“We’re not going in until we catch a big one!”

This declaration was made by Alison Babiak, mother of 8-year-old leukemia survivor Dawson Babiak as they departed on a fishing expedition from Chinook Pier at 6 a.m.

It was an early morning for the group, yet energy ran high.

In total, 17 patients from Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and Mary Free Bed spent an early morning on Lake Michigan and Spring Lake charter fishing in the annual Tri-Cities Kiwanis Salmon Tournament.

The tournament, founded by Earl O’Brien 17 years ago, gives young patients the opportunity to experience fishing in a big way—on a big boat in a big lake looking for some pretty big fish.

“One doctor told me there is no cure or magic potion that can do what we are doing here today for these kids,” O’Brien said. “First time with a big fish. First time on a big boat. It’s just overwhelming and an amazing event.”

The boats are sponsored by local organizations and have raised more than $59,000 in funding to support programs and services at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

In honor of his late wife, O’Brien began the annual fishing tournament in 2005.

“We are so grateful to the Tri-Cities Kiwanis and all of the wonderful sponsors who help make this event possible,” said Devin Pierson with the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Foundation. “This event is a great day for the kids from the hospital to be able to get out on the lake and have a truly unique experience.”

The funds raised support more than 20 programs and services at the hospital that rely on philanthropic funding, expanding clinical care and providing support to patients and their families and advance research and innovation.

Eight-year-old Brenym Pell and his Grandpa Bob Pell were on the boat named “Danel” with Dawson and his mom. The two know each other and are friends from their time at the hospital and at Starlight Shores Family Camp.

Brenym is doing well these days.

“All his scans have come back clear,” Bob said. “After radiation treatment, chemotherapy and even a brain surgery, he is doing really well. He’s been through a lot for a kid his age.”

It wasn’t Brenym’s first time fishing. He and grandpa fish often, but it was his first time out on the big lake. They caught three fish in the tournament—a sheepshead, lake trout and a lake bass.

Captain Dana Bonney and his first mate Brayden Shorb run more than 150 charter tours out of Grand Haven each year and their motto is fitting considering the morning’s group: “Kids welcome, adults tolerated.”

“It’s a great experience watching kids get interested in fishing,” Bonney said.  “We are lucky to have the Great Lakes right here in our backyard. It’s something that can easily be taken for granted since we see it every day.”

Dawson’s mom chimed in.

“We feel the exact same way about the children’s hospital,” Alison said. “It’s so easy to take it for granted. We have the best doctors right here in our own backyard who treat some of the most complex conditions. We’re very grateful.”

Dawson is in remission now and they only visit the hospital once a month these days for blood checks. He previously endured chemotherapy treatments for three years to combat acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Both kiddos kept an intent eye on the poles, watching for any sudden movement.

“I think we’re getting some nibbles on that one,” Dawson yelled with excitement.

That’s just some cabbage the captain explained—seaweed and the like.

After spending some time on the big lake, the team decided to take the trip to calmer waters on Spring Lake. The first big catch was a 13-pound sheepshead—fun to reel in, but not too tasty, so the captain advised the kiddos to toss the fish back in.

Soon, it was time to head back to the marina and catch up with the rest of the gang to see who caught what and do the official weigh-in.

John Haskill, a 13-year-old patient from Bailey, excitedly announced he had caught six fish—mostly lake trout and salmon.

“It was really fun, and the captains are really nice,” he said. “It was my first time out on Lake Michigan and my Dad and I have been looking forward to this for a couple weeks.”

Kendall Mead, a 14-year-old patient from Grand Rapids, weighed his fish next.

“We caught two keepers but ended up throwing a couple back,” he said.  “I can’t wait to do this again next year!”

Cadia and Carmen Wiseman, 11-year-old twins from Grand Rapids, seemed to have the catch of the day. Together, the two girls reeled in 13 fish.

“They were both really looking forward to this,” their mom said while snapping photos of the girls next to their bounty. The water was a little choppy, but the girls said they would definitely do it again.”

One piece of advice the captain imparted upon the kids: You’re going see a lot more fish in life than you’re going to catch.