Clear, plastic bags were thrust into the air with pride. Inside, a set of wide eyes, gills and plenty of scales looked out from a handful of ice cubes.

“You can see the smiles and everything,” said Mike Pritchett, who co-founded Fishing Day at Salem Pond, an annual event bringing together special education students in Nebo School District. “That is priceless to me and everyone.”

The event started 31 years ago with 16 students in Payson Canyon. Tuesday morning, more than 1,600 students were on the edges of Salem Pond, excitedly catching fish and watching them get cleaned.

The event has become an annual tradition that takes place every second Tuesday in May. It’s grown every year, and was eventually moved from the canyon to Salem Pond to give the students more room.

In 2012, Pritchett said a group of donors came together to install benches and safety railing on part of the shoreline to make the pond more disability-friendly.

The event exists to give the students the opportunity to fish — an activity most of them have never done before.

“A lot of the parents aren’t able to get them out and into the wilderness like this,” said Dayna Zeeman, a technician at Orchard Hills Elementary School in Santaquin.

Tuesday was her second year attending the event. She said her students had been asking all month about Fishing Day.

Tuesday, her students were excited to touch live fish in barrels, catch fish that were pre-attached to fishing lines and watch ducks swim by.

“A lot of the nonverbal kids, you can tell how happy they are,” Zeeman said.

She said the event created a safe space for the students to try something new because every child present had a disability.

“It’s great for them to come here and not be stared at,” Zeeman said. “It’s an easier environment for the kids.”

Volunteers from multiple environmental and hunting-related organizations were present to help students catch and clean the fish. Students had the option to take the fish they caught home with them.

Ryan Nelson, a volunteer with the Dedicated Hunter program, has come to the event for 10 years, even if he wasn’t directly volunteering through the program.

“I keep coming back because I enjoy working with the kids,” Nelson said.

Student cheered and screamed when they pulled up their fishing lines to see a fish there. Those moments of joy are what has kept the event going.

Pritchett remembers one student who was born blind and fished for the first time at the event. The student could feel the fishing line and tell how far out the line was. The next year, Pritchett learned that the student and his mother had gone fishing every week.

Pritchett said the student would hold the fish in his hand.

“He couldn’t see it, but he could feel every bit of it,” Pritchett said.

Braley Dodson covers health and education for the Daily Herald.

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