By Jim Sullivan ~
One cannot have a conversation about Blue Ribbon trout waters and not bring up the names Pere Marquette, Au Sable, Batten Kill, and of coarse the Madison. It was this kind of river that I thought I would never be able to fish again after my accident that left me a T11 paraplegic eight years ago. I have always loved fly fishing and felt this type of trout water would be impossible to get on. The future of my fishing would be for blue gills on the banks of my pond. Little did I know that I would have the opportunity to attend a fishing camp called Camp Bullwheel.
Camp Bullwheel is in Ennis, Montana and is the creation of Peter Pauwels and Frank Bell. It has been designed to be an accessible camp that can provide disabled anglers a quality float trip experience.
Peter has spent many years at Craig Hospital in Denver in the Adaptive Engineering Department creating aids to make life easier for handicapped patients. Over the years he has also developed adaptive fishing rods, sip and puff casting systems, electric fishing reels, shooting systems, and adaptive boats.
Frank is the owner of the cabin that has become the camp lodge. The name Bullwheel comes from a huge wood bullwheel that was left on the property after a turn of the century oil well failed and pulled out. Today the bullwheel is all that was left from that business venture. For many years the cabin was a rental unit for fisherman. It is located just a stones throw from the Varney Bridge Landing on a beautiful section of the Madison River. The cabin has been converted to have extra wide doorways, wheelchair ramps, and a roll in shower.
Bullwheel was designed to be a very comfortable and family oriented fishing camp for all to enjoy. The lodge had room for family members to come along and enjoy the experience. On this trip I was fortunate to have my wife Barb, our son Eric, our daughter Katie and her husband Paul join me on this adventure. Rafts and guides were made available so that everyone could fish together. Being able to float down the river and see each other catching fish, laughing, and enjoying the beautiful surroundings made for an unforgettable family trip.
Each day began with a tasty breakfast before everyone got moving to set everything up for the day’s adventure. The raft trailers were hooked up and loaded with all of the gear that was needed for the day. The fishermen and rafts were dropped off at the launch site while the pick up vans and trailers were moved down river. A lot of planning goes into each day’s float which may be five, seven, or even nine miles long.
Peter developed a raft system that has a front ramp that can be dropped on the shore so a wheelchair can roll onto the raft. That enables the challenged angler to fish from his or her own wheelchair. The raft can take up to three people so that a caregiver or extra fisherman can be with the guide.
The river was slow moving in this section and the shoreline was absolutely beautiful. As we floated we witnessed the serenity of the cliffs, mountains, and rolling hills. On the banks we saw mule deer, moose, and bald eagles. Along the shore we had our choice of places to pull over to eat our lunch and just enjoy our surroundings. We were able to set the pace of the day to our liking.
The fishing was fantastic. The water has both brown and rainbow trout. It was very common for multiple fishermen to have fish on at one time. Camp Bullwheel practices catch and release thus ensuring a great future for the river. The Madison is widely known as a fly fishing river; however, if you don’t fly fish that is not a problem. The camp has spinning rods set up and ready to go.
The evenings were our time to kick back, relax, and relive the day on the water. Fishing stories were told and pictures were passed around. We enjoyed the gourmet dinners the chef made from a list of all our favorite foods. The camaraderie and hospitality was part of the experience that we will never forget.
After dinner some chose to go into the town of Ennis, which is less than ten miles away. Ennis is a historic little town that bills itself as “Trout Town USA.” Here we found great shops, excellent restaurants and bars, and fun loving people. (If anyone were to ever need medical attention there is an excellent medical facility on the edge of town.)
Camp Bullwheel had its inaugural season in 2018. The camp was founded on the premise of making the outdoors accessible and creating success for disabled outdoorsmen. Camp Bullwheel operates totally on all volunteer help and financial donations. The volunteers have had experience working with all levels of disabilities. In its first season the lodge was filled each week and was a great success. Peter and Frank’s vision of a camp where all can enjoy the great outdoors will serve as a model for camps in the future.
Jim Sullivan created a website called Accessible Outdoors. His mission is to share information that will help others who are searching to get back to a life outdoors, just as he did after his fall from a tree stand in 2011 that resulted in his injury.