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Catch and Release

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

A catch and release fishing derby for charity has one Canuck fired up

For three nights and four days next week, Willie Mitchell will be virtually inaccessible.

Calls will go to voice mail, emails won’t be replied and there won’t be any sightings of the veteran Canucks defenceman around Vancouver; he’ll be off the radar.

Just a week before training camp opens Mitchell will be in his happy place indulging in the passion that has exhilarated and frustrated him since he was a kid. He’ll be fishing.

Mitchell will once again take part in the West Coast Fishing Club’s fourth annual Fishing for Kids Fundraising Tournament from September 3-6.

Held at the Clubhouse on Langara Island, the northernmost of 150 islands that make up the Queen Charlotte Islands archipelago in northern BC, the catch and release derby is the Super Bowl of fishing for local anglers and Mitchell just happens to be one of them.

Far and away with a fishing rod in hand is where Mitchell will end his summer, but he isn’t simply satisfying his fishing urge. As usual, he’s using a sport he loves to help others.

Over the past three years proceeds from the fishing tournament have gone to the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, a centre for international child health, with $1.5 million having already been raised.

Also benefiting from the event this year will be CAN, the Canucks Autism Network, an organization that delivers high caliber innovative sports, recreation, social and vocational programs to the children and families living with autism in BC.

“What’s so unique about this is that there’s only around 40 participants,” said Brian Grange, chair of the event and one the masterminds behind it. “We’ve managed to raise a lot of money in only three years and we’re now aligned with another great organization so we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished."

The derby, a traditional cut plug herring event, has done nothing but gain momentum since its inception in 2006. A big reason for that, according to Grange, is the involvement of Mitchell, who will compete in his third tournament this year.

Mitchell’s popularity throughout BC has not only helped this become a high-profile event, but it ensures that it continues to receive much needed attention and awareness around the province.

“The best part about it is that he’s a BC fisherman and he’s got a lot of respect in the angling world so it adds that into the mix,” added Grange.

For Mitchell, a player who bends over backwards often to help charities involving children, fishing is simply the icing on the cake.

As a member of the Minnesota Wild in 2001, the 8-year NHL veteran worked with a youth group associated with the team and formed a bond with a little boy named Xavier. The pair clicked and Mitchell began to understand the importance of helping kids in need.

“We just hit it off and after that something that I gravitated towards was being around and helping out the youth.

“I’ve been fortunate in my life, knock on wood, that the people who have been around me my whole life are still alive for the most part with no serious illnesses for the most part. So it’s important for me to give back.”

Mitchell gives back one of the best ways he knows how, by reeling in big fish. Or that’s his intent.

The Port Mcneill product has yet to win the derby – which had traditionally determined a winner by the total weight of the two-day catch, but is changing things up this year and going with the single biggest fish – and when he does the bragging rights will be sweet, yet not as sweet as how it will feel to donate the winnings back to the aforementioned charities.

“Just to be able to present that cheque back to them would be great. It would be quite an honour to be able to say I did that. I just think that would be such a thrill.”

To accomplish that, Mitchell will have to haul in the biggest chinook salmon, the largest member of the salmon family. Chinook salmon have been known to grow in excess of 58 inches in length and weigh up to 129 pounds, although Mitchell, who reeled in a 31 pound salmon this summer, isn’t anticipating seeing any that big.

“The biggest fish I’ve ever caught was a 50 pound salmon,” said Mitchell. “If I caught a 50 pounder on this trip, I like my chances of winning. I’m guessing this year it’ll be something in the high 30s, low 40s.”

Mitchell guesstimates that by the end of 2009 he will have devoted four weeks to fishing scattered throughout the year. Much of that time was spent just outside of Telegraph Cove near his residence on the North end of Vancouver Island, but he also trolled the waters in Panama for a week this summer.

Unlike hockey where practice can make perfect, Mitchell has no advantage over his competition because of his time spent on the water over the summer. He’ll need a little fortune on his side if he’s to walk away as champion this year.

“A large component of fishing is an element of luck, there’s no doubt about that, fishing is a lucky thing," Mitchell laughed.

“If this tournament goes on long enough maybe I’ll win it someday. If you keep pushing, sooner or later the door opens, right?”

For the benefit of the children, we hope so.

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