Practically every professional angler, famous or otherwise, has a story of the one fish that changed their life. The one bite that created the unquenchable urge to fish as much as possible while learning as much as possible. The one fish that made them realize that they had no choice but to pursue a life that centered around fishing.
For Mercury Pro Team member Chasten Whitfield, the date was July 4, 2016, and that decisive fish was an ordinary snapper that she helped someone else catch.
See, not long before that day, Whitfield – then a 16-year-old high school student – had been putting on a fishing camp at a fishing pier not far from her home in the Sarasota, Florida, area. One of the participants was a young boy named Easton, who was confined to a wheelchair but was reeling in more fish than anyone on the pier. And every time he landed one, according to Whitfield, the joy he felt was absolutely infectious and he’d celebrate by turning donuts in his chair.
Eventually Whitfield asked Easton and his mother if he’d like to come fishing with her on a boat.
“They said they’d love to, but they’d been unable to find a boat that would fit a wheelchair,” Whitfield said. That was something Whitfield was simply not going to accept. And while she didn't have a boat at the time that would accommodate Easton's chair, she did have a charter captain friend who had a boat that would fit. With that, they set a date!
“Easton was so scared as soon as we got on the boat and he was holding onto his mom for dear life. But once he caught that first snapper it was like everything changed, and his confidence went from zero to 1,000 instantly.
“And when I saw that I’m like ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to give this experience to every kid I possibly can, especially the ones that don’t usually get to go fishing because of disabilities.’”
A lot of people make grand declarations, to themselves or out loud, during exceptional moments, only to quietly move in a different direction once the realities of life start to create doubt. But Chasten Whitfield isn’t like a lot of people. When Easton boated his snapper, the true purpose of Chastenation, a brand Whitfield had coined a year earlier, was sparked, and she has since dedicated her life to helping ailing and differently abled children and their families enjoy the simple pleasure of going fishing.
But a lot needed to be done before Whitfield could really make her dream a reality. She had to finish high school and become a United States Coast Guard-licensed captain. Then, on her 18th birthday, she filled out the paperwork to formally establish Chastenation as a non-profit organization in the state of Florida. Next, she accepted a scholarship to compete on the bass fishing team at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia.
Whitfield, now 23, graduated from SCAD in the spring of 2022. She majored in TV and film to learn the ins and outs of video production, which was in preparation for the next evolution of Chastenation – her own television show. “Their Life, My Lens with Chasten Whitfield” broadcast 10 episodes last year on the Sportsman Channel (part of the Outdoor Network) and is slated for eight more episodes in 2023 on Destination America, the Pursuit Channel and Waypoint TV. The show highlights the everyday lives of the inspiring young people that make up her clientele.
“We show the abilities, not the disabilities, of these kids through fishing,” she said. “So, for a typical episode we take a kid fishing in the morning, then once it starts to get hot, we’ll come back in and go with them to whatever activities they normally do, like sports or their jobs.
“For instance there was one girl we took out who has brain cancer, but she loves to dance and has won competitions and all that. So we went with her to her dance practice and showed her dancing with her peers – we wanted to show that just because she has brain cancer doesn't mean she can’t do the things that other kids do.”
Early on, Whitfield found her clients via word of mouth, but now she also works with some well-known and respected organizations to help find kids who would enjoy a day of fishing with a fun and relentlessly positive young woman who wants nothing more than to give them a lasting memory.
“In the very beginning it was a lot of friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend referrals,” Whitfield said. "But once my social media started growing I used that as a way to reach other kids and families. Then I eventually started working with different organizations like Face Autism, a local organization that supports kids with autism, and then Children’s Dream Fund – I’ve taken all of their kids fishing.
“I know I should probably keep better count, but I lost track after I’d taken about 60 kids fishing, and that was three years ago. So I guess I’ve probably taken around 90 or 100 kids out so far. I’m always looking for kids!”
The kids Whitfield has taken fishing have suffered from the full gamut of the scariest pediatric afflictions known to science: brain cancer, sickle cell anemia, muscular dystrophy and spina bifida, to name a few. She also caters to children with autism, Down’s syndrome and those who have prematurely lost parents, siblings or other loved ones. Chastenation accepts donations and sells branded merchandise to help offset the costs of running the organization and getting kids out on the water, but there is never a charge for the deserving children and families Whitfield takes fishing.
While she’s exceptionally proud of being able to help put smiles on the faces of some 100 kids who have been dealt a tough hand in life, she said she looks forward to helping many more by growing Chastenation into a nationwide organization that caters to children across the country. But until then, she’ll continue working her magic for those in Southwest Florida who deserve to have a great day.
And even though it’s her drive and determination that are making all of this possible, Whitfield is quick to credit a young boy named Easton, who seven years ago reeled in the fish that set this whole thing in motion.
“One little mangrove snapper,” Whitfield said. “Who would have thought?”