Jones rides the farm in a golf cart Hardy helped outfit. Jones knows what it's like to be left behind not having access to shorelines, docks and hunting spots, but is hesitant to speculate what others experience with Outdoor Friends Forever.
“I couldn’t tell you myself what they are thinking but it has got to be pretty awesome,” Jones said. “It means a lot. I have come out here for several years and just loved it every single time.”
Everyone finds Outdoor Friends Forever in various ways. Holzapfel found Hardy on Facebook and had attended an event where Hardy was with fishing legends such as Hank Parker.
Volunteer Brandon Corbin of Leeds was turkey hunting with a friend next door to Hardy’s farm when he noticed a picture on the wall. It was before the lodge but it didn’t stop a conversation between Corbin and Hardy.
“I came over that day and met Jim, talked to him wanting to be involved,” Corbin said. “I haven’t missed one since yet. I’m always here.”
Even a new job didn’t stop Corbin from being around his friends at the Outdoor Friends Forever Farm. Corbin informed his potential employer about a few conditions for him taking the job.
“I said there are two Saturdays in the fall I can’t work,” Corbin said. “They said, ‘What is it?’ I told them I do hunting for kids with special needs. There are Saturdays before that I got to help set things up. They said anytime you are doing that just let us know. They let me off on Fridays too.”
Corbin is frequently paired up with Nick Sandlin of Gardendale for fishing and hunting. But their relationship is more than a guide and camper.
“We have a love-hate relationship,” Corbin joked. “He is a big Auburn fan and I’m a big Alabama fan. We talk at one another. We talk a lot of smack; it’s continuous.”
Like any friends on the opposite side of a rivalry, bets ensue. Corbin’s and Sandlin’s bet surround wearing their least favorite team gear at the farm when a bet is lost.
“He has to wear it down here in front of everybody,” Corbin said. “They know how big of an Auburn fan he is.”
Lately Sandlin has had to wear crimson over his favorite orange and blue. But Corbin has had to don orange and blue in front of the Outdoor Friends Forever family.
“I didn’t like it,” Corbin said. “I went to Alex City and bought a shirt. I gave it to him after. It was either that or use it for a grease rag, one of the two.”
The Crimson Tide has disturbed hunting.
“He was listening to the SEC Championship on the radio,” Corbin said. “I was watching it on the phone with an ear bud. There was a delay between the two and Bama scored. I kicked his chair in the hunting hut.”
Corbin’s and Sandlin’s relationship is a lot like two old friends who hunt and fish together.
“You hold onto that fishing pole, you got it,” Corbin told Sandlin last week. “You see, I’m not a bad fisherman, am I?”
Sandlin gave Corbin a smirk on the bank of the pond.
“I’m just a bad hunter,” Corbin said. “He won’t hunt with me because he said I'm bad luck. I carry any other kid hunting and we kill a deer. Me and him go...uhmm nothing. Maybe it's the orange juice.”
Someone else can come along with Corbin and Sandlin and the fate is the same but when Sandlin goes with someone else the luck changes.
“I can’t be in the mix at all,” Corbin said. “He is like one of us. He comes and stays with us at our camp, hangs out with us. He’s always with me or my buddy but he don’t want to hunt with me.”
Corbin calls Sandlin ‘Outlaw.’ Sandlin grins at his call sign.
“He will shoot (almost anything),” Corbin said. “He will look up and say, ‘Roll it.’ He wanted me to shoot an orange cat one day.
“He’s got another nickname, ‘Killer,’” Corbin said. “He always kills something when he’s here as long as he isn’t hunting with me.”
The fishing is good for everyone thanks to crickets and plenty of fish.
“You want to catch another bass or you want to keep catching bluegill?” Corbin asked Sandlin.
A turtle rises to the surface catching the attention of the ‘brothers.’ Sandlin wants to see if they can reel it in.
“I’ll help you catch it, but you are getting it off,” Corbin told Sandlin. “I’m not getting bit.”
To some it may appear Corbin and Sandlin are bullies but it’s all in good fun.
“He’s my buddy,” Corbin said. “I’ve known him so long he’s like family to me now. We fight like brothers and love like brothers.”
But Corbin isn’t ready to give up on hunting with Sandlin.
“Will you help me teach my girl to hunt?” Corbin asked Sandlin. “Will you go with me?”
Sandlin agrees to help, putting aside the fact deer seem to run from the pair.
Corbin has moved on from being behind the gun so much.
“I'd do anything for this one here or any of them,” Corbin said. “I love doing this for the kids. Everybody has given me grief about my hunting. I’ve missed all sorts of stuff to go hunting, now I know what my hunting is for. I would rather these kids kill a deer, catch a fish or whatever than me any day.
“I have gotten to the point where I enjoy seeing others enjoy it more than me actually hunting. This is a life changing experience. Your priorities change.”