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SPECIAL NEEDS KIDS HAVE EXTRA-SPECIAL OUTING

Kids aboard the Excalibur got the drift quickly while fishing around popular structures in Buffalo Harbor last Saturday morning.

Excalibur, a specially fitted 30-foot vessel, provides handicapped and impaired children and adults either fishing or cruising trips out of the Buffalo Small Boat Harbor each warm-water season.

Crow's Nest Fishing Club sponsors a day each summer and former Sabres player Rob Ray gets out for a morning of competition, checking on how the fish are biting.

Ray, now retired from the rink, has begun other business ventures, but he could thrive at a business involving kids. Often, children recuperating from an illness and riding in a big boat on their first trip can be withdrawn.

Ray draws them out.

The Excalibur usually runs trips with kids who use wheelchairs. Deck space usually does not allow for parents and other relatives along for the fishing.

This trip included three kids who had recovered from childhood cancer. Alissa Cole, 12, of Fredonia, Taylor Speth, 9, of the Town of Tonawanda and Thomas Amenta, 14, from Buffalo's Riverside neighborhood all looked fit for fishing tasks and for Ray's verbal sparring once the lines went into the water.

The Cole family included dad and mom, John and Rosanne, and brother John Jr. Speth brought his dad, Bruce, along to confirm his fish stories from the year before.

Amenta, on his own, always seemed to be on the other side of the boat when it drifted over biting fish. An adept skateboarder and computer whiz, Amenta had a good time, but he spent too much of it removing moss from his hook and sinker.

Taylor Speth not only bonded well during his Excalibur outing last summer, he also found a way to relate to the bait. When his trip ended last year, he asked to keep leftover crayfish that had been used for bait.

The captain gave him two and he took them home as "pets." Dad found the proper food. Taylor lost one early but the survivor, which got the name "Bullet," made it through the year. Dad estimates Bullet has grown to four inches now.

Crayfish used as bait didn't last that long. John Cole Jr. hooked into the first game fish, a nice smallmouth bass, but crayfish consumption around Buffalo Harbor breakwaters and the Roundhouse mainly went to sheepshead.

"We're catching a lot of junk fish," John Jr. said, after the kids had brought in a half-dozen of these big -- often well above five pounds -- less-than-desirable fish species.

Ray, assisting Alissa Cole, kept trying to have her top her brother John's fish count and content. A drift close to the Roundhouse, a water intake for the Col. Ward Pumping Station, did it all for Alissa. As soon as her rig hit bottom, she hooked into and caught a 20-inch walleye.

Others caught smallmouth bass along with too many sheepshead, but Alissa's "yellow pike" crowned all fish caught.

Ray radiated. Alissa's catch would have been envied two days earlier during the BassEye Challenge held in these same waters. All fish caught were photographed and quickly returned.

Capt. Brian Bors and his first and best mate, wife Peggy, helped the kids with tackle tips and tricks while giving all on board some highlights on the various structures along and around Buffalo Harbor.

Trips such as these go mornings and afternoons when the weather cooperates, said Jim Catalano, board president of Excalibur Leisure Skills Center.

Usually, the Excalibur starts running trips sometime between May 15 and June 1. But "we got off to a late start because of mechanical problems and unexpected repairs," Catalano said. "With repairs and bad weather, we finally got started on the July 4th weekend."

Weather protection and deck space have been problems for the vessel Excalibur Leisure Skills Center currently uses. Catalano has been working on plans for a new vessel next year.

"An Island Hopper, a commercial-grade boat, has about the same length but will have much more beam (width) than the current Excalibur -- and will be wheelchair accessible from the factory," he said.

The Leisure Skills Center, with much help from Assemblyman Richard A. Smith, D-Hamburg, has raised all but about $25,000 to meet the total cost of $185,000 for its new Island Hopper.

An interactive video on the Leisure Skills Center Web site shows the entire program at: www.excaliburls.org.

To donate time or funds to this program, call 831-3188 or write: Excalibur Leisure Skills Center, Box 68, Kenmore, NY 14217.

e-mail: wille@pce.net

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