Madison Smith kisses a blue runner that she caught off Pompano Beach before Capt. Tony DiGiulian releases it while Madison's father, Aaron, holds her.
(photos courtesy Tony DiGiulian)
Madison Smith, a young girl fighting SMA, has a dream fishing trip
Capt. Tony DiGiulian has fished all over the world for everything from swordfish to marlin, but one of his most memorable trips was last week out of Hillsboro Inlet catching blue runners.
He was fishing with Madison Smith, a 9-year-old who has spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that has had the little girl in a power wheelchair since she was 2.
Madison, of Pembroke Pines, had fished in bays and lakes, and really wanted to fish in the ocean.
DiGiulian, with the help of several other people, got her and her parents offshore on Wish List with Capt. J.P. Wolf.
They tied the 37-foot Willis to one of the mooring balls off Pompano Beach, put out a chum bag and helped Madison catch runners as well as ballyhoo, lizardfish, jacks, chubs and grunts using squid, shrimp and little chunks of bonito for bait.
"To be honest with you, if someone were to give me the opportunity to only tie off to those anchor balls for the rest of my career and only take someone like Madison fishing every day, I would trade that for going marlin fishing," DiGiulian said.
"She is a tough little cookie. She doesn't want to be babied. She makes you realize our little complaints and everyday problems are tiny."
DiGiulian was working in the Pelagic booth at last month's Miami International Boat Show when Madison and her parents, Aaron and Jen, stopped to see what was new.
It didn't take long for DiGiulian to realize that he had to take Madison fishing.
"I don't know what it was," DiGiulian said. "I've been doing this for a long time with all kinds of kids, but she and I almost instantaneously struck up a friendship and talked fishing."
When the Smiths mentioned that Madison, whose website is madisonswish.com, had major surgery scheduled for April 1, DiGiulian knew he had to act quickly to get her on the ocean.
Ron Kawaja of Pelagic said he wanted to sponsor the trip. Wolf, the captain of Wish List, said it was no problem to take everyone on the boat. Tom Ackel of Bluewater Chairs provided a special fighting chair for the boat for Madison. Andy Novak of LMR Tackle donated all the bait.
The trip was a success as soon as Wish List went out the inlet.
"The highlight for Madison was getting on the ocean for the first time," DiGiulian said.
"That was her dream.
"She was just blown away being on the ocean."
The fishing was phenomenal for Madison, who, when she wasn't in her fighting chair, sat on the transom while being held by one of her parents as she reeled in fish.
"She needed a little bit of help," DiGiulian said. "She can turn the handle, but it's tough for her. We helped her along, but she got the feel of the drag and the rod bending.
"She's so interested in the actual fish. She loves to touch them, her mind is so curious, and she got into kissing the fish before we released them. She was fascinated with the ballyhoo, believe it or not. She was amazed at the little orange dots at the end of their bills."
For DiGiulian, of Fort Lauderdale, that's what fishing with kids is all about.
Along with Clay Barker and artist Carey Chen, DiGiulian is one of the founders of Fish to Make a Difference. The 501c3 charity (visit fishtomakeadifference.com) enables youngsters who are fighting diseases and their families to go fishing for free with local captains.
"The highlight for me was just seeing the joy in Madison's face and the joy in her parents' face as well," said DiGiulian, who plans to get Madison back on the water. "And also exposing a child like that, who really wants to know, to the ocean and all the things that swim in it.
"She said, 'I don't care what kind of fish they are or how big they are, I just want to catch them.' It doesn't get much purer than that. Stuff like that inspires us to fish to make a difference."
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