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They find fishing is "what you feel'

With his forefinger on the flossy line, Greg Fillow feels a pinfish snap the shrimp off his hook.

"Fishing isn't what you see; it's what you feel," said Fillow, 34, legally blind since 17. An avid fisher, he goes ice fishing, stream fishing, bottom fishing and deep sea fishing. "You don't have to look at this to do it."

Fillow fished Lake Tarpon every day last week readying himself for Sunday's first Chasco Fiesta Fishing Tournament, sponsored by Hooters and the New Port Richey Marine Institute.

He and seven other visually impaired contestants launched from Hooters' dock at 7:30 a.m. and spent the day gently rocking in a 28-foot boat. They worked 5-foot deep sea grass flats with three dozen live shrimp and 16 ounces of frozen Monterey squid.

Occasionally, they hit.

"I got one!" screamed Lillian Williamson, 26. "Help!" Blind in her right eye, Williamson couldn't see the 14-inch mackerel jump off her hook just as she pulled it out of the water.

"Ma said if I don't come home with the biggest fish, I don't come home at all," Williamson said. By 2 p.m. she had snared 11 little fish.

"There's no handicap under the water _ they have as much chance of catching a snook as a seeing person," said Fred Mack of the marine institute. "Nobody has X-ray vision."

Downstairs in the cabin, James Mahoney, 15, was fast asleep. A student with the marine institute, he and three other students woke up at 4 a.m. to help instructor Bruce Blaisdale pick up the bait, fishing poles, roast turkey sandwiches and Mountain Dew.

"I know you're going to catch a big one," Alan Koenig told Mercedes Steinheuser, slipping a red speckled squid onto her hook. Koenig is a volunteer at the Lighthouse for the Blind.

"I have a better chance of going into space," said Steinheuser, 72. After 10 eye surgeries, she still can't see the hook or the end of her pole. Sixty years ago in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay, she remembers baiting her own hook with broken clams. Back then she fished with a bent pin attached to twine on a bamboo pole.

"Got it!" Williamson cries, reeling in a sand perch with blue lines threading through its copper scales.

"Another one?" Steinheuser asked, shaking her head. "Throw her overboard."