Travis Bailey knows a thing or two about catching fish, but he might know even more about capturing the hearts, smiles and hugs of special-needs individuals who might otherwise never know the joy of hooking a fish.

Bailey, a retired McLennan County constable, presided over the 31st annual Really Big Fishing Event for Very Special People on Saturday, a celebration that has grown from a small tank, a few fish and 300 participants to a huge tank, 2,000 rainbow trout, 1,200 volunteers and 2,500 or more participants.

Bailey, 74, started the event, and for the past 20 years or so he has been assisted by Leo Gaines, a supervisor for the Heart of Texas Region MHMR, who oversees the day habilitation program for adults with special needs. Over the years, Bailey has been able to attract scores of volunteers who have learned of the event and know how much it means to so many special-needs people of all ages.

“When we started, we didn’t even have popcorn. All we had was a tank, and we turned it sideways and put it up against that wall over there,” Bailey said, pointing to a corner of the Creative Arts Building at the Extraco Events Center.

Now, it takes three days to set up for the event, which features fishing for foot-long rainbow trout in a 15,000-gallon tank, face and nail painting, games, food, a dance contest and blaring music, which for the past 21 years has been blasted by Jason Freeland of Apex Productions.

Gaines said the fishing event is something people with mental and physical challenges look forward to all year long.

“I think this event is so great because it provides an opportunity for them to get out and do some things they might not ordinarily get to do, particularly the fishing part of it,” Gaines said. “It is congregating in a huge area with a lot of other folks who have everybody’s best interest at heart. We focus on having a good time and we just want them to experience that. We want them to be a piece of that.”

Andy Jackson, of West, brought his 26-year-old special needs son to the event.

“This is something he has been looking forward to doing for a long time and something he enjoys doing every year,” Jackson said. “This is one of his favorite things to do.”

As the special-needs individuals arrived with their parents, MHMR groups, the Mexia State School or veterans groups from the Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Waco, they were met by volunteers, mostly Baylor University students who helped guide them around the event.

Law enforcement volunteers hooked them up with fishing poles, while Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens showed them how to wet their lines and haul in a trout, and members of VFW Post 6008 in Hewitt had the grill fired up out back and helped feed the crowd.

Once the participants caught a fish, they could take it to a back corner to get the fish cleaned by members of the Baylor Kappa Omega Tau fraternity, whose 120 members also helped construct the fish tank earlier in the week, set up tables and chairs and will help take it all down Saturday evening.

One young woman looked a little squeamish as KOT member Truett Newton, a junior from Lufkin, cut off the fish’s head and tail with a pair of scissors and spilled its guts into a metal container.

“They either like that part or hate it, but either way, it’s hilarious,” Newton said. “They always smile, and they are having such a great time and it’s very rewarding to be a part of something like this.”

Then they put the cleaned, pan-size trout in a plastic bag, which participants can take home and eat if they like. It likely will take Newton three days to wash the fish smell from his hands, but he said it all is worth it.

Among those in the crowd was Joseph Redman, who was attracting a lot of attention with a 3-foot stuffed catfish he was holding.

“This is Priscilla. She was recently named by one of my new friends I met here today,” said Redman, who works with day rehab programs in Waco and Marlin.

Redman, of Satin, who said he is 70 going on 14, once worked as a “humanitarian clown” called “Fungus,” lifting the spirits of people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and prisons. He also worked with Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, founder of the Gesundheit! Institute who incorporates humor and social activism in his medical practice. Adams’ life story was made into a movie starring Robin Williams.

Redman, a folk singer, said he incorporates his talent in his work with special-needs individuals.

“It doesn’t matter where they are mentally, music reaches them all,” he said. “From old songs, simple songs, kids songs, church songs, they don’t care. They love them all, and they love to sit and tap their feet.”

As Bailey walked through the crowd, he was stopped repeatedly by people who wanted to thank him and give him a hug for putting on the event.

“That is my payment,” Bailey said. “When I walk through and somebody comes up and gives me a hug or a big smile, that is all the pay I need. I have three sons, and all my children, thank God, are healthy. I was blessed, and for the grace of God, any one of (those with special needs) could have been mine. It makes me feel good to do it. It is the same for the other people who are helping. They wouldn’t come back every year if they didn’t enjoy it, and if they don’t get something out of this, they are missing the boat.”

Bailey said that despite the effort and the growth experienced by the event, he will keep doing it as long as he can.

“I can’t find anybody who will do it for the right reason. I don’t know if that makes any sense or not, but these are special, special people,” Bailey said. “I don’t want it commercialized in any way. I don’t want it to ever cost anybody a red cent to do it. If I can’t raise enough money to do everything we need, we just cut back. We just make do with what we have.”

Bailey said he was approached by a Waco businessman Saturday morning who asked if he needed anything. Bailey told him they were running a bit low on drinks.

The man returned with 50 12-packs of soft drinks and 25 cases of water.

“All he said was, ‘Where do you want me to put it,’ “ Bailey said. “Those are the kind of people we have here helping us out. It is just unbelievable.”

Staff writer at the Waco Tribune-Herald covering courts and criminal justice. Follow me on Twitter @TSpoonFeed.

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