I go on a lot of fun trips as part of my job, and friends always ask me what trip has been my favorite. I’ve never been able to narrow it down to one, but I know that way up on the list is any of the fishing trips I’ve shared with Capt. Ponytail Guide Service, and that was solidified last weekend when I joined him and some other anglers on the Roanoke River as part of the Dream Hunting and Fishing Foundation.

The Dream Hunting and Fishing Foundation is a non-profit organization that partners with volunteers to offer outdoor trips to ill or disabled youth that have a hunting or fishing wish. They offer the same services to wounded warriors and to families of fallen first responders. Capt. Ponytail has been guiding fishing trips for the program for several years, and I jumped at the chance to join him last weekend.

Part of the reason I’ve always enjoyed fishing with Capt. Ponytail (336-240-5649) is because Capt. Rod Thomas, (Capt. Ponytail) doesn’t fish one body of water. Instead, he fishes wherever the fishing is typically the best during that time of year. April is the start to some of the hottest striper fishing of the year on the Roanoke River, thanks to the spawning run that takes place year after year in the spring. So that’s where we fished last weekend.

But there’s more to it than the fishing. Last fall, I joined him on a trip with Howell Brown, a 12-year-old with terminal cancer, who wanted to catch a bull redfish after hearing about another kid’s fishing trip. How could anyone not enjoy being a part of such a trip, even if just as a reporter?

The first trip last weekend was with Mark Jenkins of Hertford, N.C. and his family. Jenkins is a wounded warrior who suffers from seizures brought on by severe brain trauma he suffered while serving as a military policeman. His wife Laura, two young sons, and his service dog Scout joined us.

Jenkins’ wish wasn’t to catch a fish. It was to see his oldest son catch a fish. It didn’t take long for that to happen. After casting a bait fish out, Thomas noticed the rod bend, so he pulled it out of the rod holder and let 4-year-old Theodore reel the fish, a 16-inch striper, to the boat. You can already imagine the size of the smile on the child’s face, but his dad had an even bigger one. It got even bigger later in the trip as his youngest son William, just over a year old, played a hand in reeling in another fish.

In between the fish biting, we listened to Jenkins talk about serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to his wife talk about meeting him while he was at Walter Reed Medical Center recovering from his injuries.

The second trip was for Kaylee Rios, an 8-year-old cancer patient. Kaylee has been fighting for her life for the past 6 years after being diagnosed with Stage 4 High Risk Neuroblastoma. She's achieved remission, relapsed, and is currently in her fifth battle and is receiving treatment in New York and Virginia. And all she wanted to do last Saturday was catch a fish. Who wouldn't want to be a part of seeing her do that?

Kaylee was joined by her parents, her 9-year-old sister Rylee, and their friend Ethan Jordan. It was Rylee who caught the first fish, and Ethan reeled in the second. But Kaylee’s rod finally got bit, and after that, all three caught fish in between the regular banter of kids that age. 

We didn’t talk about cancer. We fished. And talked about why bananas aren’t allowed on boats, and which of the kids had the biggest Gatorade mustache, about the ospreys which we could see catching fish in the river, and about the remnants of an old train trestle we spotted on the banks of the Roanoke River. And when Kaylee caught a keeper-sized catfish, we talked about its whiskers and where not to touch it to avoid getting stuck by its fins. 

And in between all that, we watched the kids reel in fish. Then with time running short, Thomas called “last cast,” and a few minutes later, Kaylee landed the last fish of the day, a striper that was barely too short to keep. But she didn’t mind throwing it back. She knows what it means to fight, and even though she didn’t say it, I’m sure she appreciated the fighting nature of the fish, and her cherry red Gatorade mustache stretched wide as she smiled when it hit the water and disappeared under the surface.

And at least for that day, Kaylee's focus – and that of her parents – was more on enjoying a day on the river than on chemotherapy and the every day struggles they're faced with.

Her parents thanked me for coming. Thomas thanked me for making the drive to join them. And Terry Boyce, who runs the Dream Hunting and Fishing Program thanked me too. But the truth is, I couldn’t possibly thank them enough for allowing me to tag along. 

Click here to learn more about the Dream Hunting and Fishing Program, which is accepting applicants and is always happy to receive donations and volunteers.

To find out more about Kaylee and her treatment, click here