Tucked away by the North Fork of the Newaukum River in Chehalis lives a pioneer in the truest sense of the word. Noel Cole, World War II veteran and former manager at Yard Birds Family Shopping Center, took his passion for fishing one step further by building a pond on his land. Inhabited by trout and salmon, the Noel Cole Fish and Wildlife Project offers senior citizens, veterans with disabilities, and students with special needs the chance to reel one in.

After getting out of the VA hospital and marrying Barbara Tauscher, the couple moved from Missouri to Chehalis, where the Tauscher family lived on 165 acres of land (the current property now spans six acres.) “Back then when you homesteaded, the first thing you had to do to qualify was to put in a hundred fruit trees,” says Noel. “We used to have every fruit tree there was – apples, prunes, pears, peaches.” In addition to preserves, the trees on the land provided the family with old-growth timber.

Noel Cole Fish and Wildlife Project
Noel and Michele Cole putting the family land to good use. Photo credit: Greg Carlson

Noel’s idea for his fishing spot came about at the beginning of the ’80s. “I kept looking at this hole on my land and thought, ‘I could make a fishpond there,’ Noel remarks. “My brother at that time had a small bulldozer, so I borrowed it and dug a round circle, six feet deep and six feet across, and put in about five hundred trout.” After a while, Noel realized a bigger fishpond would be beneficial and created a new space on the other side of the land, big enough for one million gallons of water and several schools of trout and salmon.

A chance meeting with Larry Balestra at the Olympia chapter of Trout Unlimited resulted in a long-term partnership and a raised profile for Noel’s fishpond. “I worked the Trout Unlimited end along with the Department of Fish and Wildlife because we had a lot of people in our club at that time,” says Larry. “Bob Lucas, a biologist, got interested in this project and started working with the two of us. We received advice on building the pond for the fish and the shade and cover that they needed, the natural water from the river to make them adapt better to the area – he helped us put it all together.” Once everything was in place, the Noel Cole Fish and Wildlife Project opened its gates in 1983.

Noel Cole Fish and Wildlife Project
Willis James of W.F. West High School displaying his three catches of the day. Photo credit: Julie Johnston

As with many Lewis County-based businesses and organizations, word of Noel’s fishing destination spread through chance meetings with community members. “I went into my bank one day, and I was sitting there talking, and (the clerk) says ‘I hear you have a fishpond,'” says Noel. As it turns out, the clerk had been working with kids with special needs at W.F. West High School, and they were looking for a new place for their group fishing sessions. As a result, Noel created an annual event that continues to this day, as students, parents, and teachers from W.F. West were on hand this season to kick off a week of barrier-free fishing.

The day started with Alexa Brown of the Grays Harbor Stream Team giving an informative presentation of the salmon life cycle to the group. After the discussion, the students headed to the four decks equipped with fishing poles donated by Sunbird Shopping Center, eager to catch some rainbow trout added to the pond three days prior. Parents and volunteers assisted the students on all aspects of the fishing process, from baiting the hook and casting the line to rod, reel, and net techniques once the fish is hooked.

Noel Cole Fish and Wildlife Project
Fred Ross (center) and Larry Balestra (right) assisting with the measuring and cleaning of the rainbow trout. Photo credit: Greg Carlson

Once the students caught the maximum of three fish, they headed to the cleaning station, where Larry showed off his knife skills and volunteer Fred Ross took measurements of each trout. One last piece of fishing advice was given at the station, courtesy of photographer/volunteer Julie Johnston — how to pose for pictures with your daily catches.

The Noel Cole Fish and Wildlife Project also hosts barrier-free fishing for the Olympia chapter of Disabled American Veterans, Sharon Care, Chehalis West, Reliable Enterprises Families, and Capital Place Retirement Community. This season’s full schedule is overseen by Noel’s daughter Michele, who moved back to Chehalis roughly six years ago.

Noel Cole Fish and Wildlife Project
Alexa Brown of Grays Harbor Stream Team discussing the life cycle of the salmon to the W.F. West High School group. Photo credit: Greg Carlson

In addition to her solid networking and grant writing skills, Michele has raised the project’s profile by overseeing their Facebook page, bringing their services and volunteer opportunities to a larger audience. Although the group fishing sessions are on a seasonal basis, for now, Michele is always looking for volunteers to help with maintaining the land throughout the year and posts work party notices via social media and the official website. Donations are more than welcome, and people can also contribute to the newly formed Adopt-A-Salmon program.

“From my point of view, I’d like to have a reach that extends a little bit farther throughout the year so we can do activities with assisted living residents and things like that,” says Michele. “There are definitely funds out there and grant money to put an educational program together. It’s just finding the bodies that will help.”

To inquire about group fishing sessions, visit their official website. To donate, visit their PayPal link. To receive information regarding work projects and other volunteer opportunities, visit their Facebook page.

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