It is not a stretch to say fishing saved Mike Ulrich's life.
An avid fisherman since he left Chicago and moved to Fort Myers full time in 1986, Ulrich suffered an eye hemorrhage six years later. When he finally sought help, Ulrich was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy. Blood vessels leading to his eyes were damaged, and he became legally blind.
"When I first went blind I literally thought I wouldn't be able to do anything," said Ulrich, 54. "I had a rather lengthy, what I call blue period. I almost took my own life."
When his depression lifted months later, one of the first things he wanted to do was go fishing. Several buddies had promised to take him out but never did. So Ulrich grabbed his fishing gear, put it in a wheeled cart and headed to Four Freedoms Park in Cape Coral.
He didn't get a bite that day, but that didn't matter. He fished on his own. He eventually learned how to take a city bus to his favorite spots.
"I just got so tired of my buddies promising to take me fishing but it just never happened," Ulrich said. "With a vengeance, I kind of learned to do it on my own."
Which led to another idea: Why not start a fishing tournament for the blind?
With help from the southwest chapter of the Florida Council of the Blind, Ulrich rounded up participants as well as volunteer captains and first mates. The first blind fishing tournament in 2012 drew 14. Last year's tournament drew 30 blind anglers from across the state. It is now run by the Florida Council of the Blind, which gets the word out to its almost 26,000 members.
Ulrich couldn't recall any anglers from Tampa Bay who have fished the tournament, but his hope, as it has been every year, is to get 50 anglers registered. Registration runs through Feb. 24.
One angler who has been there from the beginning is Doreen King-Nourse. The 79-year-old native of Kingston, Ontario, has lived in Cape Coral for 10 years. She grew up on Lake Ontario and has been around water most of her life.
She has ischemic optic neuropathy, caused by low blood pressure and lack of blood flow to the eye. King-Nourse lost sight in her left eye 35 years ago and in her right eye 12 years ago. She has 5 percent overall vision.
"That's better than no sight," she said.
And it has not kept her off the water. She tries to go boating whenever she can and loves fishing. King-Nourse won the first tournament, and that included a fish she had to throw back.
"I caught a big redfish, which turned out to be 2 inches too big," she said. "We couldn't bring it back to get weighed. But we got a good picture of it.
"It's a great event. Mike works so hard on it, and it's really a good time. He is the most amazing man. He's done so much for blind people."
Ulrich's tournament is the biggest for the blind in Florida. It's not the largest in the country, however. The North Carolina Lions Club Visually Impaired Person's Fishing Tournament draws about 375 anglers, making it the largest in the world. It is held in October and recently completed its 33rd year.
Ulrich undergoes dialysis three times per week and will eventually need a second kidney transplant. Despite that, he still finds time to run the event. For the first time since the tournament began, he will be too busy to fish.
"There's too much to do," Ulrich said. "I might go out on a boat if I have time, but I'm going to be pretty busy making sure everything goes right."