On a recent August morning, a large pontoon boat took to the water in Ottawa's south end, carrying residents of a local home for adults with developmental disabilities.
While fishing was part of the excursion, captain Pat O'Brien says the free Friends in Sportfishing trips are about much more.
"There's a real therapeutic effect for everybody because it's water, it's nature, it's excitement," he explained.
"Our motto is 'catch the smile,' which is more important than catching the fish. And when you look at how happy our groups are, it shows just how worthwhile it is."
For nearly three decades, the non-profit's team of volunteer captains and fishers have taken people who might not otherwise get the opportunity out on half-day boat rides and fishing trips — all for free.
On this particular trip, O'Brien, the group's vice-president, hosted three residents of the Ottawa-Carleton Association for Persons with Developmental Disabilities (OCAPDD), which offers housing and services for adults with developmental and often physical disabilities.
Tracey Donovan shared her excitement at being out on the boat that August morning. Though she was the only one who managed to snag a fish — a small perch about 20 centimetres long — her catch still led to cheers and smiles from everyone aboard.
Michael Hiscoe, the group's director of supports and services, said he expects the experience will have a lasting impact.
"They're going to be talking about this for weeks," said Hiscoe. "It's just such a great opportunity for the people we support to be able to get out and have a unique and special experience for them in a way that accommodates their needs."
O'Brien, who's been hosting these outings since retiring more than a decade ago, says it's especially rewarding to watch the evolution of clients who've sometimes never been on the water before.
"At first, they don't want to get on the boat," said O'Brien. "You get them on the boat, they go out, they see the smiles, and then they don't want to get off the boat. When they leave they give you hugs."
And they keep coming back for more, he said.
"Some of them have been with us for years and years. They've really become family and friends."
The charity has hosted over 1,200 people on over 150 trips so far this year, including children living in lower-income neighbourhoods and seniors living in long-term care home.
"We get people sharing memories. They hold the [fishing] line and it brings back childhood," said O'Brien, recalling one memorable outing with a group of older women who were in a choir.
"They got all dressed up and wore flouncy hats and sang songs all the way up the Rideau Canal."
The charity supplies all the rods and worms, and only uses barbless hooks as part of its catch and release policy, explained O'Brien.
For him, the best part is not reeling in the fish, but seeing the excitement that spreads over clients' faces when they get a nibble.
"When you see the happiness and joy that people get from a simple thing that we take for granted, it just renews the faith and commitment ... and carrying on with the organization making sure that it continues to provide free trips."