Special needs kids, families enjoy day fishing on Lake Verret

On an idyllic Saturday morning on the calm waters of Lake Verret, a fishing boat ripped across the waves as James Edwards tried to feed Kaitlynn Blackledge’s urgent need for speed.

Edwards tried to convince Blackledge, a 15-year-old Petal, Mississippi, native with Down syndrome, to fish, but after catching one small fish early in the day, she wanted to go fast and see alligators.

So that’s what they did as Blackledge would tap Edwards’ leg and say “fast.”

“We went fast a lot, and she had a blast,” Bonnie Blackledge, Kaitlynn’s mother, said after setting foot back on dry land. They also saw three gators.

The Blackledges made the 31/2-hour trek to Pierre Part along with about a dozen other area families from south Louisiana and Mississippi for an unusual event Saturday. It paired local and professional anglers for a morning on the lake with special needs children, some of whom were baiting a hook and casting for the first time.

The event was organized by Renee and Kevin Rivault, of Lafayette, with help from Fishers of Men and the United Special Sportsman Alliance, a group that sponsors hunting and fishing trips with special needs and critically ill children, as well as wounded veterans.

Several local businesses and Pierre Part residents also volunteered and donated items so the Rivaults did not have to spend a dime of the money they saved up for the event. Each participant received a bag filled with items donated by businesses, including hats and a signed photo from Troy Landry, of “Swamp People,” a cookbook from Tony Chachere’s and fishing lures and hooks.

“We’re here to give them a memory they’re not going to forget,” said Winston Michel, a state Wildlife and Fisheries agent and competitive fisherman.

He hooked friends from the fishing tour — some of whom took a day off work — into giving their time and talents on Saturday. Michel’s brother-in-law, Scott Hebert, was one of the locals Michel asked to volunteer Saturday.

“I love seeing kids happy, love showing kids how to fish,” Hebert said after returning with William Stevenson and his son Matt. “I like the kids’ faces when they catch a nice fish.”

On the freshwater lake where anglers can catch bream, catfish and bass, pickup trucks began lining up at the boat launch on South Bay Road, across from Bayside Launch and Tackle, around 7 a.m. as eager families waited for the event to get underway.

A priest came out to bless the fleet, then the boats were off with 13 special needs children and seven of their siblings.

Kevin Rivault said one of the things that drew them to USSA was that they invite the rest of the family to take part in the event, not just the special needs child.

Many fishermen stuck to the wooded areas along the outer perimeter of the lake, some with more success than others.

One boy, Ethan Champagne, 12, from Denham Springs, decided to stay on land and fished from the dock under the watchful eye of his mother, while his younger brother Matthew Champagne got some tips from husband and wife fishing duo Jim and Cindy Breaux.

“He’s in charge,” Cindy Breaux said, pointing to Matthew, who was a casting machine under the tutelage of the professional anglers.

Rita Champagne, Ethan’s and Matthew’s mother, said they were so excited when they got the call from the USSA about the event because both boys like to fish and they could do so in an environment created specifically for special needs children like themselves.

Both have Fragile X Syndrome, a disability that affects one in every 5,000 boys, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our kids don’t get to do a lot of stuff that typical kids get to do, so it’s a great opportunity,” Rita Champagne said. “I think what makes it so easy is the acceptance. These people have been amazing. They’ve been very patient.”

The Rivaults held the event in honor of their son Austin Rivault, 15, who was shot and killed on Feb. 10, 2013, in an incident that is being pursued in civil and criminal courts.

Austin Rivault was an avid hunter and fisherman who enjoyed watching and reading about the outdoors, so the family decided to hold the fishing charity event in his name as a way to honor his memory.

Austin Rivault and his father would often load up their boat and drive from Lafayette early in the morning to False River or Lake Verret for a day on the water together.

Renee Rivault said while Saturday’s event was bittersweet because it stirred up some emotions about her son’s death, the event was a “good thing to come out of a tragedy.”

She said they are looking to make the event an annual one, but they may move it to later in the fall when the weather is cooler.