Bass and Love are Both Four Letter Words
Curt and Mary Sweely defy the odds because of their love of bass fishing and one another
They gently banter about who caught the bigger fish. The twinkle in his eye catches her gentle smile. This is a love story among fishing tales.
Curt Sweely is 63 years old. He lives with Becker Muscular Dystrophy in a world where most patients die in their early fifties. But, Curt defies those statistics because that’s all they are. Statistics. He is bigger than life. His positive attitude lights up his world.
It is now 5 am and Mary starts the process of getting ready for today’s fishing tournament. She readies herself, the equipment, and then Curt. She helps him slide into his motorized wheelchair and out into the night they roll. At their custom built Chevy Silverado pickup, Curt positions his chair onto the specially designed lift and at the push of a button the chair and he rise into the passenger side of the truck. He adjusts his view. Mary adjusts the boat trailer connections, and then she hops into the driver’s seat. The team is ready to go catch fish.
Curt was one of the founding members of the Tioga County Bass Anglers’ Club, 36 years ago. Back then, he was a little more mobile, a little stronger, but none the less, had that characteristic twinkle in his eye. The local club is active all summer long with fishing tournaments and also sponsors special youth activities, like the annual June tournament on Cowanesque Lake for local youth.
Curt and Mary are active members of the Club. During the years they have been members, Curt has missed only a handful of tournaments due to medical reasons. He has won numerous awards and participated in hundreds of tournaments. 374 tournaments to be exact. Mary keeps the statistics for the club these days and Curt keeps records for all of the fish ever caught by club members. From the beginning. “Lady Bass Angler” and “Mr. Bassmaster” are regulars, whether the tournament is 15 minutes down the road from home or two hours away.
It is now 6:15 am and it’s time to get the bass boat into the water. “On the Water”. It’s the name of Mary’s Facebook page that chronicles their fishing adventures. On the water is also one of Curt and Mary’s favorite places to be. The great equalizer. A good day on the water may or may not mean a great day catching fish. It doesn’t matter. Well, not a whole lot. What matters is the time together, doing something they love.
Curt slips his wheelchair onto the lift alongside the truck and he lowers himself to the ground. Mary readies the platforms and ramp that Curt will use to get himself into the boat. It’s a two person job. Once up the ramp, Curt raises his wheelchair seat, up and up until he is level with the boat on the trailer. Mary waits in the boat and she helps him get situated. A little tug here, a little pull there until Curt is seated at the wheel of the boat. He says, “Are you ready?” Almost. She returns the wheelchair and equipment to the truck and then ably drives Curt and the boat to the boat launch.
She steadily backs the truck to the water. He deftly starts the boat and slips it off the trailer into the silent lake. It’s still. It’s early morning. It’s stunningly beautiful. And it’s home for the day.
It’s now 7AM. And the tournament is about to start. The horn blows and all of the boats and their competitors start out for each person’s favorite fishing spot. Curt and Mary know exactly where they plan to spend the day. Water, food, supplies, equipment: all there. Except for the bad luck banana”. A banana in the boat bodes for a bad day fishin’, Curt reminds Mary as she disposes of it before they head out.
Once they arrive at their fishing spot, it’s time for Curt to transfer to the bow of the boat. Usually, transfer boards aren’t long enough to cover the distance Curt needs to move in the boat, but that’s okay; Mary made custom boards. She handles his transfer and then she lifts him onto his modified seat. And finally, once he is in place, she elevates him, using a contraption some friends invented, using in part, a car scissor jack bolted between the seat and the boat. She cinches down a specially-made seatbelt so that he can’t fall out of the boat when it rocks from the waves. And then they settle in.
Curt can’t use his feet to control a typical trolling motor. No problem. They use a remote control so that he can still move the boat around.
Time passes. 8AM, 9AM, 10AM. They quietly fish along the shore of the lake in their favorite spots.
A storm blows up and they tuck their bass boat under a nearby bridge to wait it out. It doesn’t take long before the sun is out again and the day is bright. The arrival of the weather front means the fishing will be poor, they say, but who cares. Mary gets her camera out and takes photos. Curt excitedly points out a large black bear swimming along the shore near them. Mary snaps some more photos.
Noon: time for lunch. 1:00 PM and the tournament will soon be over.
It’s 1:30 PM and Mary and Curt arrive back at the boat launch as the other boats start coming in too. It’s a reverse of the morning routine, and soon Curt is in his wheelchair and telling stories with the rest of the bass anglers. Mary retrieves the day’s catch from the live-well and gets the fish weighed. It’s a small catch but it is fish. And they are Curt’s.
Does Mary care? Probably. She competes against Curt and the other anglers at each tournament. But there are more important things to do. Chatting with the other competitors, congratulating the winners, passing dollar bills to each other depending on whether you won the bet or not. Soon Mary has the squeaky stuffed toy skunk in her hands offering it to members who “got skunked” today. Curt won it last week. It’s up for grabs this week.
Mary says that the companionship and camaraderie are special with this bass fishing club: part of what keeps them coming back to each tournament. But she also knows that their fishing days are numbered. One moment she is suggesting that instead of fishing, they will just attend the weigh-ins next year. But then, this is Unflappable Mary with the huge heart for the love of her life. Not too long later she says, “I’ve been thinking… we can modify our equipment again, this way.”….
Solutions are always being formulated in her mind and Curt keeps on smiling. He knows just what a jewel he has for a wife. And he astutely says nothing about catching more fish today.
It’s not about the fish anyway, is it?
This couple knows the power of their love story and how to count each day as a good one. Mary says, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”. It sure looks like there is.
As they stand close to one another for a photo, Mary says, “I don’t like my picture to be taken”.
They look somber. But I ask, “….Do you like one another?” And that’s it. They look into one another’s eyes and big grins appear.
Yes they do.
Story and photos by Linda Stager
Linda Stager is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and is the author of the Pine Creek Rail Trail Guidebook, available on Amazon.
But more importantly, Linda is Curt and Mary’s friend.